Every summer, the Duke Alumni Association hosts a series of ‘Send-off Parties’ to celebrate incoming students and welcome them into the Forever Duke family. These events are a unique opportunity for firstyear studentto connect with a community of Duke peers in their region, before embarking on their Duke journey in late August.  Spotting a familiar face on the plane ride to Durham or waving across the quad can be a comfort to these students and help them feel much more at home, especially in what can be an unfamiliar and strange place. 

Historically, these send-off parties take place in-person, but due to COVID-19, we shifted to a virtual format this year. At the in-person events, interpersonal conversations and connections between students develop rather naturally, so it was up to our team to figure out a way to facilitate those interactions in a virtual format. The team’s commitment to our goals led us to explore all that might be possible with Zoom.  

What elements did you incorporate in your virtual event to engage attendees? 

We chose to use the regular Zoom meeting format instead of the webinar model so that we could use the interactive features like participant video display and breakout rooms. We fostered audience participation right off the bat by opening the event with self-introductions by the studentsThe program continued with live presentations from staff, polls with Duke trivia, a pre-recorded video from notable alumnifaculty and staff, and breakout rooms. During the separate breakouts for parents and for students, participants were encouraged to turn on their videos and unmute themselves to ask questions 

Duke Triangle Party; Photo credit: Nicole Silvanic, Assistant Director, Regional Engagement (and incredibly talented photo editor!)

What resources, skills, and partners did you use in creating this virtual event?  

With 49 events all around the country and the world, in nine time zones, over the course of three weeks, just scheduling and staffing the events was an amazing feat! Each event had a master of ceremonies, a technical host and often a backup technical host. Seven regional alumni directors served as MCs, and alumni volunteers and Student Affairs staff acted as moderators in the breakout sessions. Event registration and communications with over 2600 students, parents and staff were managed through Cvent. 

A detailed Zoom setup guide (click here to download ensured that each person setting up the meetings enabled all the necessary Zoom features, Since the program elements for all events followed the same sequence, I created a run of show template, which the regional directors customized for each of their own events (download here). Because we planned to use technical features unfamiliar to the average Zoom user, I also drafted an event specific Zoom training manual. This event required Duke Alumni Affairs staff to really up their Zoom gameand in the days and even hours leading up to the events, we had group practice sessions and one on one tutorials during “office hours.”  

By the time we were finished, all the support staff were experienced at handling waiting rooms, spotlighting, polls, video playback and breakout rooms. Some of our team also got to flex their creative muscles, producing pre-recorded video content and screen shot versions of the traditional class photo. 

How did you measure the success of your virtual event?     

Given the unique nature of 2020’s send-off parties, the success of these events could not simply be measured by the number of people who registered or attended. Virtual send-off parties were considered successful if by the end of the event, students were excited to get to campus, to start their journey, and to be part of the Duke family. 

What advice do you have for colleagues planning a similar event?    

Use music! It keeps people engaged and is a great way to avoid some of the awkward silences that often plague virtual events. After the first few events, I figured out how to share my computer sound without sharing the actual screen, so that I could open and play a YouTube video for background music. 

It may seem silly, but you’ll be amazed at the difference an inexpensive ring light can make. I supported events at all hours of the day, and a ring light was life changing, ensuring that I had consistent, flattering light for the Zoom video. 

Also, don’t be afraid to play around with Zoom! I used my personal email to create a free account and would schedule meetings with me, myself and I using multiple devices.  This way, I could practice different Zoom features and tools that I wasn’t yet comfortable using 

The entire Regional Engagement team at Duke Alumni Affairs deserves a HUGE shout out for their tireless work on this projectSpecial thanks to Lisa Weistart ‘92, Senior Director of Regional Engagement and Cherie Michaud, Assistant Director of Regional Engagement for going above and beyond 

Virtually yours, 

Madeline Drewry ‘17 

Coordinator, Reunions & Special Events                                                         

Duke Alumni Affairs    


Duke Regional Engagement team, May 2019 (L-R): Lisa Weistart ‘92; Nicole Silvanic; Ann-Louise Aguiar; David Lindquist ‘86, ‘91; Madeline Drewry ‘17, Betty Irvin ‘81; Lottie Gan, Chris O’Neill ‘95; Mark Wienants; Victoria Bright ‘10
Not pictured – Erica Gavin ‘96; Louise Ward Meyer ‘87; Cherie Michaud

  Share your virtual event story  with us here!

 Kathy Wright, Editor