Roughly 40 percent of all Merced College students come from 17 feeder high schools in the county and surrounding areas.

What happens when you can’t talk to those young people when they need help becoming Merced College students?

You scramble and learn, said Dean of Student Services Greg Soto. That has happened since Merced College decided to shut its doors in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was a scary, but necessary, step that triggered a one-month clock for Soto and his outreach staff. In one month they would have to begin registering thousands of current and new students for the summer and fall.

They would have to find new ways to connect with the 4,000 of roughly 16,000 Merced College students who matriculate from 17 feeder local high schools.

Normally, the outreach staff would schedule sessions at each high school, prepping dozens of students during each visit. Others come directly into the Admissions & Records office or call in with questions before registration opens each semester.

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated those avenues as people were told to shelter in place and increase social distancing, while schools closed their doors. Still, class registration for Summer 2020 and Fall 2020 was going to happen beginning April 13 whether Merced College was ready for it or not.

The outreach staff now uses every non-contact, virtual and online mode to quickly corral new and returning students.

“Typically all you need to prepare a student for registration is a face-to-face meeting,” Soto said. “Now we’re doing that remotely and trying to do that seamlessly. We have to be fluid because everything is changing hour to hour.”

Students were already logging in to register for Merced College classes before the pandemic prompted everyone to rethink that process. The first task was getting the word out that 2020 summer school classes would be delivered online.

Soto said they felt social media campaigns could effectively spread the word. They pumped Merced College’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts with posts, tweets and 1-minute Instagram videos. The social media channels have been hopping with activity since mid-March.

The next step was getting students into classes. The three full-timer and three part-timer employees had to shift to one-on-one phone calls or chats or Zoom meetings to prep students for registration.

Rachel Gray, an Outreach Specialist with Student Services, explains that they’ve also been using a new chat feature on the Merced College website to find students.

“And now we’re swamped,” Soto said. “We hadn’t done anything like that before and we were forced to do it quickly. And it has been working so well, it has been a big eye-opener for us.”

Gray says she and her colleagues have been talking to at least 100 students per day during the registration period. Any of the six specialists could be helping 3-4 students at a time, keeping several other tabs open to grab info a student might need to choose their classes.

“Everyone we work with on campus has done such a great job updating webpages,” Gray said.

Gray is now working out how to use Zoom—hosting a dozen or more students at time—as a replacement for those on-site registration seminars at feeder schools. They’re reaching students in new ways that will work whether Merced College is closed or open.

That’s important as more high school students want to attend a community college. Tuition is cheaper and dual enrollment, where students take courses for both high school and college credit, has risen in popularity the past several years.

“Local kids already get more exposure to Merced College while in high school,” Soto said. “They’re more comfortable once they get here. And we have so many students who show up with 30 units completed already. They know they can come here full-time for a year and then transfer to a four-year school as a junior. We have seen so much more of this in the past few weeks.”

The outreach staff is busier than ever. A good problem to have in the middle of such a difficult situation for everyone.

“Basically we’re flipping pancakes all day long trying to keep up.”

Everyone is tired, but pleased.

“The students have been so appreciative,” Gray said. “They’re aware we’re doing our best. … Seeing how positive the students have been has been very fulfilling.”