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From virtual social events to contactless service, Duke’s student groups plan their move online

From combating “Zoom burnout” to avoiding time zone conflicts, student leaders have been working tirelessly this summer to brainstorm ways to conduct engaging virtual events. 

According to a Tuesday email to students from Student Affairs, all student events will initially be conducted virtually. Student organizations that typically host events and programming on campus face challenges beyond how to host and facilitate meetings between members.

Many student groups that focus on fostering community between members face the key challenge of providing opportunities for consistent engagement and relationship-building. 

Mi Gente, Duke’s Latinx student association, traditionally hosts many of its events in La Casa, a space in the Bryan Center that is dedicated to uplifting Latinx communities and providing an inclusive environment for all students. 

“For many, myself included, this space was one of the only spaces on campus I felt completely comfortable,” Mi Gente President Carlos Diaz, a junior, wrote in an email. To help counteract the loss of that space for in-person events, Diaz wrote that Mi Gente will plan fun, laid-back events. 

“While we recognize the importance of difficult conversations, we also hope that by incorporating some more lighthearted, fun programming, members will be able to find a break in their tough schedules to share a laugh together,” he wrote.

Diaz also explained that Mi Gente is working on planning several kinds of engaging, accessible virtual events, including game nights and movie nights, as well as art classes with contactless supply pick-ups for students on campus.

Diaz named inclusivity as one of the organization’s top priorities for the upcoming semester.

“Especially this year, given the world's circumstances, it's going to be extraordinarily difficult for first-years to find and build community. We hope they know they are always welcome in ours,” he wrote.

Other organizations face challenges other than losing on-campus space. Service organizations function primarily by sending student groups into Durham and surrounding areas to engage in in-person community service, leaving some of these clubs in a bind for the fall semester. 

The Duke Habitat for Humanity club normally schedules two build events each weekend, according to Co-President Arin Ghosh, a junior. But Durham’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity is currently restricting build-site access to paid employees because of COVID-19 restrictions, which means that Duke’s organization cannot currently schedule volunteer events. 

Even before learning of the Durham chapter’s restrictions, Ghosh explained that Student Affairs had not yet given a clear answer on whether volunteer events in Durham would be permitted with a reduced group size. 

“While we are disappointed to not have a concrete vision of our club's operations, we appreciate their prompt responses and understand that the rapidly changing situation forces new policies that cannot be hastily formulated,” Ghosh wrote in an email.

The Duke Habitat for Humanity club is currently discussing alternative service options that can be conducted safely and on campus, such as building and painting birdhouses or bookcases for Habitat homes, Ghosh wrote. 

Some service organizations may be able to operate virtually. In posts on Duke’s individual class Facebook pages, Duke’s America Reads/America Counts work-study tutoring program announced that it will also have fully virtual programming this semester.

Duke University Union

Duke University Union is Duke’s largest programming and media organization and typically hosts more than 100 events per year, including Duke Coffeehouse performances, trivia nights and the beloved Last Day of Classes concert and celebration. 

DUU President Frank Thomas, a senior, said that the club’s internal affairs will be conducted similarly to the spring 2020 semester, with the executive officers and individual committees meeting at least once a week on Zoom. 

Thomas said that while he feels Zoom meetings are not always as high-energy or productive as in-person meetings, he appreciates that they make it easier for students to be on time to meetings when they have conflicts with classes or other activities. 

He also said he’s found that Zoom’s breakout room feature works particularly well for difficult  conversations because it allows for small-group interactions without the noise or distractions of an in-person meeting space.

As of now, DUU is planning for all of its programming to be virtual for the fall semester, according to Thomas. He explained that most DUU committees will try to keep the quantity and content of programming consistent with previous years, but with the knowledge that they may need to readjust expectations for attendance and participation. 

Although Thomas recognized that the transition to virtual programming has created a lot of new work for DUU members, he is excited to have the opportunity to re-imagine the organization’s role on campus. 

“We are no longer pigeon-holed into what we’ve done before, so we have this huge landscape of what is possible moving forward. We can reinvent what certain committees do while being really in tune with what the student body wants at this exact moment,” Thomas said.

Thomas said DUU has been working on ways to include students in different time zones via asynchronous events—which are recorded and available any time—and experimenting with technologies with different capacities than Zoom. 

Thomas emphasized that he believes that DUU programming––which aims to allow students to take a break from their studies, form connections with others and relieve stress—will be more important than ever this semester.

“In a time like now, where people are physically distanced and have feelings of relative isolation from others, any program that is successful in making people feel connected to others is the goal of what we’re doing right now,” he said. 

Duke Student Government

Duke Student Government’s role as a conduit between administrators and the student body will be particularly important this year, according to DSG President Tommy Hessel, a senior. 

Hessel explained that cabinet and Senate meetings will be held virtually this semester. He hopes Zoom Senate meetings will lead to more thoughtful, concise discussion and help DSG get through their packed agenda this year. 

Hessel said that DSG will be particularly focused on communicating COVID-19 policy information to the student body, as well as relaying student questions to administrators.

Although physical safety will be a priority for the student body this semester, Hessel said that DSG will also focus its energy on supporting mental health among students. He explained that DSG executives are currently advocating for Duke to cover costs for students to use one or two well-known wellness apps this semester. 

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