How Drexel Student Organizations are Staying Engaged Despite the Pandemic
5/18/2020 10:08:00 AM
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Translating 12 events from on campus to online. Going from having eight or nine different DJs live on the air per day to having none. Coming together weekly to share coffee and culture to being countries apart.
These are some of the terms the members of Drexel University’s student organizations have had to grapple with this spring due to the novel coronavirus, which also brought on novel conditions by which they could remain engaged with each other, with their audiences and with the community.
But engage, they continued to do. Even though on-campus student events were suspended as of March 14 in accordance with city and state mandates, the Dragonlink listings for virtual events began to trickle in not long after this spring term started. And as of Week 6, Student Life representatives reported that many of Drexel’s more than 300 student organizations have remained active despite remote learning, and have already hosted more than 350 virtual events already to boot.
DrexelNow caught up with representatives from five different student organizations to talk about the transition to remote engagement, and how they’re still doing what they do along with trying to make a difference.
The members of Women in Computing Society (WiCS) meeting over Zoom during Drexel's remote spring term.
Sita Robinson, fourth-year data science student graduating in June and president of Women in Computing Society (WiCS), leads a club of 130 members striving to support, recruit and retain Dragons pursuing a degree or careers in the broad field of technology. However, that hasn’t meant that their technology-supported events this term have been the same as they would have been if they were held on campus.
“It’s a very different atmosphere. Everyone is very quiet on lecture calls,” she said. “But having our student organization continue meeting and communicating with each other has been great.”
WiCS has managed to put on a number of virtual events so far this term despite COVID-19 hardships, including workshops and panels with industry partners, as well as co-op and job experience discussions amongst members. Most of these events have also included time for members to socialize.
Robinson said it helped that most of the events were set up before the remote spring term started, and that she had built relationships with some of the outside partners they worked with beforehand as well. And because the group has been able to stay active, they’ve actually seen an uptick in attendance to these events as compared to those held on campus, especially around the busy midterm weeks.
“That shows people want to get involved and stay connected,” she said.
Unfortunately, this good fortune has not been the same case for every organization. The Italian Pride Club was forced to cancel its big event for spring term — a soccer tournament sponsored by the National Italian American Foundation — though they are hoping it can be rescheduled to October.
They have also continued to hold weekly Italian classes via Zoom, but President and Founder of Italian Pride Mario De Lorenzo, a third-year computer engineering student, said they have seen drop-off virtually as compared to when they were hosting the classes in person. Maybe that’s because the virtual format doesn’t allow for the group to distribute an important perk.
“All students can come, and whether you are just a beginner or if you are an advanced Italian speaker, you can come and practice your Italian,” De Lorenzo said of the on-campus events. “Or, you can just come and have a nice Italian coffee with us. We have an espresso machine. We always make some coffee for everybody.”
Despite all this, it was still worth it for De Lorenzo and his fellow 125 Italian Pride Club members to remain active, even in different time zones (De Lorenzo is at home in Rome this term conducting a remote co-op based there).
“[The virus] does not mean the world has to end for us,” De Lorenzo said. “It’s better to still work on our projects, on our community, than to just stop. We are lucky that we are in the 21st century and we have many methods we can use to work together, even remotely. So, yes, why not? Let’s stay together in this quarantine even though we are not at the same place. We can still have fun together and learn together.”
Keeping the community together
For the managers of WKDU, Drexel’s student-run radio station, coming completely off the air this term was similarly not even entertained as an option. But that doesn’t mean that figuring out how to run a 24/7 broadcast remotely, and maintain vital equipment without direct access to the building their station is housed in (that being the Creese Student Center), was easy.
In fact, there have already been two equipment failures so far this term requiring WKDU personnel to work with Student Life and Public Safety to enter their basement studio to fix. This came after the scramble in the last week or so before campus closed to translate all of their live broadcast components to virtual, remote, pre-planned programming.
“I remember I was cherishing every last minute I had in the station,” said WKDU General Manager Derek Hengemihle, a third-year student double majoring in operations and supply chain management and organizational behavior. “We were trying to make sure everything was set in place to go with our remote access and everything, because everything pretty much runs from a single Mac.”
But what was even harder than figuring out these logistics was telling all of his fellow DJs and the rest of the WKDU staff that they could no longer hang out in, or even enter, the station.
“The station is the central hangout spot for all of us, all the WKDU misfits on campus,” Hengemihle said. “If we’re not in class, we’re down in the basement of Creese. So we’ve been trying to stay as connected as we can and trying to keep the communication as normal as possible.”
