Even in pre-pandemic times, Knox typically offers an extremely robust slate of student organizations in comparison to the size of its student population. This fall, with health and wellness guidelines limiting opportunities for students to get together in person, the social opportunities these organizations offer has proved more important than ever—even though many of their activities look a lot different than in previous years.
For Union Board Public Relations Chair Kathryn Allee ’22, much of the success of her organization has been the ability simply to meet students where they are. “There have been a lot of grab-and-go activities , like with the cookie-decorating kits we did for Halloween; as well as virtual events, like our virtual escape room; and some in-person, physically distanced events, like the paint social and pumpkin-carving,” Allee said. “We’ve just done our best to do activities that can still bring students together to have fun—either virtually or in person.”
Allee indicated that the new coordinator for student engagement, Raina Johnson, and the Campus Life Office played a critical role in making these events possible. “I’m happy to have Raina here because she brings a new, unique perspective to our proceedings.”
Raina Johnson joined the Campus Life Office in July 2020 after completing her master’s degree in higher education policy and student affairs. “Since I came to Knox in the middle of the pandemic, I have only seen the practices used during the pandemic,” Johnson said. “Campus Life has been using this time to reevaluate our practices to better serve students during and after COVID.”
Despite the complications that come with student engagement during a pandemic, Johnson has already formed substantive connections within the Knox community. “While many of our interactions have been online, I’ve been able to have some meaningful conversations with students,” she said.
Most of these conversations revolve around helping student organizations adapt to the difficulties and limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is a learning process, and we are all still figuring out how to navigate student engagement during this time,” Johnson said. “The student organizations are passionate about their missions, and I am doing my best to support them and offer new ideas as to how we can evolve practices to better serve them.”
Modifying events to comply with health guidelines is a challenging process for student organizations, but the results absolutely mean the world to their members. Sijal Dhakal ’22, president of aaina—the South Asian club on campus—expressed her gratitude for being able to continue club meetings online. “I am a South Asian, so being with people who also identify as such is a very rewarding feeling, especially when you are miles away from home,” Dhakal said. She added that safe, in-person events on campus are helping to maintain these connections; aaina hosted an in-person talent show in October in Seymour Union, where only 35 participants were allowed. “We mandated masks, maintained six-foot distance, and had wipes and hand sanitizer in every row of the seats.”
Students also discussed sustaining club practices this term as a means of decompressing from the stresses of daily life. “Anime Club has been a safe space for our members to come to on a weekly basis, where students can feel totally comfortable with one another,” said club president Jonathan Doriscar ’22. He noted the organization has hosted virtual movie nights, video game competitions, and giveaways to cultivate club engagement throughout the term. “Beyond that, we have done an excellent job attracting first-years to our virtual events. We bring in at least 10 new first-years weekly through a combination of placing posters around campus and utilizing RAs to inform students about our meetings.”
Due to the success of these virtual events, students expressed interest in continuing them even after social-distancing guidelines are lifted. “Sometimes being able to play games from your room is the thing you want to do on a Friday night, and I think that COVID has taught us that not all relationships need to be grown in person,” Allee said.
During the pandemic, Allee noted, virtual events offer an opportunity for social interaction that would otherwise be hard to come by. “This is all we have,” she said. “Most of us don’t live with large friend groups, so we really don’t get to socialize with people often. Being able to talk to new people—feeling like you have an outlet to socialize—is so essential.”
Likewise, Johnson echoed that student engagement is especially necessary during COVID. “Students aren’t having as many in-person interactions, and I feel that can lead to a roadblock in connecting to campus and their peers. COVID has proven to be a very lonely time, so creating connections is more important than ever.”
Johnson also emphasized student engagement in developing a fruitful learning environment. “This is the opportunity for students to create relationships, cultivate leadership skills, explore who they are and what is important to them. You don’t realize how much you learn outside of the traditional classroom until you take the time to reflect. The lessons that student engagement teaches may not always be the most obvious, but they are there.”
Although this term has been a transitional time for the Campus Life Office and student organizations alike, the Knox community has persisted in building relationships and fostering fulfillment outside of the classroom. “I really enjoy speaking with organizations after all of the event planning: hearing that their event went well and that they are excited to plan more,” Johnson said. “This isn’t an easy job, but the students make it all worth it.”