Michael Bagazinski/Daily. Buy this photo.

Last September, over 800 University of Michigan programs gathered in the Diag for Festifall, an annual campus involvement fair. Students walked around campus, signing up for listservs and bouncing between tables of organizations that caught their attention. This year’s Festifall returned to an in-person event following the previous year’s online fair.

This semester, students were back to exploring the University’s organizations on Zoom at a virtual Winterfest. Over 300 groups participated Monday and Tuesday in the annual fair. While this event has historically taken place in the Michigan Union, it was moved to a virtual format amid concerns over rising COVID-19 cases.

Devon Vaughn, Student Organization Program Advisor for the U-M Center for Campus Involvement, explained the decision to hold Winterfest virtually this year in an email to The Michigan Daily.

“We found transitioning Winterfest 2022 to a virtual format over two days was our best option to ensure all those who wanted to attend could do so comfortably given the current state of the pandemic and in alignment with the latest public health and safety measures,” Vaughn wrote.

Engineering senior Chloe Kimberlin, the project manager of the U-M Supermileage Team — a student organization that designs a fuel-efficient internal combustion car —  discussed how preparations for Winterfest were different from how her organization prepared for Festifall last semester.

“When it’s in person, we can bring a bunch of materials from our workspace so people walking by can pick it up, feel it and see the kind of work we do,” Kimberlin said. “Online, we put together a short slide-deck of pictures in action, which is still good, but harder to connect with people.”

Kimberlin also talked about the difficulties of forging new connections in the virtual format.

“The turnout was very different from Festifall,” Kimberlin said. “Most people we had stopping in came from an Engineering recruiting event we did on Friday who wanted to learn more. But we only had three new people come to see our organization.”

Engineering junior Sophie Overstreet, the publication and marketing officer of the Society of Women Engineers at the University, recounted a similar experience.

“We only had a few people stop in,” Overstreet said. “I think sometimes going on Zoom and being the center of attention with a couple club members might be intimidating to people.”

The event was hosted on Maize Pages, the official campus directory, management platform and record of rosters for student organizations at the University. Students were able to log in and participate in Zoom meetings hosted by student representatives from different organizations. 

Engineering junior Robert Leifke, the consulting chair for Blockchain at Michigan, expressed disappointment about the virtual format. 

“I certainly understand where they’re coming from, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” Leifke said.

In addition, Overstreet acknowledged the safety aspects, but stated her frustration with the virtual format. 

“I have a bit of mixed feelings,” Overstreet said. “Obviously, safety is the first and foremost thing. We’re in a situation in general where it’s harder for people to learn more about clubs through the virtual format.”

Kimberlin also expressed the difficulty in holding events like Winterfest online while classes and club meetings are able to be in person. 

“It’s a really hard situation right now, but it’s weird because we still have classes in person, and as an organization we can still meet in person, so switching online is a little difficult for everyone involved,” Kimberlin said. 

Despite the concerns with the effectiveness of an online Winterfest, over 2,000 students and 160 student organizations participated in the first night, according to the Center for Campus Involvement.

“We are developing plans for a follow-up in-person event in February that will bring student organizations together for a tabling event,” Vaughn wrote.

Leifke said that his club is looking forward to holding an additional meeting following recruitment to focus on more individualized interactions with new members. 

“Our intention is to hold a mass meeting afterwards and then try to do more individualized sessions over Zoom with folks that are interested,” Leifke said, “That way you still get that individual experience.”

Daily Staff Reporter Audrey Clayton can be reached at amclay@umich.edu.