To do this, WKDU has been holding regular virtual meetings for the station’s 30-plus DJs to stay in touch. They have also supported their remote broadcasting by using DJ and radio automation software called MegaSeg that they previously used in the early morning hours, which allows the DJs to upload hundreds of hours of music to play through the robot DJ. “WKDU picks” curated playlists have also been created for streaming platforms.
“It’s as close to our normal programming as possible, but obviously it’s not the same as having a live DJ curating the music,” Hengemihle said.
Additionally, the WKDU DJs have been hard at work beefing up their social media presence, working on a website redesign project that was started in the beginning of the year, planning for their annual Electronic Music Marathon in October, and even releasing a COVID-19 community resource project.
Though the way the station functions has changed drastically due to COVID-19, Hengemihle said there hasn’t been more work on their plate — just different work.
WKDU'S executive board meeting over Zoom during Drexel's remote spring term.
“We just really miss the live aspect of things,” he said. “There’s nothing like being in our DJ booth and being behind a hot mic and kind of just flying by the seat of your pants. Now, it kind of feels like everything is more planned out and curated, or like a final end result rather than a live broadcast.”
Just like there are no live WKDU DJs on the air, there are also no staff members from The Triangle to hand you a copy of the student newspaper every Friday, hot off the press. But that doesn’t mean there’s not new, exciting content to consume each week from your phone or computer screen.
Ethan Hermann, co-chief news editor for The Triangle and second-year economics student, explained the way the staff’s weekly routine and the ways they engage with their audience have changed due to COVID-19.
“We are trying to ramp back up [our activity on] social media platforms and appeal to our audiences and have more content on social media which will then get more people to traffic the website,” he explained. “We’re still reaching our audience by polling students and sending out stuff to alumni, sending out stuff to potential advertisers, and trying to explain that we are still doing things during the pandemic. But right now, we are just focusing on trying to get our digital footprint bigger again.”
This is not the first time that The Triangle has gone online-only in its nearly 100-year-long history. Last summer, with fewer students on campus, they did so to cut printing costs. The staff was planning to do the same thing this summer even before the pandemic started, but now with ample content leads at their fingertips, they are taking a more beefed-up approach to their online coverage.
“Even if there are no events to attend, there are a lot of people who are doing work that we should highlight and whom we should interview,” Hermann said. “It’s finding the people who are doing things a bit different in the pandemic and then being able to write stories about what they’re doing, so I think that’s where we’re adapting and we’re writing about those who’ve adapted very well.”
Making a difference
It’s not just groups like The Triangle who are making an impact by highlighting the work of these philanthropic individuals — some groups are creating such opportunities themselves.
For instance, the Italian Pride Club is hosting an ongoing “Dragons with Italy” GoFundMe campaign, from which the group has already been able to donate $1,000 to two different hospitals in the sections of Italy hardest-hit by the pandemic.
Additionally, the Drexel Chapter of Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières took it upon themselves to hold a digital COVID-19 fundraiser last month, and raised nearly $1,700 of their $2,000 goal to support the emergency response around the world.
Elle McNeiece, current president of the organization and a first-year IHS student, said many members of the group are also working more locally and individually to fight the pandemic, and the group has become an important support network for each other whether through texting or discussing during regular Zoom meetings. McNeiece herself is volunteering both in Philadelphia and in New York City.
“We discussed so much about the pandemic and how it’s affecting us and what are we going to do? What are our plans?” she said of a recent virtual meeting. “What we thought about, and what we discussed, was how we, even though we can’t physically be together, how we can stay involved.”
McNeiece has two different documents outlining what the continued engagement among the 116 members of the group looks like as remote learning continues, or what can be done int the event that Drexel’s campus reopens.
“I have some ambitious plans for us if we do get back, especially with regard to blood drives and things like that, because people are afraid of getting sick so they’re not necessarily going out and donating blood, which is pretty important,” she said. “So that’s on my to-do list.”
But until then — much like the other hundreds of organizations who have found ways to stick together despite the distance and this time apart — McNeiece said her group will continue to do whatever they can to stay engaged and make a difference, even when the going gets tough.
“We would feel anxious that we’re not doing something about this pandemic,” she said of herself and her fellow Doctors Without Borders healthcare field students. “It would give the impression to the people that we normally reach out to offer help that, ‘Ok, are they just going sit this one out when we need them the most?’ And that’s not who we are. We’re super passionate about making a difference.
“We see what’s going on, and we’re all like, ‘Now is the time. This is why we exist.’”