The brass Block ‘M’ in the center of the Diag is usually clear of footprints, with students sharply changing their trajectory to safely avoid trodding upon it and tempting academic fate. However, during Festifall on Wednesday and Thursday, the sidewalks throughout the Diag and Ingalls Mall were so packed with U-M community members that numerous individuals walked over the infamous ‘M’ to navigate the large crowd.
After operating as a completely virtual experience last September, Festifall — an annual campus involvement fair showcasing over 800 U-M programs and organizations — returned in-person over a three-day period for the fall 2021 semester. At the outdoor event, U-M students perused many of the clubs, honors societies, academic certification programs, project teams and social and professional organizations available at the University of Michigan.
Heather Guenther, communications director for the U-M Division of Student Life, wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily that the number of students involved in student organizations significantly decreased over the 2020-2021 academic year.
As a result, this year’s Festifall was the biggest yet, with a record-breaking number of organizations attempting to recruit new members and rebuild after a year of mostly virtual activities.
“More student organizations applied at the last minute compared to previous years,” Guenther wrote. “Given the notable transition for many organizations, 812 organizations participated this year, more than 200 more compared to previous in-person events.”
The Daily spoke with several Festifall participants, a majority of whom agreed the in-person event made it easier to connect with different vendors than in a virtual setting. In particular, many said they were more likely to attend the event this year because they could simply follow the crowd from table to table and did not have to worry about “Zoom Anxiety” when speaking with an organization.
Engineering sophomore Gordy Gwilt attended Festifall online last year and was representing the student organization he joined, Michigan Mock Trial, at their booth on the Diag this past Wednesday. Gwilt said navigating Festifall online last year was somewhat overwhelming since it was time-consuming to collect information about different organizations.
“Last year with it being online, it was kind of hard to just walk around and see random clubs,” Gwilt said. “You kind of had to know what you wanted (to join) going in.”
Some student organizations took advantage of the in-person format by putting on eye-catching demonstrations for the crowd. Notably, members of the cheer team donning bright yellow shirts spread out across the Diag on Wednesday and ran through a series of short routines for onlookers.
Information senior Benjamin Millunchick, a member of the cheer team, spoke with interested students as they stopped to watch the performance. Having experienced Festifall previously in both in-person and online formats, Millunchick said the cheer team benefits from being able to perform for attendees and explain their competitive schedule.
Millunchick said that after a year of socially distant coursework and extracurriculars, the size and energy of the crowd might inspire students to join new organizations and meet new friends.
“I forgot how many people go to school here,” Millunchick said.
Despite — and because of — the energy surrounding the event, not everyone felt comfortable with the size of the crowd. In an attempt to adapt Festifall to concerns surrounding COVID-19, the University chose to spread the event out over three days, as opposed to one.
Tuesday’s activities were held in the Grove on North Campus in an attempt to de-densify the Central Campus events, and all organization tables were spaced 6-feet apart. Because the University does not require masks outdoors, the majority of attendees were unmasked.
Even without a specific requirement, LSA sophomore Tara Yu elected to keep her mask on. Yu told The Daily being in close contact with so many unmasked people made her feel uncomfortable. Yu said she appreciated that the event was outdoors, but suggested it might be even safer if everyone was wearing masks.
“I didn’t imagine that there would be so many people here (at Festifall),” Yu said. “Right now, with the delta variant going on, it might be better for everyone to wear a mask.”
Many of the participating organizations also tried to reduce the amount of close contact between attendees by asking them to scan QR codes to access information and sign-up forms rather than handing out large paper flyers. Guenther wrote the amount of paper waste left behind at the end of this year’s event was “notably less” than it was at previous in-person Festifalls.
LSA senior Sara Trumza said her organization, the Multicultural Association of Pre-Health Students, posted QR codes linking to their social media accounts to limit paper waste and touchpoints.
“We thought with COVID it would be a lot easier for people to just use their phone to scan the QR code and then they would have access to our Instagram page,” Trumza said. “It is just a one-stop for everything that we have, just in case students don’t feel comfortable touching anything.”
Apart from student organizations, several local businesses set up tables in a closed-off section of North University Avenue to pass out free gifts and showcase their merchandise.
Josh Lee, the program manager for student development at the Center for Campus Involvement, helped organize Festifall and wrote in an email to The Daily that vendors first participated in Festifall in 2019 but were not present in 2020 due to the virtual format.
“The big change this year was placing Vendors on North University,” Lee wrote. “Community vendors are another great pathway to get students connected to the greater A2 community, and we felt that the partnership was important and warranted continuing this year.”
In her email to The Daily, Guenther wrote that funds collected from vendor participation helped to offset the operating costs associated with Festifall, reducing the cost to $30 this year for student organizations to secure a table.
U-M alum Rishi Narayan, founder of local business Underground Printing, said this is his company’s first time participating in Festifall.
“We just want to meet our customers, maybe meet some new customers and hand out some free stuff,” Narayan said.
Another local business, Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea, attended Festifall with a different goal in mind. Though they were handing out free cold brew samples to students, Megan Paddock, the manager of the Sweetwaters at the Michigan Union, said her main objective was to hire new student baristas.
“We’re hoping that this is going to be a good hiring event and giving students the opportunity to find a job that is flexible with their schedules, and that’s also fun,” Paddock said.
Daily Staff Reporters Roni Kane and Kaitlyn Luckoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.