Northern Arizona University receives national Virtual Innovation Award for its online support services

Northern Arizona University received a Virtual Innovation Award: Excellence in Delivering Virtual Student Services from NASPA, an association dedicated to improving the field of student affairs and higher education. The award recognizes institutions that deliver exemplary virtual support to students.

NAU was one of three to receive $50,000 to further its work in providing virtual support and one of eight institutions recognized.

“We are honored to receive this recognition from NASPA, which is a leading organization in student affairs,” NAU President Rita Cheng said. “Even before the pandemic, many of our divisions and teams were committed to implementing solutions to keep students engaged, and as we all shifted into a more virtual mode, they have found even more ways to reach students wherever they are. We’re pleased to see those efforts recognized and looking forward to continue our innovation.”

NAU serves more than 29,000 undergraduate and graduate students spread throughout the main Flagstaff campus, 20 other statewide campus sites and online. Students can take a combination of online and in-person classes, but 20 percent of the population is solely online. During the pandemic, NAUFlex combined virtual and in-person courses.

In order to serve such a diverse student population, departments from throughout the university worked together to initiate several new services, which had never been offered in a virtual format. When the pandemic hit, NAU worked to leverage all possible resources, moving services such as campus recreation, health promotion, mentoring and counseling opportunities, career development and much more to a virtual format.

Vice President of Student Affairs Erin Grisham said the challenge in this major shift to an online delivery was designing programs and services that ensured student connections and engagement.

“The shift to virtual student services showed us that students were still eager to engage with us, but that we needed to think creatively about how we designed and delivered services that previously were dependent on an in-person format,” Grisham said. “Personal connections are so critical, and maintaining them is essential to our work.”

Prior to the pandemic, NAU was already leading the way in online technology and services. Platforms such as Blackboard Learn (classroom management), Handshake (job networking), Suitable (student engagement tracking), Modo Labs (NAUgo app) and EverFi (evidence-based sexual violence and alcohol prevention education) were already available. Since the shift, they have been utilized as a starting point, but increasing demands from the pandemic prompted the university to scale up services. OpenWater (virtual conferences), Resilience Project (trauma-informed education module to help students) and Waitwhile (waitlist tool) have been added as platforms to increase services as well as safety measures taken by the university for students.

Despite the challenges, the shift has made more opportunities available to more people. Some services show an increased engagement compared to past years, likely because time, distance and travel barriers have been eliminated. To sustain or increase student utilization of services, a new team was created to focus on communications and marketing to increase student awareness of services and activities.

Moving forward with development, the funds from the award will go toward deeping student engagement through initiatives, programs and services.


NASPA was founded in 1918 and stood for National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, but was updated to Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. NASPA is an association devoted to the field of student affairs and is dedicated to fulfilling the promise of higher education through four guiding principles: Integrity, Innovation, Inclusion and Inquiry. The association is a leader in advancement, health and sustainability of the student affairs profession and works to provide high-quality professional development, advocacy and research for 15,000 members covering all 50 states, 25 countries and eight U.S. territories.