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Virtual Community Building

The following recommendations emerged from our experience this summer with facilitating virtual research opportunities for students from across the country. The information on this page is by no means exhaustive, but rather a tool to help you welcome your incoming cohort, connect them with your current students, and facilitate increased interaction and community building within your program.

We know that a sense of belonging is a critical component for graduate student retention and success (O’Meara et al., 2017, Fisher et al., 2019). While COVID-19 has significantly limited our in-person interactions, it has also, in some ways, expanded our opportunities to connect, build community, and create a space where all participants can feel supported and engaged.

The time has come for us to reimagine everything. – Grace Lee Boggs

Multiple Ways to Build Community

Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All by Daniel Stanford on is extremely helpful in thinking about the need to create both synchronous and asynchronous interactions. For example, while it is easy to default to hosting a Zoom meeting, we found many opportunities to create engagement through asynchronous means.

For example:

  • Create a discussion board (we used Canvas) around different topics. Have participants identify additional topics of interest.
  • Have students write a short bio or answer a few brief questions on a shared document allowing others to comment. This could be facilitated on a shared google document.
  • YouTube music video introductions
    • Ask students to pick a favorite song or one that is representative of themselves and have them provide a brief explanation of why.
  • Encourage students to establish their own WhatsApp/GroupMe/Slack/Gchat.
  • Make and share Spotify playlists.
  • Have students make Vlogs introducing themselves.
  • Host a virtual kickoff event the night before a formal program. This gives students a more informal space to get to know one another and a place to get an overview of what to expect and to have questions addressed.

Virtual Gatherings

Please note, we primarily used Zoom and not all of these recommendations may be possible if you are using a different platform.


  • For all live events, it is critical to have at least two individuals facilitating the meeting or event. Pre-determining the lead on each component (e.g., managing waiting room, breakout rooms, recording of session) is also helpful to ensure that things run smoothly.
  • You may consider sending out a simple Google form to your participants with some general questions to help plan breakout sessions, shared topics of interest, etc.

Establish a Welcoming and Supportive Tone

  • Using a picture for your background can help minimize distractions and help students quickly identify who is leading/hosting the event. Consider using a picture that relates to your event or program (e.g., picture of your building, program logo).
  • Encourage participants to include their preferred name and pronouns (e.g., Gustavo Tovar [he/him/his]) as their display names.
  • Provide a welcome slide that indicates start time and icebreaker questions that can be typed in the chat box.
    • What are you most looking forward to this year?
    • What is your weather like today?
    • If you could live in a world from a TV show or movie, what world would you live in?
  • Play and share your music prior to starting your meeting to avoid awkward silence.
  • When possible, we found it very powerful to greet each guest by name upon joining the meeting.
  • Encourage participants to keep their cameras turned on as much as possible. The camera can also serve as an engagement tool if you have participants turn it on or off to answer simple two-option questions.
  • Let your participants know that you and your team will be staying on after the event to answer any lingering questions or address any comments or concerns.
  • Before you close the meeting, make sure all of your participants have left. We found that students want to continue engaging and socializing in a more informal way. If the meeting has to end, encourage them to connect by creating their own virtual meeting or through other means.
  • For meetings of two hours or longer, schedule breaks so participants have the opportunity to stretch, use the bathroom, grab a snack/beverage, or even simply to focus their eyes on something other than a computer screen for five to ten minutes.

Tools and Structures for Maximizing Engagement

One way to help participants get to know each other is to use different activities. These can range from quick to more involved activities and can provide a relief from a long meeting, encourage team building, and/or just provide some collective fun.

Poll Your Participants

Zoom has a polling feature, which you can use at any time. You can create multiple-choice questions ahead of time and use them throughout your event to ensure ongoing engagement.

Scavenger Hunt

Create a list of items and give participants one to two minutes to find an item in their house to share with the group. Some examples include favorite snack or food item, something symbolizing your family, your most recent hobby, or your wildest mug, something that represents a happy memory. When all participants have returned, ask each person to share their item.


You can create custom bingo cards on topics that are relevant to the group of people you are playing with or can choose from pre-made ones available at the link.

Teach Me Something

Have participants share out a special skill, talent, or interest with the rest of the group (e.g., cooking tutorial, presentation on how Starbucks makes their coffee). These can be formal or informal presentations, and especially recommend non-academic topics.

This or That

Two people could represent or debate each side, you could split your group into two teams or just use these as icebreaker questions.

  • Which are better, cats or dogs?
  • Would you rather only be able to watch TV or only listen to music?
  • Is water wet?
  • Would you rather always be in the cold or always be in the heat?
  • Are hot dogs sandwiches?

PowerPoint Party

Create a short (five slides) PowerPoint about a topic of your choice. On the day of the presentation, switch presentations, and without looking at it beforehand, present it to the group.

Movie Watching Party

You can use Netflix Party and Scener to stream movies and have a virtual viewing party. Netflix Party has an online chat feature, and Scener allows you to video chat while the movie is streaming.

Zoom Breakout Rooms

Breakout rooms provide a wonderful opportunity to mix things up and create more engagement between attendees. Overall, we learned that random breakout groups are a lot easier to create and manage compared to pre-assigned ones. We highly recommend the following tips when utilizing the breakout room function:

  • Only the host can facilitate breakout rooms so make sure that the individual who will be facilitating the breakout rooms has ownership of the event. You can transfer host responsibilities during the Zoom meeting as needed.
  • Have all participants access an upgraded version of Zoom. They can create/claim their account by registering it through U-M Zoom.
  • Having all participants create accounts/logins can allow you to pre-assign breakout groups. For instructions click here.
  • For large groups, we had more success setting up separate Blue Jeans meeting links and asking participants to self-navigate to the appropriate breakout group. The reason for this is that you cannot host more than one Zoom meeting at a time. However, you can set up multiple Blue Jeans meetings that do not require the host to be present.

Preparing for the Unexpected

Despite all efforts to plan and prepare, many variables can affect the success of your virtual community building activities. To help mitigate any unforeseen problems, we found it helpful to put some of the following in place:

  • Ask facilitators and presenters to arrive early in order to assign as host/co-host. This will ensure that they have access to screen share, breakout rooms, and other administrative privileges.
  • If your event is running behind schedule or there are technical difficulties, be prepared to randomly assign participants to breakout rooms and provide them with a pre-determined discussion prompt to keep them engaged.
  • Create a back-end communication channel for your team members to be able to communicate with each other. We used a special Google chat group for this purpose.
  • If you plan to have a PowerPoint presentation or share documents, make sure you can share them in multiple ways. We put everything on Canvas, but also created Google docs and provided file uploads as a backup.
  • ITS has compiled these Zoom training resources to help users schedule and hold meetings, classes, events, and other activities via Zoom. Be sure to save this page if you intend to use Zoom for your gatherings.


Fisher AJ, Mendoza-Denton R, Patt C, Young I, Eppig A, Garrell RL, et al. (2019) Structure and belonging: Pathways to success for underrepresented minority and women PhD students in STEM fields. PLoS ONE 14(1): e0209279.

O’Meara, K., Griffin, K. A., Kuvaeva, A., Nyunt, G., & Robinson, T. (2017). Sense of belonging and its contributing factors in graduate education. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 12, 12, 251-279.

Special thanks to Leticia Cruz and Gustavo Tovar our Virtual Life Leaders and our Graduate Student Leaders for their contributions to this summary.