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Viewpoint: Digital Sections: A Case Study on the SWE Illinois Collegiate Section

COVID-19 has forced university groups to shift numerous events from in-person to virtual. Here, one SWE collegiate section shares how its members have successfully adapted to the new format.

We don’t need a long introduction to this article to set the tone of a world that is moving toward virtual and distributed interactions, taking SWE sections with it. Although both professional and collegiate SWE sections host in-person events, professional sections historically have relied more on virtual events simply to accommodate the wider geographic areas that they serve. For this reason, this article focuses on how collegiate SWE sections have adapted — and still can adapt — their programming to balance safety concerns with social interactions by moving events online. In particular, we take a closer look at the collegiate SWE section at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) to highlight some key events that were successfully moved to virtual formats.

Following are highlights and reflections from two of SWE Illinois’ committees, in the words of their respective committee directors. Full disclosure: I am an alum of Illinois and a former president of its SWE section. The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Weekend to webinar

The annual Little Sisters’ Weekend (LSW) is an early spring program for women admitted to the Grainger College of Engineering at Illinois. The admitted students, called “Little Sisters,” gain on-campus experience by exploring campus, classes, and student organizations with current university SWE students called “Big Sisters.” Many members of SWE Illinois remember LSW as the event they attended as admitted students, which sparked their love of SWE, and introduced them to lifelong friends. When LSW was canceled due to COVID-19, the event planners knew this event had to be revamped into a virtual alternative.

The committee directors were all incredibly proud of their committees for rising to the challenge of adapting all their events to a new format, sometimes on rather short notice. Virtual meetings, as well as more frequent blog posts, have helped committees and the SWE section as a whole stay engaged and cohesive.

In only 2.5 weeks, the recruitment committee crafted Little Sisters’ Webinar, a two-hour webinar that, this year, hosted 17 Little Sisters. The event began with a Q&A session with current SWE students; continued with a keynote from two Caterpillar employees about their time at Illinois; and ended with breakout rooms where each Little Sister could connect first with a Big Sister, and then with the other Little Sisters. Although the event looked different this year, Little Sisters’ Webinar still captured the spirit of the original Little Sisters’ Weekend.

Digital partnerships and outreach

Every year, the SWE Illinois’ Team Tech committee partners with a corporate sponsor to complete a challenging technical project. This year, because the project is primarily based on software, the transition to distributed and virtual collaboration has been easier than it would have been if the committee were working on a hardware project. With the help of their mentors, the Team Tech committee members are dedicated to seeing the project through, despite any hurdles.

The community service committee has also found ways to adapt its partnership with external groups. This year, instead of doing an in-person Girl Scout Workshop, the committee chair members made a video that was distributed to families, allowing the Girl Scouts to earn their badges at home. Similarly, the outreach committee made videos of STEM activities for students to complete at home using household items.

Zooms Resume

Two other committees also held virtual events in place of annual in-person gatherings: The membership enrichment committee held its LGBTQ+ Ally Workshop virtually, as did the community service committee eco chairs for their sustainability event. Although the formats of the events were different than anticipated, the overall planning effort was similar, if not less complex, leading to a surprisingly easy transition to virtual events.

Committees continued to hold meetings virtually, and these meetings, coupled with SWE Illinois’ new virtual “Social Time with SWE,” have provided avenues for SWE members to stay connected during times apart.

The committee directors were all incredibly proud of their committees for rising to the challenge of adapting all their events to a new format, sometimes on rather short notice. Virtual meetings, as well as more frequent blog posts, have helped committees and the SWE section as a whole stay engaged and cohesive. Although many SWE members are eager to return to in-person events, SWE Illinois hopes to continue using virtual formats for recruitment events to reach communities such as international students or others who cannot travel to Urbana-Champaign — a measure that propels the section toward a more accessible and inclusive presence.

Author(s) Information

  • Viewpoint: Digital Sections: A Case Study on the SWE Illinois Collegiate Section Ambika Dubey, SWE Editorial Board, with officers of SWE Illinois

    In addition to being a member of the SWE editorial board, Ambika Dubey is a software engineer at Microsoft, where she works on Azure AI. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2018 with an undergraduate degree in computer science and a minor in the Hoeft Technology and Management Program. Dubey has been a SWE member since 2014, and has held local leadership positions and attended conferences.

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