Five University of Nebraska-Lincoln students wearing masks watch as two performers twirl batons on the cement platform stage near Broyhill Fountain in front of the Nebraska Union.
Several masked University of Nebraska-Lincoln students watch as two baton twirlers perform at UNL Dance Marathon’s FTKids on the Block event on Friday, Oct. 2. FTKids on the Block was one of the only in-person events during a largely virtual UNL Family Weekend as the university continued to navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Families across the state and country went head-to-head during the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s virtual Family Weekend thanks to one UNL class.

Students in an advanced events planning class organized an online Family Feud event to help students at UNL reconnect with their families by guessing the most frequent answers to Husker-themed questions. The event was one of many available to Husker families.

“Often, when students go off to college, they don’t connect with their parents and family members as much as they should,” said Hollie Swanson, the coordinator of UNL Family Weekend events. “This is kind of the way for them to do that and for the parents and family members to also sort of get a glimpse of what the student is experiencing on campus.”

The weekend of digital programming held between Oct. 2 and Oct. 3 included a live streamed performance by a former America’s Got Talent illusionist, a student talent show on campus and on-demand virtual Memorial Stadium tours, according Swanson.

UNL Student Involvement associate director Reshell Ray, who teaches the events class, provided her students with this hands-on educational opportunity based on her prior experiences with Campus NightLife. Usually, the organization organizes a watch party for Husker football games during Family Weekend. But with the start of the Big Ten season delayed, Ray looked elsewhere to fill the programming.

Ray said her class brainstormed ideas and split into teams to organize and facilitate the event.

“They created a list of questions for the game and had over 100 students respond,” she said. “So, when it says ‘100 students or 100 people surveyed, and the top responses are’ — they actually did the work to get real responses from UNL students.”

The class sought donations from local businesses for prizes, including a grand prize of a 32-inch television. Ray was proud of her students’ work.

“They envisioned and executed the game show flawlessly,” she said.

Will Parker, a junior from Hastings, is a student in the class. He said the opportunity to plan the event was invaluable.

“Planning virtual events is something that is still new to the hospitality world but something that I believe won’t be going anywhere anytime soon,” he said in an email. “This class allowing us the opportunity to plan a new and prominent type of event is something that will benefit us greatly and put us ahead of other people in our field.”

Swanson said around 40 families attended the virtual Family Feud event. The class also organized a student TikTok challenge, the winner of which received an air fryer.

“When a person is working with events, you have to have incentives for people to actually come and participate,” Ray said. “Part of the process of the students actually making those requests…is kind of a part of what you do when you’re working with planning or executing events.”

In normal years, UNL’s annual Family Weekend brings Husker families from all over to campus for a weekend of events. This year, the event had to be moved largely online, just like many others, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Swanson said the decision to move to a virtual format was made after careful consideration and comparisons with how other Big Ten institutions were adapting their own family events.

“I didn’t really want to make the decision too quickly,” she said. “After some evaluation of the Forward to Fall committee, we decided it was just in the best interest, and out of an abundance of caution for the UNL community, if we had a virtual event and weren’t inviting folks to campus that weren’t already here.”

While the weekend was largely hosted online, many elements of this year’s programming mirrored previous years’ events, such as virtual campus tours with the admissions office and on-demand Memorial Stadium tours, which usually quickly reach capacity when in-person. Swanson said providing virtual options made the events more accessible.

“Being able to allow anyone to participate from everywhere is a huge bonus for a virtual event,” she said.

The Family Weekend website also encouraged families to participate in ongoing local events, as well as to explore other digital engagement platforms like Netflix Party and virtual scattergories.

Swanson said this year’s virtual experience has taught the planners a lot about the utility of online components, and she expects some of it will continue in future years, even once large gatherings are safer.

“I would like to see [a virtual aspect] continue just because the outreach is greater for those that can’t necessarily make it to an in-person event,” she said. “So, I think whenever possible and it works logistically, we will definitely try to do that.”

I am a senior political science and journalism double major from Beloit, Kansas. I am passionate about educational access, and I enjoy covering the education sector. After completing my undergraduate degrees, I plan on attending law school. Find me on Twitter @JaredPaulLong.