Two people standing next to a table with Shabbat food packages — the person on the left is holding a food bag, the person on the right holds a food box.
VCU students Gabrielle DeBoissiere and Meredith Adams pick up their Shabbat food packages on a recent Friday afternoon at Jewish Life at VCU. (Jenna Hasher)

How organizations and clubs are safely bringing students together during COVID-19

From virtual workshops to Friday night dinners on Zoom, VCU’s student organizations are providing ways “to feel connected in a very disconnected world.”

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Jewish Life at VCU normally holds festive Friday night dinners that bring together dozens of students for prayers to kick off the Jewish Sabbath, called Shabbat. On the table are traditional foods like braided challah bread and baked chicken. But COVID-19 has created restrictions that have curtailed big gatherings like these.

“Instead of doing it in person, we give out Shabbat packages,” said Jenna Hasher, president of Jewish Life at VCU. “It's like a little DIY kit. The packages contain grape juice for a kiddish [blessing], a loaf of challah bread, a cup of matzo ball soup, chocolate chip cookies and a Shabbat guide book.” 

And instead of a big gathering with old and new friends, Jewish students in the club participate in a weekly 30-minute Friday Zoom call. 

“So that way, you're still getting that face to face, even though it's over Zoom. [It’s] interaction, seeing people once a week to ask: ‘How was your day? How’s everything going?’ But you still have that nice thing that you can look forward to every week,” said Hasher, a junior advertising student in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Jewish Life at VCU is not unique. The approximately 500 student organizations at Virginia Commonwealth University are still connecting students while shifting how they do it to remain safe during COVID-19. Traditional meetings, parties, workshops, community service, fundraisers and festivals are being replaced by online programming to connect students with shared interests and enhance campus life.

Guidelines in place

The groups receive guidance from a student organization operations plan, which spells out restrictions and guidelines. 

Fred Tugas standing outside V C U's Student Commons building. The ram horns sculpture sits behind Tugas.
Fred Tugas outside the Student Commons. "Student officers are showing their resiliency and commitment to helping make VCU a better place," he said. (Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

“The latest guidelines are that student groups cannot have gatherings that exceed 10 people, and so a lot of in-person events have been canceled, but we've been trying to support students and how they can creatively engage their members in virtual spaces,” said Fred Tugas, assistant director for student leadership and engagement in University Student Commons and Activities, part of the Division of Student Affairs.

Tugas said his office is providing student organizations with various forms of support and resources, such as meetings and consultations on an appointment basis. At a recent event titled “Student Organization Orientation: Managing Your Organization Through COVID-19,” Tugas and his colleagues presented procedural points and tips on the physical distancing requirements. He also stressed to student leaders the importance of making sure that all meetings, events and gatherings are registered with RamsConnect, the official VCU student activity calendar, to help all students access the information. 

Tugas said a virtual student organizations fair in late August also let more students sign up for clubs beyond the normal in-person hours of the traditionally time-limited, face-to-face event.

Transformational student leaders 

Tugas wants student organization leaders to think about how they can transform student life during COVID-19. The Division of Student Affairs is offering the Gallup CliftonStrengths assessment test to help student organization leaders understand and celebrate their potential. 

“That's a little bit of the mindset shift that we've been trying to get students to think beyond rules and regulations, which are still important for public health and safety, [but rather] to think about creative ways to [positively lead and] influence their peers,” Tugas said. 

Samantha Ratliff, a junior creative advertising student and a member of the VCU Honors College, started a film club this semester called New Surge Productions to make innovative and professional films while developing production skills. This fall, Ratliff’s team will be working toward producing a short film to submit in numerous film festivals. In the spring, New Surge also plans to host a knockout film festival for college-age students.

“We have decided to move all shooting to the spring (if safe to do so),” said Ratliff, who has moved meetings to online platforms except for the smaller pre- and post-production team meetings. “I reached out to our team asking for ideas to add some zest to our Zoom calls, and I got some great responses.”

Samantha Ratliff.
Samantha Ratliff started a film club this semester called New Surge Productions. The group, like all student clubs at VCU, is adjusting during COVID-19 to help connect people in a disconnected world. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Mahlete Yared, a senior biology student and an Honors College member, has been involved in the Global Medical Training organization her entire four years at VCU. This year, as president, she halted planning the traditional service trip to Central or South America, while finding other ways to provide hands-on learning experiences and connect students to the important medical issues the organization addresses.

“We, of course would prefer to have in-person events because we thrive off of the human connection,” Yared said. “Especially [because] that's what people who volunteer with us and go on trips with us are looking for. But we're happy that we're still able to find other virtual avenues for people to get those experiences with workshops and a speaker series.” 

Tugas said student organization leaders can transform student life at VCU, calling COVID-19 one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime.“It's because of their leadership that we're really able to keep student life and student activities vibrant, dynamic and ongoing,” Tugas said. “These student officers are showing their resiliency and commitment to helping make VCU a better place. It's amazing to see them continue to commit to giving people a place to feel connected in a very disconnected world. 

“We know that students right now are having increased anxiety. Having a sense of belonging and community is precisely the foundation of what students need right now. So if anything, it's more important now that we have a vibrant and active student life, even in a very strange time.”