It was the fall of 2019, a week or so into my first semester as a University of Michigan student, and I was launching myself headfirst into new experiences with a crazed level of zeal. Over the course of one week, I downloaded Tinder for the first time, then swiftly tried my hand at blocking someone from Tinder, vinyasa-ed my way through my first group yoga class, went to my first real party, the list goes on. I was buzzed on the kind of gluttonous ambition one can only classify as freshman fall hysteria.
The next step, it seemed, was to find the student organization that would become my home.
The dream scenario looked like this: it’s Festifall, the University’s take on the quintessential “club fair,” and I’m one of the thousands of freshmen anonymously moving in a stupid pack, a school of fish. Then, in slow-motion, a self-assured upperclassman plucks me gracefully from the crowd, guiding me safely to their respective club table, to whichever little community they had formed on campus. And a new group of friends would descend upon me, angels with wings.
But reality failed to replicate this dream. On that fateful Friday, situated at the tail end of orientation activities, Ingalls Mall had been invaded by a mass of student leaders occupying little, rectangular factions of grass and darting around with manic enthusiasm. Intensely ornamented poster boards and color-coded interest forms were in plentiful supply.
And swarming past in congested packs were their unassuming attendees, the freshmen. Some were in pairs, beckoning their best friend of 24 hours to come to check out the perfect film society they “gotta join.” Some, like me, made the risky decision of attending the event alone, collecting a forest’s worth of mass-meeting informational slips. Cooking clubs, publications, acting troupes, fraternities, improv groups — I wanted to sample it all.
And sample I did. RC Players, the University’s chapter of College Democrats, Camp Kesem, Dance Marathon, Women’s Glee Club and Her Campus magazine were just a few of the clubs I scouted. But, ironically enough, after weeks of mass meetings and enough GroupMe invites and listservs to make my laptop crash, I hadn’t yet found either of the two organizations I would later devote myself to at this school (one being this paper and the other being a co-ed a cappella group on campus).
Essentially, a great majority of my freshman year can be summed up by this thrilling and exhausting chase to belong. Exploring these groups, then finding people I really clicked with and looked forward to seeing in these groups, was a cornerstone of my freshman experience.
My first few meetings as a Daily Arts writer were icebreakers and trivial announcements but also stacks of newspapers, walls plastered corner-to-corner with campaign posters, a finely-tuned newsroom of worker bees. And on the left side of the room, the arts writers would congregate, each carrying their own notebook of scribbled story pitches and interview quotes; a cast of characters talking about new films or new music or a really dope new Korean restaurant on State Street. My mere proximity to these kinds of people made me want to write forever and then some.
And my a cappella rehearsals were about sight-singing and vocal blend but were also about the way group members would file into a depressing, Barney-purple Modern Languages Building auditorium on a Monday night and find something to celebrate — a new job offer for Mark or Miriam’s fresh new manicure or something hilarious and perfectly delivered by Josh. We’d shake off the flush from the Michigan winter outside and find pockets of warmth in comfortable conversation and tight hugs.
Little did we know that in just a couple of weeks, those jumbled rehearsal arrivals and flushed exchanges would be terminated by a little virus that has an affinity for those who speak (or better yet: sing) in close proximity to one another.
A year has passed and, after conducting a handful of outdoor rehearsals in the Thayer Street parking structure, our vocal warmups muffled under the fabric of our respective facemasks, we’ve transitioned to Zoom. These rehearsals tend to be characterized by a loud level of silence and a track that lags more than it actually plays our vocal parts for us. The booming “Za-Za-Za” exercises I used to belt with a full chest in a University auditorium are now whispered in my sad attempt to not disturb my roommates.
Our group is joined by over 1,600 other registered student-run clubs on campus, meaning that there are thousands of Zoom club meetings just like ours taking place for every week that we remain under University-mandated virtual guidelines. While freshmen have reflected on the ways current circumstances have tarnished what was supposed to be an unforgettable year for them, I wanted to talk with the upperclassmen leaders behind these organizations to learn more about how other organizations are faring. How were they attempting to foster community during these unarguably bleak times?
LSA senior Tiffany Harris was studying abroad in South Africa when the world’s favorite virus found its way to campus and the University effectively moved to a virtual format. At the time, she was the treasurer and devoted member of Creatives of Color, an organization that fosters collaboration and professional development opportunities among student artists of color.
But upon returning home, she got an exciting request from the club’s e-board.
“After … everything had kind of shut down they were like, ‘Tiffany, we want you to be the president (of the club),” Harris recounted in a virtual interview with The Daily. “You’ve been the most present and you’ve been there since the beginning, so you know so much more than a lot of other people.’” The club had just been gearing up to host their annual showcase, which sought to anonymously pair up artists of color — dancers, artists and photographers alike — to organize collaborative acts for their biggest event of the year. They held the informational meeting for the show just a month prior to the U-M shutdown in mid-March.
Harris tells me CoC was forced to cancel all of their events and workshops for the remainder of the year, including the showcase. But once a hybrid fall semester rolled around, Harris hit the ground running with a presidential enthusiasm:
“I decided, as president, that I really wanted to have some in-person, safe events,” Harris said. “So, in the fall, we had this event called the ‘Creative Expo.’ So we had singers, filmmakers, dancers, rappers, and some people who were on the e-board as well … we transformed our e-board member’s basement into an event space. We edited the lights, (we) had just, you know, very good cameramen … we had masks on, we tried to stay socially distanced when we weren’t performing.”
