Fostering virtual communities and communication pathways for first-generation students

Thomas Dickson, Ed.D. & Kevin Graham, Ph.D., University of California, Riverside / The Center / January 13, 2021

When the pandemic of 2020 began, the University of California, Riverside (UCR) was immediately focused on how to create a sense of community and how to ensure first-generation students were supported in a new, virtual environment. UCR transitioned rapidly to an online learning environment, and based on local and state circumstances, we transitioned online in March 2020 and are planned to continue to remain remote through September 2021. Prior to the pandemic, UCR had very few online courses, our students had little experience with online campus course environments and services, and our infrastructure through which to support students outside in-person interactions were both aging and inconsistent. At the start of the pandemic, UCR launched a series of First-Gen Chats, listening sessions and social hours, via video chats for feedback and socialization. These sessions quickly informed the campus on how to adapt our structures and services, which areas were of critical need, and where we were falling short in supporting students. Out of these sessions and other efforts, we grew three new supports and services for students: ScottyBot, AskUCR, and Campus Collective.

ScottyBot: Chatbot Communications

Prior to the pandemic, UCR had invested in a chatbot to provide student support. ScottyBot is a chatbot, which uses a crafted knowledge base to answer users' questions and provides guidance regarding campus resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Due to staff transitions, the bot was sitting on a digital shelf and wasn’t being utilized. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated staff across campus, multiple units pulled together to complete the bot and launch the service. To date, the chatbot has had 19,000 conversations with users since it was launched on June 22nd, 2020. Those conversations resulted in over 50,000 interactions with users. Careful attention was placed upon making all answers accessible, with clear contact information and calls to action for students. The bot was designed with language accessibility, incorporating an ability to communicate in English, Spanish, and Chinese–the three most frequently used languages by students and our community. Most notably, additional time was spent to craft, revise, and incorporate our first-gen Jargon guide into ScottyBot to better help address student questions and better navigate the higher education environment. Students have posed answers such as, "What is a Pell grant?”, “How to apply for loans?”, and “How to get a NetID?" ScottyBot makes referrals to campus personnel when unable to answer questions, and LiveChat features are being launched over the next year to better communicate with students. 

Mentors...have made amazing strides in providing a sense of ‘after class’ conversations, or ‘hallway’ mentoring, to students who have never set foot on campus.


Growing from student feedback that campus resources were difficult to find online, the First-Gen Initiatives group and the Office of Undergraduate Education at UCR designed and launched a student one-stop resource site. was designed to be a student resource hub, providing guidance to where answers were located across the institution. The site features the ScottyBot chatbot, a Library-hosted ‘Ask a Student’ live chat, referrals to online learning support resources, a widget of important campus deadlines, video tutorials and resource introductions, and links to major campus student supports and engagement opportunities. From the beginning, AskUCR was dedicated to providing quick referrals to campus resources and easy navigation to browse the depth and breadth of possible supports. AskUCR has been a robust source for student support, garnering over 4,000 unique views in the first month alone. AskUCR is dedicated to helping students find resources and putting campus services in accessible language to reduce barriers to asking for help. If you don’t know, AskUCR!

Campus Collective

Finally, the campus sought to address the profound sense of isolation and impacts to the sense of belonging expressed by students as a result of remote learning. Students indicated they wanted less time on their computers in Zoom rooms. Students expressed it was hard to connect with one another and wanted ways to authentically connect with one another. To address these concerns, UCR launched a text-message based mentoring program (Campus Collective) for incoming freshmen and transfer students for the fall of 2020. Utilizing volunteer peer mentors, the campus quickly had over 1,600 continuing students volunteer to support their incoming peers. Within the first three months of the program, over 36% of the freshman class (1,780 students) and 15% of the transfer class (350 students) have engaged volunteer mentors. Students have exchanged over 34,000 text messages with one another and have sent UCR critical feedback on how mentees were feeling and where they needed support. Mentors, trained and provided with mentoring resource sites, have made amazing strides in providing a sense of ‘after class’ conversations, or ‘hallway’ mentoring to students who have never set foot on campus.

Moving forward, UCR continues to explore additional resources to expand student communication and campus’ ability to connect with students to provide timely and accessible support.

For more information on the University of California, Riverside's approach, please visit their website here.