Colleges have had to reign in one of their biggest fall traditions because of the pandemic.
Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities are still planning homecoming events, but they are not at all the same.
On Monday, Illinois Wesleyan University kicked off a homecoming week unlike any other in its 170 years. Because of the pandemic, all homecoming events were moved online.
Director of Alumni Engagement Adriane Powell said the university decided it was best to make this year's homecoming all virtual even though many students and faculty are on campus.
“That was really our first priority, to keep the students safe and faculty and staff and then of course our alumni,” Powell said. “We didn’t even want to have small events that might turn into something bigger, which often happens.”
Powell said the university had to get creative in giving out annual alumni awards that were hand-delivered to this year's recipients, masked of course, and posted on the university website.
“It was really special to be able to engage with them, get to know them a little better,” Powell said. “They were just thrilled to be a part of this.”
ISU officials said they are prepared to do more online events for homecoming. Director of Alumni Engagement Stephanie Duquenne said they've already run through about every scenario imaginable.
“I think we are at plan Q at this point,” Duquenne joked.
Duquenne said ISU decided the biggest part of homecoming is the football game. So, when the Redbirds had to shift their season to the spring, the university decided to move homecoming from October to next March or April.
“We know that is a very large part of our homecoming celebration,” Duquenne said. “One hundred years ago, 1921, was when we played our first (homecoming) football game, so we wanted to keep those traditions together.”
That means ISU would get to host two homecoming football games in its 100th homecoming anniversary year, one in the spring and another in the fall.
Beyond the game, Duquenne said it's hard to say how much of homecoming will look the same.
“We don’t know if we will be able to host the homecoming parade in person, depending on what ISU’s safety concerns are and the state’s” Duquenne said.
She said another reason ISU wanted to wait until spring is fundraising, noting it's better when you can bring alumni back to campus.
“Our colleges and schools invite alumni back and steward them with our alumni day luncheon and we use that as an opportunity for our alums to speak to classes,” Duquenne said. “A lot of times that results in gifts so that is a huge impact.”
Still, Duquenne said ISU is prepared to hold more events online if necessary.
IWU's Powell said much of the university's fundraising is done online now, but she said it will be harder to engage alumni this year by doing just virtual events.
“I think at this point people are a little Zoom-ed out and there’s a little fatigue there, Powell said. “That would be wonderful, but I’m not going to hold my breath.”
Powell said online events have given some alumni a chance to be a part of their alma mater again, if not in person. She said those events may become homecoming staples, once everyone has gotten over Zoom fatigue.
She said all IWU reunion classes have postponed activities until homecoming next year, but the 50th anniversary class will take part in a Zoom call this week.
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