While the event was admittedly very “DIY,” Harris tells me, “…we made it work, and we performed it via Twitch so it could be livestreamed. So instead of having an audience like we usually would, we had about 30 (virtual) attendees, which I think is pretty good for a virtual event.”
Harris has been working feverishly to continue hosting virtual events, workshops and meetings via Zoom in order to maintain a similar level of activity that the group might experience during a normal school year.
However, Harris admits that enthusiasm among members has been lacking simply because, “it’s obviously very hard to be creative (right now), especially (because) not many people want to get on another Zoom call after being in Zoom classes all day, which I understand.”
Nevertheless, Harris’s persistent efforts within CoC serve as a testament to the ways student leaders are creatively adapting to abnormal circumstances. While she may have never anticipated organizing a livestream event in her friend’s basement to be one of her presidential responsibilities, this year has shown us that we can, in fact, conquer new feats with just a little creativity and a lot of flexibility.
Ultimately, “There’s a lack of friendship that we truly need,” Harris admitted. “Our community misses it, our e-board misses it … we want to do more, but we’re doing the best we can.”
Public Health senior Liadan Solomon, executive director of Wolverine Support Network, the premier peer-led support program on campus, says her position is “not a low-commitment role.” She can spend upwards of 20+ hours a week working on her WSN executive duties alone, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You don’t sign up to do basically a part-time job for free if you don’t care about it a lot,” Solomon said in a virtual interview with The Daily.
Before she became executive director, Solomon was a member of WSN her freshman year, then became a group leader, then the director of operations. She found out a mere few weeks before the campus-wide shutdown, at the end of February of last year, that she would assume the head director position she carries now.
Solomon acknowledges that the rapid change and elevated levels of anxiety that came with the pandemic go against all that WSN stands for: student mental wellness. And so, her task became trying to assume business as usual, as quickly as possible, within the organization.
“That transition (to virtual meetings) was scary and threatening in some ways. It threatened … the communities that people had already formed, which is really scary, obviously,” Solomon said in regards to the close-knit support groups WSN’s e-board had meticulously organized in spaces across campus.
But Solomon describes the transition to virtual meetings as nearly simultaneous with the COVID-19 shutdown.
“So we transitioned almost immediately to virtual… And for us, cancelling our groups was never really an option,” Solomon said. “We know that a lot of students rely on our groups for support and, especially during a time when there was so much rapid change happening, we knew that the support they were getting was so important, so that’s why we decided to transition straight to virtual.”
Now, Solomon and the rest of the WSN e-board are utilizing virtual events and social media advocacy to continue the culture of inclusivity the network is known for.
“In terms of operation, we’ve not used (the) virtual (format) as an excuse to bow down from a challenge if that makes sense,” Solomon said. “We hosted about 10 events over the summer that were all virtual. This semester alone, we’re hosting about 16 or 17 events that are all virtual.”
Solomon even mentioned taking over for select group leaders who were not mentally able to assume their roles this semester — she’s doing the jobs of multiple people and executive-directing the entire network and she’s doing all of it with zero compensation. It is students like Solomon who demonstrate that, where the U-M administration has proven inept in terms of protecting the rights and wellbeing of their undergraduate and graduate student bodies, students can show up and provide that support for one another.
Pre-law fraternity Kappa Alpha Pi was in good company last March as one of countless social organizations facing the cancellation of one of their semester-defining parties due to the onset of COVID-19. (The Michigan A Cappella Council was supposed to host our “Aca-Prom” the very weekend that students were evicted from campus housing).
KAPi had just finished an in-person, Winter 2020 rush process when plans for their formal in Detroit were underway. Public Policy junior William Brown, who now holds the position of vice president of the fraternity, was social chair at the time and remembers that fateful week of cancellations and hurried transitions.
“From the e-board perspective it was pretty hectic,” Brown told The Daily in a virtual interview. “… We kind of had to go into high-gear and cancel (the formal) and try and get refunds … We (then) shut down everything and moved everything online, including our entire new member orientation system.”
When asked about how they navigated a virtual rush process this semester, KAPi Executive Coordinator Ruby Yearling, an LSA junior, said that while the organization didn’t see too much of a drop in numbers, the process was simply not the same “on an interpersonal level.”
“I’m sure that there are a lot of people who just aren’t comfortable on Zoom, or there are lots of barriers with that,” Yearling speculated. “And so, it’s very possible that there were a ton of amazing applicants who we just weren’t able to get to know because of the circumstances.”
Pre-professional organizations like KAPi run like a well-operated machine, with each e-board member managing their own specific project or sector of the club — Yearling, for example, is tasked with organizing the club’s “Speaker Series,” a weekly event that exposes members to working professionals within or close to the law profession. And, ultimately, not even a global pandemic has proven to drastically disrupt this perfectly-running operation, partly due to the nature of the org and also to the credit of student leaders like Yearling and Brown.
A part of me felt reassured to know that, similar to my intensely awkward and poorly executed Zoom a cappella rehearsals, other student orgs were also stumbling through a (dare I say it) unprecedented school year.
When Ingalls Mall will once again be flooded with organizations’ coveted Festifall propaganda and schools of bright-eyed freshmen, I do not know. But nevertheless, student leaders continue to serve their communities in the best ways they can, come rain or shine, hybrid or virtual, Zoom or no Zoom.