Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 29, 2020

Are student organizations surviving the transition online?

By ELIZA BOWMAN | October 3, 2020

student-involvement-fair

COURTESY OF CALVIN SMITH, JR.

In past years, the University held in-person Student Involvement Fairs to increase student engagement on-campus.

Since the University cancelled all in-person classes on March 10, student groups have been forced to move their activities entirely online.

The virtual fall semester has revealed how largely student groups relied on face-to-face interaction. Met with restrictions on in-person events and meetings, student organizations have gotten creative with finding ways to fulfill their missions and stay in-touch virtually. While some clubs have found the transition easier than others, all have found difficulties as well as unexpected silver linings to their new platforms.

Poker Club

Junior Adith Arun, co-president of the Poker Club, stated that adjusting to playing poker virtually was simple, as poker is already often played online. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Poker Club usually held weekly meetings and events for poker players of all skill levels, with a special interest in teaching students who had never played the game before. The group also put on several competitive tournaments for prize money each semester.

Now virtual, the club is able to hold weekly Zoom meetings where anyone can start an online game.

Arun admitted that one significant downside to playing poker online is the loss of body language, which adds humor and entertainment to the game.

“A lot of the fun of playing poker is you get to look someone in the face while you’re trying to pull a bluff or trying to figure out if they’re pulling a bluff. There’s a lot of that human non-verbal, or maybe verbal, banter. That is something that you definitely miss because audio or lagging video only has so many things that you can do with it,” he said.

Arun also said that organizing the large tournaments has proven to be more work in a virtual setting. However, the group has found it easier to attract new players because joining an online game takes less time than travelling to one in-person. 

Ballroom Dance Club

According to Ballroom Dance Club President Ellen Wang, a seniors, dance clubs are experiencing a difficult transition to the virtual environment. 

“Ballroom is relatively difficult to do virtually, but we have been trying. It literally rests on partnership dancing, so it’s pretty hard to practice or rehearse when you don’t have that guidance or feedback from your partner,” she said. 

The Ballroom Dance Club has still been able to hold beginner classes virtually, allowing new members to learn techniques and be exposed to the rehearsal environment. The group has found benefits of using Zoom, Wang said, such as using the gallery view that allows the instructor to observe all dancers simultaneously. Wang admitted, though, that providing constructive feedback is definitely more difficult through a screen. 

Members have gotten creative with their routines, she said, with some having their siblings and other family members act as stand-in dance partners. 

Wang is holding out hope that the group’s Spring Fling event and competition next semester will be in-person. She stressed that she is eager to get back to the environments of music, food and good company. 

Wang noted that she is not worried about new members missing valuable practice time this fall.

“One of the things about being a beginner is that it’s really easy to improve quickly,” she said. “Anyone who is joining now and may not get as much of that feedback as if we were in-person can still be really successful at those competitions, so that’s what we’re hoping for.” 

However, Wang shared that she is nervous about membership numbers in the spring, since the Ballroom Dance Club relies heavily on recruitment in the fall.

Homewood United for Music

Senior Ronald Salazar, president of Homewood United for Music (HUM), explained that before the pandemic, his club would host karaoke events or musical hackathons with special challenges.

“It was all very hands-on. We would host events, and we would allow anybody from the Hopkins community to come and participate,” he said. 

HUM has been able to continue engaging with the student body through social media by hosting virtual music hackathons on Facebook. These virtual contests allow students to take a week to work on their idea and then submit a video for a final vote. According to Salazar, this new flexibility has allowed the organization to successfully maintain a community of creativity and self-expression. 

Salazar explained that the virtual events are also more accessible to a larger crowd, since people can complete the musical challenge on their own time. 

He admitted that the online semester does make it more difficult to attract new members. In particular, he noted that HopkinsGroups can be overwhelming due to the sheer number of student organizations, making it harder for new students to find HUM.

Pet and Animal Welfare Society

Senior Diane Hong, president of the Pet and Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), described her group’s usual hands-on volunteering experience, which focuses heavily on spending time at events held by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

“We have been able to work with the SPCA to find some alternatives in ways to help the shelter. A lot of people have fun going to the shelter, seeing the animals, and they feel a lot happier when they do that. They feel more accomplished and that they are helping the community,” she said. “We still need to provide our members with that sense that they’re still helping the community.” 

But while the hold on in-person volunteering is difficult, Hong also observed that the necessity for online meetings has allowed the club members to spend more time getting to know each other on a deeper level and therefore build strong friendships. 

PAWS has also created a webinar series to replace in-person volunteering events and educate students about animal welfare, how shelters work and what can be done to help in the future.

GreenHacks

GreenHacks, a student organization focused on environmental justice and sustainability, has found a way to adjust its annual theme to the timely situation of the pandemic. At the closing of the last school year in May, GreenHacks decided to hold a mini–sustainability hackathon to educate people about the growing impacts of COVID-19 on the environment, whether that be pollution, medical waste or food source disruptions. 

GreenHacks President Maya Flannery, a senior, told The News-Letter that she was proud of how quickly her group had managed to put together the impromptu hackathon.

“It built my confidence in our team. We had the idea three weeks before we executed the actual event,” she said. “Just seeing us be able to really quickly adapt to the virtual setting and put something together that... was extremely topical and timely was really great to see.”

Senior Michael Gentry, a member of GreenHacks’ communication and marketing board, noted that the event generated a high level of interest for GreenHacks because of the subject’s relevance.

Junior and GreenHacks Outreach Director Melanie Alfonzo explained that the event was a prime example of the group’s mission.

“We just want to make people aware of the fact that sustainability isn’t just this one niche, but it is in fact something that affects everyone’s everyday life,” she said.

This semester, GreenHacks is holding a bi-weekly webinar series to offer more information about sustainability. The group has also honed its social media presence, whereas in the past it used to rely on word-of-mouth and flyers to generate interest.

What’s next?

Some student organizations have had a far smoother transition than others. However, these groups are doing their best to embrace the obstacles head-on.

In an email to The News-Letter, Student Leadership and Involvement Director  Calvin L. Smith, Jr. explained that this year posed an entirely new challenge to student groups.

“Realistically, no one has ever experienced a year like this. It is our goal to support our existing organizations in a way that we ensure they can survive during this time and thrive once we return to in-person learning,” he wrote. “It is my hope that we are able to navigate this time and come back better than ever. “

Claire Goudreau contributed reporting to this article.

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