Pods are a fundamental tool for protecting against the spread of COVID-19, and this spring they will be harnessed to provide a host of possibilities for students in Blacksburg.

For the first time, residents living both on and off campus will be able to register their pod with Virginia Tech and tap into university programming specifically engineered for small groups of people committed to each other’s health.

“The key thing that really makes a pod work is having a commitment to one another,” said Sean Grube, director for Housing and Residence Life. “We now have a formal way to register your pod and have that contract with one another, which means we can relax some of the rules on gatherings and groups.”

Those relaxed guidelines include conditions in which face coverings can be removed, social distancing guidelines eased, and gathering sizes increased during campus activities and in residence halls.

“We’re just trying to create a way for people to be with one another in a way they can be and feel safe,” Grube said.

The new enhanced pod system will allow various areas within Virginia Tech Student Affairs to expand their offerings and even tailor programs to the pod setup while adhering to current guidelines from the governor. Among the benefits, this will allow recreational sports, movie nights, and even simply sitting in a lounge to operate in ways more similar to non-pandemic school years.

Grube said the new pod system will also have extensive resources to assist students who haven’t yet formed strong social connections at the university. For example, a virtual “speed friending” program will aim to help students find others with similar interests, and an ambassador program will help provide guidance on pod do’s and don’ts.

Not only will the new pod system be used for greater social opportunities, but it will play a featured role in student development by being in lockstep with ExperienceVT.

“We want to create a strong sense of belonging for every student and develop a campus experience around their individual strengths,” said James Bridgeforth, assistant vice president for student affairs and ExperienceVT. “We really think pods and the pod activities and services we’re developing will help do that.”

ExperienceVT, which is committed to helping students customize their experience at Virginia Tech, is already well-versed in helping students 1) identify their strengths via the Gallup CliftonStrengths assessment and 2) map out experiences to help them develop towards achieving their goals. This spring, their model for intentional and meaningful growth will be further enhanced by using the pod system to help students capitalize on productive group experiences.

“With their proximity and time together, pods are a great opportunity for students to dive deep into their interests or become exposed to new areas or activities they wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Taran Cardone, director for learning partnerships at Virginia Tech. “This is a time when there are plenty of restrictions, but the last thing we want is for this to be wasted time. We want students prepared to move forward as soon as the light turns green.”

A key part of this effort will be ExperienceVT: Explore, which helps students connect with campus resources and one another. Students will be able to register their pods, engage in experiences, and then map those experiences matched to their strengths on a personal ExperienceVT map that they can create on the ExperienceVT web app.

“Our goal is to help students be aware of the many opportunities available to them and share those in advance,” Cardone said. “This way students can make the most of what Virginia Tech has to offer based on their individual goals, strengths, and desired experiences.”

Written by Travis Williams