Nearpeer Connections

– Higher Ed’s Peer Engagement Blog –

Across the globe colleges and universities are finding effective new ways to improve enrollment, equity, and the student experience. This blog explores their work, connects the Nearpeer network, and shares emerging best practices on peer engagement. 

students connecting on campus

Applying “Exposure Therapy” Framework: How Harding University Is Propelling Genuine Student Connection

Harding University realized that they needed a virtual platform – one that was safe and comfortable – to help incoming students connect with each other, learn about campus support resources, and gradually develop a sense of belonging within the broader Harding community. To achieve this, Harding partnered with Nearpeer, a peer-engagement platform that is unique in its ability to allow incoming students to connect 1:1 and with a series of small campus groups to help them feel like they are part of the community, even though they are still at home and in isolation. The goal: by the time these students arrive at the Ganus Activities Complex this summer for Harding’s “Bison Bound” orientation, they will have less anxiety and trepidation because of the network of connections they’ve made on Nearpeer.

The plan is already working better than either Harding or Nearpeer expected: before the end of April, Harding’s incoming freshmen have already made 24,461 peer connections and have spent 2,300+ hours of engagement on the platform. The average student has made 61 friends within the Class of 2025 and spent six hours on Nearpeer matching with classmates that share similar interests (Nearpeer has over 1,400 to choose from) and participating in group chats (Harding has created 30+ small groups on Nearpeer to allow for community conversations). This is impressive engagement for a mid-sized university with an incoming class of roughly 900 students. So, how are they keeping their strategy in alignment with exposure therapy – safe, gradual, supportive, individualized, and communal?

First, Harding acknowledges that transitioning to college will be challenging for this year’s freshmen, so they are providing a safe space for all incoming students to engage virtually – both introverts and extroverts. There’s no anonymity on Nearpeer, so behavior is exceptionally good and welcoming, and students aren’t forced to join: Nearpeer is an optional platform, but Harding’s students are already on track to exceed a 60% adoption rate. Plus, once students are on Nearpeer, they can engage how they want, when they want, and if they want. It’s a very comfortable environment: students can add as much or as little information about themselves as they’d like to share, they can pop in and out of any open group chat, and they can connect with other students individually via direct messaging. And, there’s no video feed, photo galleries, or “likes” on Nearpeer, so the platform is free of all the anxiety-inducing elements of traditional social media platforms.

Harding’s admissions leadership is also taking a gradual approach: throughout the spring and summer, Harding will be adding new groups at a cadence to help incoming students become more and more connected with the broader campus community. Soon, Harding will have dedicated groups for freshmen residence halls, orientation groups, and possibly even freshmen seminar courses as we get closer to the start of classes, helping students ease into this new world. It’s clear that Harding is making Nearpeer a supportive environment for their incoming students, too: each regional recruiter has their own group chat with their recruits, special groups have been created to learn about scholarship information and upcoming events, and Kayla Ward, Harding’s marketing & events coordinator and resident Nearpeer guru, is often posting announcements or jumping into group chats to provide guidance on housing assignments, financial aid deadlines, orientation registration, and more.

Harding is making sure that their incoming Bison are having the individual and small community experience that they know will be critical to their future success as first-year students. On the individual front, all Nearpeer users create unique profiles and are “matched” multi-dimensionally via the platform’s proprietary algorithms. Yes, hundreds of students have connected on broad interests like Netflix, hiking, and a love for Taylor Swift, but dozens of students have also connected because of more obscure interests that may otherwise have been possible to learn, interests like crocheting, blacksmithing, astronomy, collecting Funkos, or playing Dungeons & Dragons. This allows Harding’s incoming students to be themselves and have an entirely unique and catered experience while also developing a strong network of meaningful friendships.

The small communities that Harding has created on Nearpeer is where they’ve really shined, though. From Garrett Escue, the admissions advisor who posts fun challenges for his incoming students to complete, to Blake Matty, the recruiter whose students have already met up for dinner at Chuy’s Tex-Mex and played a round of high-tech virtual golf at Top Golf, little pockets of Harding sub-communities are cropping up across the country. These types of small group engagements on Nearpeer are helping these incoming students prepare to leave their bubbles in the coming months with more confidence – imagine how much easier your college transition would have been if you showed up to orientation having already made 61 friends like Harding’s new students have.

The team of admissions leaders at Harding University deserve credit for how they are leveraging Nearpeer and other technologies to help their students prepare for the new normal, which is kind of the old normal, but for them as first-time college students, a new-old-new normal.

If one thing is clear, Fall 2021 will be anything but normal – but by gradually exposing your incoming students to your community and creating opportunities that are safe, gradual, supportive, individualized, and communal, you are setting up your students – and your admissions / FYE departments – for the greatest success. 

Thomas Deschenes

Thomas Deschenes

Tom helps Nearpeer build partnerships with colleges and universities across the globe. Before joining the Nearpeer team, he spent over a decade working in higher ed, with roles in university leadership, admissions, enterprise learning solutions, online education, educational technology, and strategic partnerships.

He's also a celebrated Shakespeare scholar, prize-winning author, game designer, and documentary filmmaker.