Student Clubs, Amid A Pandemic
How the clubs of UAF managed to keep in touch despite being unable to meet in person.
Few were prepared for the effects of quarantine on education. Fewer still predicted the extended duration of social distancing that followed. Still, human beings are usually social animals, and will find ways to stay together regardless of their situation. Last March, spring break at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks was extended an extra week as staff prepared for distance education across the board, a difficult and frustrating process for the teachers involved. Meanwhile, student organizations and clubs faced greater difficulties, with limited resources and a membership who were never under any obligation to participate. They had to find creative ways to carry on since then.
Evans Callis has been president of the local Society of Physics Students for three years, and before that was the club’s treasurer and vice president. He explained the club’s policy as preferably being decided by group consensus, “My role as president is more like an ‘idea-generator/spokesman.’ I’m primarily responsible for communicating with people and groups outside of our club, and giving interviews, etc when needed.”
Like most people, finding out about the measures taken to contain the pandemic took him by surprise, “It took a few days to figure out my academics and living situation, but once that was done, I began contacting those involved in SPS and finding out what was going to be feasible for us to accomplish.” The SPS was actively involved in many projects for the sake of public outreach for the Physics Department at UAF, which became difficult when large public events were no longer permitted, “Our club was hit particularly hard by the initial changes. We had just recently begun collaborative community outreach with the UAF Geophysical Institute, an endeavour that was developing very nicely, when the floor basically dropped out from under us,” Callis said. The small and often-crowded undergraduate study room in the Reichardt Building was no longer suitable, and so the club decided to move to virtual meetings using the communication app Discord. Callis continued, “It definitely wasn’t a super clean transition, but given the sudden change in workflow we were all experiencing, I think we navigated it as best we could.” He went on to say that while attendance for the club’s weekly meetings was reduced, more people came than he feared, although the turnout became less reliable.
Other clubs took similar measures. Ryan Anderson, who prefers to go by Bunny, is president of both the UAF eSports Gaming Club and the Japan-Alaska Club, and has been attending both for five years. At the start of the pandemic she was studying abroad in Japan, “The eSports club was already willing to switch to Discord, but we decided to just drop the Japan-Alaska Club for the semester because I was on exchange.” Having the experience of running the eSports club remotely last spring helped prepare her for the experience of conducting the JAC meetings last fall through the videophone app Zoom, “As president I came up with a lot of the ideas on my own, and then contacted the club officers to get their input afterwards and they helped me a lot,” she said.
While the Gaming Club was quite comfortable meeting entirely virtually, the Japan-Alaska Club tried at first to meet in person occasionally, “To do anything on campus we would have had to ask the UA Administration and put in a work order, and we didn’t want to do that, but they don’t have any authority over anything we did off-campus and so we tried to meet like that,” however, in-person meetings still faced the same problems that they had before the pandemic: the conflicting schedules and obligations of college students. The attempts to hold club activities in person were unsuccessful, and so they continued meeting online.
The debate over mandatory quarantine, social distancing, and mask-wearing rages on in the US. The subject is also contentious in other countries like Japan, which had its own anti-mask protests. The University communities have taken the situation seriously, with few anecdotes of people trying to make trouble. Callis said members have generally been cooperative, “No, that’s thankfully not been a problem; the closest thing we get is probably the occasional venting about how they can’t wait to be done with this and move on with life.” Anderson added, “No, I haven’t had anybody who didn’t take things seriously in either club, aside from one guy in the eSports Discord who was being difficult, telling people, ‘It’s not a big deal, you don’t have to do that,’ and things like that.” She had, indeed, found a bright spot in the new restrictions, saying that wearing masks was great for not having to put on a fake smile all the time at work. Callis similarly said that the SPS plans to continue using the Discord server that they created since everyone likes using it, and it could be a useful tool for future officers and members of the club even when they again regularly meet in person.
Both talked about how they plan to celebrate after the restrictions are lifted. Because Anderson is graduating this semester she said, “After graduation I’m planning to have a visitation outside with my family and friends.” Callis was likewise enthusiastic for the end of enforced separation, “I feel like our study room will probably be packed out with as many people as possible for a pizza and movie night event or something similar, just to celebrate the occasion.” Both said that they had gotten used to the way things are for now, looking forward to the end of the crisis and the return of more freedom.