PARAMUS, N.J. – As the COVID-19 pandemic forced Bergen Community College students off campus and into a world of digital education, the institution doubled down on its efforts to provide students with an unparalleled online engagement experience by enhancing its state-leading social media presence, launching new communication vehicles and debuting a completely reimagined Bergen.edu.
“The pandemic has led many to proclaim ‘it’s a new world in higher education,’ and that’s certainly true when you consider the enhanced focus on digital engagement,” Bergen Executive Director of Public Relations, Community and Cultural Affairs Larry Hlavenka, Ed.D., who oversees the College’s digital assets, said. “I’m proud that, even before COVID-19, Bergen recognized the importance of digital media and devoted resources toward bolstering its efforts, which has now placed the College in a leadership position when it comes to digital innovation. At the end of the day, it means we can create a better student experience - and that’s more important than ever before as we continue to live ‘virtually’.”
An early adopter of leveraging social media for community colleges, since 2011 Bergen has amassed more followers to its official accounts than any other New Jersey community college. In those nine years, Bergen concentrated its efforts on Facebook, YouTube and Flickr, deploying the pages and accounts as extensions of its communication efforts. Over time, though, growth on Facebook slowed, reflecting the changing habits of the institution’s core demographic, 18-25-year-olds, who increasingly turned to other social media channels, necessitating the development of a new strategy.
“The height of our Facebook page’s influence came during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012,” Hlavenka said. “The page became a primary resource for news, information and updates to the point of receiving 38,000 visits per day. Times have changed, though. We had to make inroads with other platforms and devote our attention to them.”
Meanwhile, the College’s website - located at Bergen.edu - began showing its age in both form and function too, prompting the institution’s leaders to plan for a makeover. At the same time, officials made the decision to relocate the institution’s so-called “digital assets” under a single department - the office of public relations - to bring a more coordinated approach to the College’s digital communication strategy, including Bergen.edu, social media and other official e-communication vehicles.
“Bringing digital assets under public relations made strategic sense,” Hlavenka said. “Public relations already handled many of the College’s engagement efforts, so it gave us a chance to better align those initiatives within one department.”
Among the key decisions made as part of this realignment, Web Developer Frank Hablawi moved within the new digital assets area of public relations. He would ultimately serve as the critical cog in the redevelopment of Bergen.edu.
“Frank brought a lot to the table in terms of experience and strategy,” Hlavenka said. “We knew he could flourish given the opportunity.”
The reimagined Bergen.edu not only needed a ground-up redevelopment, with Hablawi and other team members reviewing analytic data to improve navigation, creative concepts to improve appearance and copyediting to enhance clarity, but an effort to refocus the intent of the entire site. At the core of this strategic shift stood the goal of providing students with a more personalized experience, removing barriers to information and connecting a student’s interests and professional goals with Bergen’s academic and continuing education programs.
To this end, the College created a self-assessment that assists prospective students - or current students who remain undecided about their path of study - that links a student’s results with career options and Bergen programs and classes. The results also contain real-time salary and employment data - including actual job listings in the region. This idea of assessment and self-selection also drives the site’s entire “student” gateway, which aligns resources based on a student’s status at the College - applicant, first-semester or returning.
Additionally, the site seeks to provide personalized functionality for visitors, deploying numerous resources that ensure accessibility for all individuals - including those with disabilities. The new Bergen.edu features a real-time accessibility monitor that continuously scans the site for problems that the deaf, hard-of-hearing or blind may encounter, enabling the institution to quickly address issues.
Hlavenka credits Hablawi for building the new site.
“There’s no ‘I’ in team - but there is one in ‘Hablawi’,” Hlavenka said. “Without him, this would not have happened.”
With the College preparing for a July 1, 2020 relaunch of Bergen.edu - though the redesigned site has lived at “new.bergen.edu” through a type of soft launch since late 2019 - officials anticipated debuting the institution’s new social media tactics at the same time. However, due to COVID-19 and subsequent closure of on-campus operations, the College accelerated the redevelopment of its social media channels to fill the engagement void created by the loss of in-person communication.
“We had to fast-track the relaunch of our social media - our students needed that outlet - so we felt it remained incumbent on us to deliver,” Hlavenka said. “The new strategy came together quickly and we were off and running within a few days.”
In just three months, Bergen’s social media has featured explosive growth unseen in recent years. Led by Public Information Assistant Jessica Fargnoli, who spearheaded the development of the revised social media strategy, tactics have included pushing out frequent posts on virtual events, registration information and human-interest stories. To that end, the “#BergenCourage” campaign, which has featured stories on students, faculty, staff and alumni serving the community during the pandemic, has piqued interest among followers resulting in thousands of likes, shares and comments. Social posts also encouraged followers to watch the institution’s first-ever virtual commencement, which amassed nearly 12,000 YouTube views in the first 24 hours, making it one of the most-watched community college virtual ceremonies in the entire country.
Meanwhile, the College’s diverse student programming, rebranded as “Virtual Life @ Bergen” during the pandemic, also transitioned to digital media and has found considerable interest among followers.
But of all the new social media outreach, none has become more successful than the institution’s work on LinkedIn, which now boasts more than 35,500 followers. The page has not only become a hub for College news, but an opportunity for the community and alumni to make all-important employment connections - a critical function of the College for its students as it represents a regional economic engine.
“In all, we want our digital strategy to reflect the diversity, breadth and quality of Bergen Community College,” Hlavenka said. “We want to offer the same renowned experience online that we offer in-person. That’s part of the Bergen difference.”
Future projects in development under the auspices of the College’s digital assets include a Bergen app, on-campus video signage and institution-managed content on websites such as Wikipedia.
Based in Paramus, Bergen Community College (www.bergen.edu), a public two-year coeducational college, enrolls more than 13,000 students at locations in Paramus, the Philip Ciarco Jr. Learning Center in Hackensack and Bergen Community College at the Meadowlands in Lyndhurst. The College offers associate degree, certificate and continuing education programs in a variety of fields. More students graduate from Bergen than any other community college in the state.