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ORAU manages platform for Alfred Street Baptist Church Foundation’s first-ever virtual HBCU Festival

When the nation’s largest annual event celebrating Historically Black Colleges and Universities moved from an in-person to virtual event in February, an ORAU team worked behind the scenes to ensure the event’s success.

The annual Alfred Street Baptist Church Foundation HBCU Festival was attended by thousands of people, including high school students, college students, parents and the general public.

“Creating a virtual event that mirrored the in-person event was a major undertaking with a lot of moving pieces and parts,” said Lee-Ann Kiser, ORAU peer review section manager. “And we were able to do it in less than three months.”

ORAU manages platform for Alfred Street Baptist Church Foundation’s first-ever virtual HBCU Festival

The festival included opening and closing ceremonies, an opening prayer, a drum line competition, auditions for musicians and vocalists, and meetings between students and representatives from more than 70 HBCUs, who awarded scholarships to deserving students on the spot. There were also a number of seminars on a wide variety of topics including the college admissions process, financial aid, academic disciplines, Greek life, athletics, and the vibrant cultural aspects of Black college life.

The ceremonial aspects and some of the seminar sessions were pre-recorded, but much of the event took place live, including many of the auditions and meetings between students and HBCU representatives.

To manage the various aspects of the festival, Kiser and team—including Angie Lester, ORAU technology products group manager, and Melissa Williford, ORAU project manager—relied on Cvent Virtual Attendee Hub, a platform designed to help event managers created virtual, immersive events like the HBCU festival. Google Cloud sponsored the event, so the team incorporated Google technology into the event whenever possible. For example, Google Forms were used to collect pre-recorded vocal or instrumental auditions in advance of the festival.

“I want to give huge kudos to Angie Lester and Melissa Williford,” Kiser said. “This was a very technical project. Working with Attendee Hub and figuring out how to make all of the moving pieces and parts happen, and having to add events on the fly on Saturday—they truly made all of that happen. That’s part of their technical ability and their knowledge.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of the event was the virtual festival floor where students could meet with HBCU representatives for on-site interviews, learn about fraternity and sorority life, and visit the booths of more than 25 event sponsors.

“Students had individual links so they could have one-on-one conversations with the recruiters from the HBCUs,” Kiser said.

While Kiser, Lester and Williford worked in the background, Tracey Vieser, ORAU peer review project manager, and Lucas Reigelsperger, ORAU peer review senior program specialist, served as moderators for the question-and-answer portion of two breakout sessions.

Vieser moderated a session presented by Ernst & Young, representatives of which discussed internships, what they have to offer and how they develop their workforce. “The session seemed to be really well attended and the audience had great questions,” Vieser said. “It was really great to be part of this.”

Reigelsperger moderated a session with 10 speakers representing various aspects of the intelligence community. He also worked the event help desk. “There were probably 100 questions from session attendees,” he said. “This is probably the biggest event I’ve helped with, and it was really cool to see it happen live.”

Interestingly, weather became something of a challenge for the participants and institutions out west. The February 20 festival occurred on the same day a massive snowstorm rocked Texas and crippled much of the state’s power grid. As a result, Kiser said some appointments between students and recruiters had to be rescheduled to later in the day, and everything worked out.

As with any major undertaking, Kiser said communication was key. The ASBC Foundation, the church itself, the event’s various subcommittees and the sponsors had their own expected outcomes from the festival.

“Helping them understand how to take this from an in-person event to a virtual event had its own set of challenges because it was the first time they’ve done it this way,” she said. The in-person event is very hands-on. If students have questions, volunteers would walk them to the person(s) with the answers. That could still happen in the virtual space, just in a different form.

“We worked really hard to replicate the in-person event in the virtual space as closely as possible,” Kiser said.

In the end, “everybody seemed to be pleased with the overall outcome of the meeting,” she said. “We got a nice thank you note from the pastor in an email. Overall, they thought the platform worked great and were pleased with our planning and execution of the festival and they thought it was a success.”

Kiser said she and her team are still awaiting data from the event, but the 2020 ASBC Foundation HBCU Festival welcomed 10,000 prospective students and their families, produced 1,766 offers of admission to high school seniors, and awarded more than $5.4 million in scholarships.

“This was life-changing for a lot of students,” she said. “It was an honor for us to be part of this event.”