Remote Working Stories: Jean McQuillan, Student Recruitment

By Michael Sinnott, UCD Agile

Jean McQuillan greeted me from the attic of her home, with a glorious photo of the Belfield lake as her Zoom backdrop.  With my own Zoom image of Monet hiding the remote working facility I call ‘my bedroom’, we swapped tales of the pitfalls of sharing WiFi with our families.  Jean is the School Liaison Officer in UCD Student Recruitment, based in the Global Irish Institute at the back of Engineering. This interview was my daughter’s idea, sort of.

Why meet with Jean?  Higher Options ran on 4 and 5 November, swiftly followed by the UCD Open Day on14 November. My Leaving Cert daughter had attended both and had been impressed with what UCD did.  Given all the work that goes into making these events a success every year, the obvious question for me was –  “How did you make it work this year?”

Uncertainty and change have been a feature of all our lives recently.  For Jean, COVID changed her recruitment work in April and May.   She is normally on the road enough to say that “my car is my office” but her school liaison work moved online as she Zoomed into schools, living in that dreaded tech-dependent world of laptop and PowerPoint, no audience visible, no ready feedback flowing in, no easy way of engaging.  It puts a new pressure on your presentation when you know you are being projected on a classroom whiteboard in front of students whose digital home is Tik Tok and Instagram.

One of the many challenges for Student Recruitment arose from the Higher Options organiser’s COVID-delayed decision, only in late September, to hold this year’s event – that left Jean and her colleagues just five weeks to build UCD’s ‘virtual’ Higher Options stands and line up all the people to populate them.

I asked her about the connection between Higher Options and the Open Day – why the two?  Higher Options is the big outreach event, connecting with as many students as possible, shaping the start of their decision-making journey.  The Open Day then draws them onto campus, giving them a real experience of the facilities and environment they might study in, connecting with their imagination. The approach seems to be ‘hearts and minds’ – help them think about UCD as an option and then help them feel what it would be like to be a student here.

But what about 2020 when ‘going’ to Higher Options is not a bus journey but a mouse click, and coming to Belfield on the Open Day is not about parking but about… a mouse click?

Higher Options 2020 was run on an online event platform – a very different ‘look and feel’ to the traditional in-person events of the past attended by hundreds of academics, staff and students. For Jean “we saw this as a great opportunity” rather than an unfortunate necessity.  UCD took eight booths and then set about creating the visuals and graphics that would build the virtual ‘UCD’ in Higher Options 2020.    

Jean used a sixth-year focus group to work out how best to build this year’s UCD virtual stands at Higher Options.  They wanted to interact with the stand – “What do I do here?”, “Where do I click?”. 

“We realized it’s important to have hyperlinks to everything so that they could click, click, click, and they were fast clickers … they don’t wait around.  ‘This is where I want to be’.  They wanted to click what they liked and get into it more of it”. 

There were three drivers in running the UCD presence in Higher Options –

  • to get our prospectus to the students,
  • to connect the students with UCD on the day, and
  • to flag our Open Day. 

On each of the eight stands this became:  a click to ask for the prospectus; a chat to connect with one of 172 academics and staff ‘on’ the UCD stand; and a direct link to register for the Open Day.  Jean saw their approach as a success – over 21,741 students visited the stand and over 8,500 came back to revisit, “a great sign that they were engaged”.  Of our Dublin competitors the next closest was DCU at 7,687 visits and then TCD at 6,541 visits.  TUD visits were the lowest at 3,647.  The marked difference between UCD and all the other colleges highlights the reach that we have with prospective students and the level of preparedness and resources applied. 

Nine days later came the Open Day, a key objective of which is to bring students onto campus – but the one thing they could not do was… bring students onto campus. 

“It was all about trying to mimic the campus visit on a virtual platform, transitioning a successful format onto the virtual”.  With lots of research done over the summer, it was clear to Jean and her colleagues they needed an approach that gave students access to academics and staff, gave them a strong sense of the physical campus, created a strong College presence, and provided sight of study and careers through over 60 talks. The personal touch was added by one-on-one audio chats, many academic and student chat options and a virtual tour led by one of our student ambassadors,  giving their own experience of the campus. . 

The UCD Open Day is no small endeavour.  Beyond the Student Recruitment Team, over 640 academics, staff, and students from across the campus prepared and took part in it.  Talking with Jean on the goal of giving our future students a feel for the campus, “it was all about trying to bring them to the campus from a virtual perspective and I think we got as close as we could.”

My strongest impression from talking with Jean was her desire to connect with those students thinking of coming to UCD, to help them navigate all the choices they need to make, and to ensure that when they do come to UCD, they want to be here.  If you help them imagine what it would be like to be here, they are already halfway on the journey. 

We both, as it turned out, have Leaving Cert students just beginning their formal journey to a CAO choice and entry to college.  As we chatted from our respective ‘offices’, Zoom backgrounds hiding the details, talking of all the work that goes into making Higher Options and the Open Day a success, it was impressive to see the care and thought Jean and her colleagues put into shaping such an important journey.  Thanks in no small part to them, the class of 2021 is already on its way.