Navigating a Sense of Community: UCF and the OSSM Program

By Emily Ruiz

Five years ago, the Washington Post wrote an article looking at if a bigger university was better for its students. They decided to look at UCF, which was the second largest university in the country at the time, and found that the sense of community within the school was in fact not threatened due to its size. Five years later, a new obstacle has forced UCF back in a position that concerns that same sense of community they worked so hard to build. Both academically and socially, COVID-19 has been a testament to how establishments across the world deal with things beyond the numbers. How can universities continue to help their students see the environment as a community when so much is shifted? Well, for UCF, the priority lies in not only safety but keeping that positive sentiment alive. 

Today, UCF continues to establish itself as a school founded on the success of its student body, with its organizations at the forefront. A big population will not weaken the school’s sense of unity, and a pandemic won’t either. The Out of State Student Mentoring Program (OSSM) is a huge contributor to the success UCF has had in fighting both the big school stigma and the pandemic’s effects. The program targets out-of-state students by providing opportunities that help them get connected with others on a smaller scale through programming and peer mentor support. I had the chance to speak with Jenny Karpinski, the Transitions Programs Coordinator for OSSM in First Year Experience about the changes the program has had to make.

In the 13 years OSSM has been a part of UCF, it has impacted hundreds of out of state students looking to get accustomed to their new surroundings. Through hosted events, excursions, and other similar in-person events, OSSM has provided opportunities to connect with peer mentors and more importantly, other out-of-state students. “Last year we were able to take our students on excursions around Orlando to help with their transition to a new state,” says Karpinski. 

But all that quickly shifted. OSSM has maintained its mission all these years through the practices that are avoided today. Large group gatherings were no more. Being able to explore all that Orlando has to offer became limited. And even more common became the fact that some out-of-state students ended up staying in their home states. This year, the program welcomed 600 first-year out-of-state students and were forced to get creative in ensuring they were providing opportunities for all of them, no matter where they were situated. But even as the virus has taken away many opportunities, the program has never let go of one essential thing that drives everything they do. The support for the students has consistently stayed and become stronger than ever. 

“We still have our peer mentors sending emails to mentees and we are still hosting programs both virtually and in-person while following CDC guidelines,” says Karpinski.

Communication is at the core of all the work OSSM does. They were not going to let a pandemic get in the way of that. “We had to get creative with our virtual events to ensure that we were providing opportunities for all out-of-state students, regardless of where they have been residing, to make connections with others and build community,” she says. 

Today, OSSM has successfully carried out multiple events. This was a challenge for the OSSM staff, but it provided incoming students with a chance to gain support in their new environment just like past students. So far, the program has hosted events such as a Virtual Meet & Greet, Virtual Game Knight, an In-Person Paint Knight (following CDC guidelines) and even a Virtual Escape Room.

The circumstances today have only amplified the obstacles out-of-state students already faced. Karpinski has noticed that, “We have found some of the main barriers that our out-of-state students face when they transition to UCF are no sense of belonging, no connection to a community, feelings of loneliness and homesickness.” COVID-19 only heightens these sentiments. A distant physical proximity to their homes is now accompanied with social distancing in their new environment. Not to mention, the emotional distance they all tend to feel. 

Yet, while Karpinski can provide a unique perspective, the students who participate can attest to it. Aviana Fedele, a sophomore at UCF recalls the impact OSSM has made on her college experience so far. Fedele, an out-of-state student from New York, thought that participating in the program would be a great way to meet friends and get accustomed to the school. Her expectations were exceeded. “The program affected my college experience in such a positive way, it gave me four of my best friends, memories to last a lifetime and made me want to become an OSSM peer mentor in the future,” she says. 

When Fedele first came to UCF, she knew she wanted to make the most of her new surroundings. UCF became a community where she could walk around and see a familiar face almost every day. Today, while those interactions may look a little different, they still feel authentic. Fedele is excited and hopeful that next year she’d be able to apply for a peer mentor position in the program which she wasn’t able to do because of COVID-19. But for now, she looks back on her favorite memories in the program with one in particular, “My favorite memory was when we went to Disney earlier this year on Leap Day. I went with my best friends that I made through OSSM and I was able to ride Space Mountain for the first time,” she reminisces. 

The reality is, no one knows when the threat of the pandemic will begin to go away. And for programs like OSSM, it will continue to be a testament to how they handle the physical changes that greatly affect everyone. The doubt surrounding the sense of community at big schools has been greatly amplified with the pandemic, but so has the sense of unity and togetherness at UCF. In 2015, the Washington Post asked if a bigger school was better. In 2020, UCF proves it is — no matter how big the obstacles — with programs like OSSM at the forefront.