The Effects of Going Virtual on University Clubs

By Jerold Massie

University of Maryland President Darryll Pines wrote in a letter that the spring semester will “look and feel” much the same as the fall, impacting students academically but also in their ability to engage with clubs and organizations on campus.

Only around 20% of classes were taught in person during the fall semester, including hybrid classes according to the university’s reopening FAQ. Rooms on campus were converted for single occupancy and as of November 16, student organizations are no longer allowed to host in-person events, according to STAMP’s guidelines.

With most students at home and classes online, clubs had to adjust. Using apps like Zoom to meet virtually, clubs could resemble some sense of normalcy. However, the move was difficult for several of them.

MIRA, the UMD International Relations Association, is the overarching group that houses UMD’s Model United Nations team. The group organized and hosted its first University of Maryland United Nations Conference last fall, bringing eight high schools and over 120 students to the Adele H. Stamp Student Union.

MIRA Executive Director Luke Amato said they hoped to expand to schools out of state for UMUNC II, working with hotels to provide deals for the teams that traveled. But the pandemic threw a wrench into their plans, forcing MIRA to move the competition to a virtual platform.

“There isn’t a lot of interest in the virtual competitions,” Amato said citing difficulties engaging in conversations on Zoom. “A lot of politics comes down to in-person interactions, being able to read your competitor or collaborate through body language and other things.”

Still, MIRA is moving forward with a virtual UMUNC II this spring, and its model UN team continues to meet each week. Amato said these virtual meetings are less engaging and more difficult than in the past, but they serve as practice for three virtual events UMDMUN is competing in this spring.

MIRA is not alone in engaging with their group virtually. Nick Henrikson, President of the Terrapin Anime Society echoed a similar sentiment, explaining that the club’s engagement has dropped by around half since moving virtually.

Before Covid, TAS met every Sunday to watch a movie or show together and met in subgroups separately during the week. Since the start of the semester, the club meets on Discord, an app that lets you connect and chat over voice and text. Discord allows them to watch a show simultaneously, but meeting physically was a big draw for many people who can watch alone at home just as easily.

“It sucks that we have to do this,” said Henrikson. “I am an in-person kind of guy, not an online guy… It takes away from the meaning of the club. Everyone assumes we just watch anime and then go home, but we focus more on the community, and it’s hard to do that online.”

In response, the club has started exploring other activities to create that communal aspect. Starting a book club and looking into art contests are some of the ways clubs might bring people back.

Adding new membership was another similarity between MIRA and TAS, both expressing difficulties with the virtual First Look Fair, the primary way new students are made aware of groups on campus. Amato and Henrikson added that new members often come from friends attending meetings and deciding to join, but it has not been happening virtually.

Both have said they learned through the semester that they needed to adapt. TAS emphasized updating their TerpLink page to spread awareness outside the organization and MIRA took to social media to accomplish the same goal.

The hope for TAS, MIRA and many clubs alike is to resume normal club operations soon. Until then, they will continue to look for new ways to interact with members.

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Stamp’s Facebook page.

Jerold Massie is a junior multiplatform journalism major and can be reached at jeroldmassie@gmail.com.

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