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How Colleges Created Virtual Rec Offerings During a Pandemic

Michael Popke
Nirsa720 Feat

Campus recreation professionals are renowned for engaging significant numbers of students, but that reputation doesn't come without effort — even at the best of times. Doing so in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when students are scattered far and wide, is doubly daunting.

Yet, colleges and universities around the country have introduced a variety of virtual wellness programming in an effort to keep campus communities together even when their members are apart.

“The Quarantine Quiz Show” is a national online trivia contest for college students that airs every Wednesday at 8 p.m. (EST) on It’s hosted and produced by campus recreation professionals from various colleges and universities around the country. Search for “RecWithoutBorders” to check it out.


Average number of student participants



Approximate number of institutions those students represent



Number of trivia questions asked each week



Number of subject categories covered each week (including Sports and General Knowledge)

Activities such as esports tournaments, social media theme days, and online mental health and wellness classes are doing the trick. Plus, they're helping to tap into new segments of the student population.

"Some of the things the campus shutdown forced us to do, we definitely wanted to do eventually anyway; we had just put them on the back burner," says Mila Padgett, director of campus recreation and wellness at the University of South Carolina Aiken and NIRSA's president-elect. "Now, it's something we need to continue doing, because we've broken down barriers to entry for students we weren't previously reaching."

What follows are examples from three campuses where recreation professionals pivoted quickly to help ease students' sudden transition from campus life to staying at home.

Esports to the rescue
In spring 2019, Cornell University's Recreational Services Department hosted a Super Smash Bros. video game tournament on campus that attracted about 60 participants. So when the university closed on March 13, intramurals director Scott Flickinger and his team decided to organize a series of esports tournaments in which students could participate from home. Games included Madden NFL, FIFA and other popular sports games on the Sony PlayStation 4 and Xbox One platforms, as well as Rocket League ("which is basically car soccer," according to Flickinger).

"We scrambled to get this together. We had about a week, and we're pretty happy with the way it turned out," he says, adding that the competitions attracted almost 100 individuals. "We knew esports was popular with a segment of our student body, and we saw this as an opportunity to attract students who may not have been attracted to intramural sports in the past."

Esports, which promote mental and social activities, are a key component of recreation and wellness, according to Flickinger. "The ability to connect with others and release tension and stress, especially now, is critical," he says. "Students need to feel a sense of belonging among their peers and on their campus."

Participants signed up via Cornell Recreation's social media pages, and they received a QR code to log scores in March and April. The intramurals staff posted winners' names on social media, and Flickinger is assessing ways to continue the tournaments — either virtually or eventually in a physical space on campus. "I want to sign up even more people next time," he says.

#MentalHealthMonday and more
Campus recreation professionals at the University of South Carolina Aiken, which boasts a student enrollment of about 3,500, also quickly adapted to a virtual environment by moving the popular PacerFit fitness program online and providing incentives for students to participate.

Led by student staff — who adapt equipment-based workouts to body-weight exercises and plyometrics, record the sessions and then post them on social media — the virtual PacerFit classes anchor a daily schedule of online programming.

Padgett and the campus recreation team took to USC Aiken's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages to promote #MentalHealthMonday, #FODFlexFriday (Fitness on Demand), #SeekSleepSaturday and other themed days.

"It was a team effort," says Ross Philbeck, assistant director of campus recreation and wellness. "When we went remote, we were trying to figure out ways to still give our students an outlet, and social media seemed like one of the best ways to do that."

Padgett and Philbeck also participated in the university's "Operation Outreach" program, during which approximately 90 faculty and staff members across campus (including four in the Campus Recreation Department) called students to check in on them. Following a script provided by the chancellor's office, they asked each student how he or she was transitioning to online learning and provided their contact information for future reference.

"Everyone I had a conversation with was appreciative," says Padgett, who made 15 calls over two days. "As a small campus, we all depend on one another, and I feel we as an entire university came together. Yes, we're campus rec professionals. But we're also higher education professionals, and we want to be part of the bigger picture."

Cross-campus collaboration
In March, the University of Ottawa's Wellness and Recreation department was set to launch a new wellness series with a focus on mental health. Emphasizing peer-to-peer interaction, it would have included seminars and provided access to additional resources for students. Then COVID-19 hit, which put those plans on hold and instead provided an opportunity for the university to expand that idea and refresh a mental health and wellness web page established in 2016.

Using as a foundation the university's seven pillars of wellness — financial, intellectual, social, environmental, emotional, physical and spiritual — the page now supplements tip sheets and resources with live and on-demand videos and activities (many of them in both English and French).

"It transformed from a wellness series more focused on mental health to engaging both students and staff in all our identified areas of wellness — both on and off campus," says Colin Timm, the university's assistant director of campus recreation and facility development. He spearheads the Virtual Wellness Committee, which includes representatives from no fewer than a dozen university entities — including human resources, residence life, campus rec and varsity athletics, alumni and development, counseling, and offices for indigenous and international students. Approximately 850 students (80 percent of whom are international) remained on campus after the university closed in mid-March and also benefitted from the series.

The free virtual activities include meditation and mindfulness sessions; at-home Zumba, yoga and other classes; and virtual residence hangouts designed to offer social interaction online. Programs for faculty and staff also are available, including sessions about the ergonomics of remote working.

"Very quickly we established a collaborative and integrated approach," Timm says, adding that programs began in early April and are scheduled through the summer, as the University of Ottawa takes steps to prepare for the potential of a mainly online-only fall semester. "Everybody on the committee, which meets weekly to review the programs' effectiveness, is totally engaged with the concept of student and employee wellness."

The long-term goal is to morph many aspects of virtual wellness into a physical Wellness Hub on campus, while still leveraging virtual programming opportunities.

"I don't see any of us in campus recreation moving completely away from virtual learning and other virtual applications," Timm concludes. "We must be very flexible in how we move forward."

This article originally appeared in the July | August 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Inside campus recreation’s new all-virtual world." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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