Prior to the start of fall semester, students, faculty and staff had an abundance of questions. First was the question of whether students would — or should — return to campus. Then came the questions of what classes should look like, what it means to de-densify housing and how advising should look. One question that often seemed to go unasked was regarding student organizations.
With all of the other logistical stressors, perhaps student organizations were the last things on administrators’ and students’ minds. But these clubs are undoubtedly an integral part of the college experience and campus life, with many benefits — social, professional and more.
Of course, with COVID-19 infection rates spiking across the country, especially in college towns, caution is of utmost importance. Yet, students need not kiss the college experience goodbye completely. Student organizations are particularly important now more than ever. If run safely and correctly, college clubs can provide students with an element of the social life that’s closer to the traditional college experience.
That being said, adjusting a student organization to run smoothly in the age of COVID-19 is not as simple as it seems, as I am learning firsthand.
Difficulties With Virtual Meetings
Although different universities have different protocols in place in response to the pandemic, most student organizations are working through a virtual platform, which means working with the array of difficulties that come with it.
For many clubs, the virtual platform prevents them from operating the way they are intended to, something I have experienced as co-president of my school’s chapter of Challah for Hunger. In order to raise funds to combat food insecurity, Challah for Hunger chapters meet weekly to bake and sell challah, a traditional Jewish bread. With a prohibition on physical meetings (along with strict restrictions on food distribution on my campus), my club, as well as many others, must completely rethink its model for this semester.
Even for clubs that can easily transition their typical activities to a virtual setting, encouraging members to show up for meetings has become increasingly difficult. Students are in vastly different positions, with different living situations, different access to technology and even different time zones. At a meeting I recently attended, one member Zoomed in from Vietnam, 11 hours ahead of my university’s time zone. Complications such as these could discourage member participation.
Logistical complications aside, after a long day of Zoom classes and meetings, hopping onto the computer for yet another Zoom event might be the last thing students feel like doing. Zoom fatigue is real. It might make student organizations feel like a chore, just another thing to check off the to-do list, instead of an enjoyable, valuable experience.
Finally, it can be quite difficult to generate interest in clubs and have robust recruitment. Virtual activity fairs just don’t have the same appeal that in-person fairs do.
Successfully Running Your Organization
Despite all of the unique hurdles student organizations face, a touch of creativity and a splash of positivity can make this transition easier, perhaps even fun. Look at this new mode of existence as a way to utilize new opportunities, expand reach and try new things. With a few specific considerations, any student organization can have a successful semester.
First, it is of utmost importance that you follow the guidelines released by your school. Take time to read through any handbooks or training that have been released. You can also take this time to learn about the virtual resources your college provides.
Next, reconsider what your meetings will look like and how they will run. Can your regular activity be transitioned smoothly to a virtual setting? If not, return to the drawing board. Start with the mission and purpose of your club.
For example, at Challah for Hunger, our goal is to work against food insecurity. Since we cannot bake or sell our bread in person, we have decided to focus on education and advocacy. Consider how you can work toward your organization’s goal, even if this means trying activities that are new to you.
Another important question is how frequently you will meet. If you feel that your members might be less inclined to tune into virtual meetings, consider meeting fewer times per month. Focus on exciting, unique events when you do meet. Avoid making club meetings into a chore by asking yourself what your members should get out of each meeting and how it can be enjoyable.
After organizing the new logistics of your organization, turn to social media. Social media is a fun and easy way to connect to members, existing and potential. Start by introducing your board members with spotlights or profiles. This will help newer members put faces to the organization. Posting interactive content will also encourage your followers to pay attention to your posts. At Challah for Hunger, we posted a bracket of challah flavors for our followers to vote on.
Throughout this process of remodeling, keep the social aspect of student organizations on your mind. With social distancing guidelines in place, loneliness is pervading college campuses — both those with virtual and physical classes. Student organizations have the ability to reach out to students and foster a warm environment. College is stressful enough without a global pandemic thrown into the mix. Consider how your organization can provide the social contact and comfort that students need.
Two key actions for working toward a warm social environment are introducing board members at meetings and encouraging others to introduce themselves. If you are comfortable, share your email or phone number with members and offer to speak with them outside of the club environment.
No matter how much you might loathe using them in class, consider utilizing breakout rooms in Zoom if you have a large club. This can create a relaxed and intimate environment for club members, especially new ones.
Virtual Meeting Ideas
Perhaps you are still struggling to formulate activities that fit your organization’s purpose, are enjoyable for members and can be implemented virtually. Luckily, with an array of virtual meeting suggestions online, you need not struggle alone.
Virtual speaker events are a great place to start. Over Zoom, it can actually be easier to host speakers at meetings, as no travel is necessary. Consider inviting community leaders, a professor, someone from a nonprofit that you partner with or maybe even a celebrity. This kind of event is often low stress for students and provides great learning and networking opportunities.
Similarly, consider running a series of education workshops. Think about the skills your members would benefit from developing and structure your workshops around them. One idea is a civic engagement workshop, which can focus on how to vote, voter suppression and more.
Of course, there is room for ideas that are a bit more fun and creative. Boost member engagement with a competition of sorts. If possible, try to include a giveaway, even if it’s just for something small, like a sticker. Create trivia with questions about your club and its purpose, or explore the cache of group games available online and organize a game night.
Above all, do not forget to ask for feedback. Learn what your organization’s members enjoy. Learn what is valuable for them at this moment. We are all transitioning to this strange online world together, but it doesn’t have to be a complete mystery.
The challenges of running a student organization might seem insurmountable right now. Or perhaps your student organization feels unimportant, tempting you to put it on the back burner until next semester. However, student organizations are still essential to university life.
Use this moment as an opportunity to strengthen your organization’s purpose and engagement. The methods you put into place now will benefit the organization far beyond this semester. Personally, I’m excited to see how Challah for Hunger will grow.