Story by MIRANDA LAMB
Students at the University of Utah, much like the rest of the world, were sent home in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes and extracurriculars online. In the fall of 2020, students were partially brought back to campus with classes offered in a hybrid-style. This largely consisted of online teaching, and classes that were able to meet in person had spaced-out seating and mandated masks.
A return to in-person academics was made a priority, but the lack of in-person community was a persisting challenge. Campus organizations, which rely on student engagement, have worked hard to stay connected to undergraduates during the past year.
The Panhellenic community, made up of seven sororities, has found success in not only staying connected, but also in growing its community. The Panhellenic President Erin Doyle said in a Zoom interview that rather than decreasing their sisterhood events or weekly chapter meetings, sororities have worked hard to adapt these events to be online.
In August 2020, Panhellenic hosted its yearly recruitment completely virtually (although they were able to have a partially in-person bid day). Despite this unprecedented challenge, it had more women register than in 2019, and several houses saw the largest member classes that they had seen in years.
In February 2021, several sororities participated in a successful spring recruitment. Notably, Doyle said Delta Gamma was able to welcome a spring member class of 15 women, the first spring member class that it’s had since 2015.
Members of the community miss being in person. However, Doyle said that through social media the “supportive aura of the community has been making everyone feeling more connected.” Doyle also praised the houses for their creativity. Rather than just meeting up in the park for a picnic, women have hosted virtual Jeopardy games and Zoom “speed dating” events for new members of the house to meet everyone.
The LGBT Resource Center is another resource that is “making sure there are still opportunities to be in community,” said Shelby Hearn, the coordinator of education and outreach, in a Zoom interview. Its members had to think more creatively. Similar to the Panhellenic community, one of its biggest challenges has been the loss of its in-person offices and its student lounge.
Hearn said that pre-pandemic, “my door was open and students could come through. I definitely saw a lot more casual conversations — they see a picture of a cat on my desk, and talk about that, then eventually are talking about a coming-out strategy.”
The center has responded to this challenge by offering drop-in hours, Zoom appointments, and a virtual student lounge hosted via Discord. Discord will likely continue as a resource post-pandemic, Hearn said. “It remains really relevant to our students. They can dip their toe into the community while still remaining anonymous.”
Discord also allows students to find a more a relevant community. “Students can sign up for more specific channels, i.e., queer students of color, or a channel just for grad students,” Hearn said.
Although the center has seen a decrease in participation in its one-time events like its movie screenings and panel events, it has still seen consistent participation in some of its other events like its “fab Friday” hangouts (now over Zoom). It has also seen an increase in its one-on-one scheduled meetings along with the successes from the Discord channel.
Another community that has seen successful connection despite the pandemic is the Bennion Center. BobbiJo Kanter, the associate director of student programs, said in a Zoom interview that several of its programs have had more student involvement than they did pre-pandemic.
The service corner located in the new freshman residence hall, Kahlert Village, has been heavily used by students. She said in an email interview that “students (and anyone from the campus community) have the opportunity to participate in projects that do not require any previous training or a significant time commitment.”
Bryce Williams, the student programs manager at the Bennion Center, said in an email interview that students have taken advantage of “ʻgrab and go’ opportunities” while still being safe. He said that they will “participate in some of our projects while watching a movie in their residence hall rooms or while they’re in a virtual class to keep their hands busy.”
Kanter said in a Zoom interview the center has also involved more students with its Alternative Breaks programs. These used to be offered at various locations across the world. However, due to travel restrictions, it has shifted to “hyper-local breaks” taking place in Salt Lake City. These are offered at no cost, which has allowed them to be accessible to more students. Kanter said this option may remain post-pandemic.
Despite its current success, getting up and moving after the initial shutdown was a challenge for the Bennion Center. Kanter said at first, “everything stopped, there were groups of students who were ready to help, but didn’t know how to.”
The Bennion Center emphasizes serving its community partners, focusing on listening to and serving their needs. Kanter said for those partners, “their priority has to be their community and their staff, so those people take priority then volunteers come after that.” It took some adjustments on both the part of the Bennion Center and its partners to navigate how to allow volunteers to help in the way they want to, but also in a way that is safe for and serves those in need.
The center has had to shift the way that it hosts its larger service projects as well. For example, the Legacy of Lowell service project typically brings in 800 to 1,000 people. However, this year participation was capped closer to 200 people, with volunteers broken into groups of 10 at each site.
Kanter said because of the smaller sizes, “we don’t get that same sense of community. People were still interested, we reached capacity. There is a demand, but for safety, we have to keep things smaller.”
Beyond just pandemic-related changes, Kanter said that the murder of George Floyd and the surrounding protests in May 2020 “mobilized students to show up — whether physically or mentally and internally,” and brought attention to “some of our systemic issues.” She said “this year had brought people together around activism. I’m not really sure we saw that with our students before.”
To serve this increased interest in activism, Kanter said in interviews that every two weeks, the Bennion Center has been virtually hosting monthly “community conversations” with other on-campus partners, namely the American Indian Resource Center, the Black Cultural Center and the Peace and Conflict Studies program in the College of Humanities. They are focusing on dialogues about “about what is happening and what they can do to change it.” She said these talks have been received well by the campus community.
Dean McGovern, the executive director of the Bennion Center, said in an email interview that “the topics vary and sessions have attracted more than 825 faculty, students, staff, and community members over the course of the dialogue series.”
Despite the changes and challenges from the pandemic, these communities were able to stay connected. The creativity and resilience of their members even resulted in solutions that will continue to serve students when in-person life continues. As Kanter said, “This year gave us an opportunity.”