Multicultural student organizations adapt to pandemic

Andrew Bailey and Andrew Bailey

With COVID-19 health and safety guidelines restricting how in person events can function, multicultural student organizations on campus are adapting to a fall semester unlike any before.

As part of their Return to Campus plan, BGSU asked that everyone on campus maintain a six-foot distance from others and limit the size of in person gatherings. The various multicultural student organizations on campus are following these rules and turning to alternative formats, like virtual meetings, to engage their members and maintain the close-knit communities they seek to foster.

Through video conferencing apps like WebEx and Zoom, organizations are planning to host open forum discussions on relevant issues, bring in guest speakers and organize bonding events.

The Black Student Union and Latino Student Union are planning for all of their events to be online for the semester.

LSU President Zeltzin Contreras-Gomez has a full schedule for Latinx Heritage Month planned, ranging from voter engagement and education with Latinx Vote, to a lesson on cooking Cuban cuisine with the Teaching Kitchen, to a showcase of Latinx culture and arts with La Conexión and more, she said.

“As of right now everything is going to be virtual until we can meet in person,” she said.

But a virtual format brings its own challenges.

“You want to make sure the conversations you’re having are still impactful, and I think it’s kind of difficult when it’s virtual,” she said.

And despite the limitations of a laptop or phone screen, coming up with fresh and interesting ideas to keep members engaged is important, and Contreras-Gomez sees collaboration with other organizations and student unions as one of the best ways to do this.

BSU is one organization LSU has had consistent collaboration and allyship with in the past, and it is a relationship they hope to continue despite the limitations imposed by COVID-19.

And coming up with creative virtual events is something that BSU President Summer Jordan said they are planning as well.

They are hoping to invite motivational speakers and comedians, among other ideas.

Despite COVID-19 pushing many events online or canceling them outright, BSU is remaining steadfast in their cause and commitment to their community.

“We still strive to impact the community, and just be of service to our people. A lot has happened in the Black Lives Matter movement and we’re still trying to comprise what we can do to say something. I don’t want our exec board to be refrained from doing anything and be deterred (by COVID-19). We have to step up to the plate because a lot of people need us right now,” she said.

Although the BSU and LSU currently have no plans for collaboration set in stone, they both plan to be supportive of one another and continue their relationship with each other and other student unions around campus, while keeping contemporary social issues in mind.

One of these potential plans for collaboration is for the Queer/Trans Student Union to work with other multicultural organizations on campus to diversify their predominately white membership, both Jordan and QTSU President Azrael Wilder said.

And QTSU hopes to unite the diversity on campus for a festive night of costumes and sugar rushes with Trunk or Treat, a Halloween-themed event where participants trick-or-treat from the trunks of cars.

Wilder said they plan on reaching out to “essentially every multicultural organization” for the event.

While planned events like these can create a warm sense of community for minority groups across campus, bonds within an organization are still being formed and solidified without coordinating official, university-sanctioned gatherings.

India Student Association President Sudish Rayaprolu said members regularly played volleyball over the summer and have kept in touch through social media and other platforms during the pandemic.

But the future of COVID-19 is uncertain. And Rayaprolu, like many others, is attentive to the day-to-day health and safety of his members, especially since many members of ISA are international and are not currently living in the U.S.

“Right now I can’t predict the future. We’re taking care of our group of people right now, at this moment, so they’re not affected,” he said. “Let the future come and then I will take action.”

Noting the current situation as it unfolds, he has emphasized a prevention-focused mindset to ISA’s body.

“We are focused on prevention and avoiding (unhealthy or unsafe practices),” he said. “For me, what I do now is more important than what I will do in the future. Because what I do now will reflect what I will do in the future.”

ISA currently has no plans to collaborate with other student organizations in person, and other organizations are following suit or adopting a “play it by ear” strategy.

The World Student Association’s International Dinner, an annual event that brings together a wide variety of cultures on campus for an evening of arts, food and learning to kick off International Education Week, won’t be happening in its usual form this semester, if at all.

According to WSA President Claire Oglesbee, the event typically has over 300 attendees. And transitioning it to an online format is logistically off the table.

Like ISA, most of WSA’s membership is international, but after gauging who is and isn’t on campus, they may host small in person events or virtual gatherings.

“We’re trying to figure out how many people are on campus that would be interested in coming. Obviously there’s restrictions on (in person gatherings), but if there’s only five people (in WSA) on campus anyways, we can still try to do something that’s meaningful for them, as well as doing things in an online format,” she said.

With the focus on physical distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing, as well as general cleanliness, organizations that still plan to host multiple events in person have logistical hurdle after logistical hurdle to take into account.

But, tough problems require creative solutions.

While they don’t pressure members to come to in person events, BGSU Hillel provides everyone who comes to one with a welcome bag containing things like paper towels and cleanliness items, as well as large, unfoldable tapestries that one can move around with them and use to create a “personal bubble.”

Their typical turnout for an event ranges from 10 to 15, President Ela Cohen said.

And while 30 to 40 show up to their Hanukkah celebration, COVID-19 has forced it to transition online, and they’ve devised a system to allow those regular 10 to 15 members to still participate in person if they choose so.

They split events up into “sections,” where they host the same event back-to-back, plus an opportunity for virtual participation.

This method does bring additional stress though, as it doubles, or even triples, the length of the commitment for the members involved in organizing the event.

And the stress of maintaining unity and a variety of ways for members to still be involved in a manner they’re comfortable with is something that executive members of all organizations are experiencing.

“It’s definitely very stressful for everyone involved,” Cohen said. “But it’s something we’re all adapting to and working through together.”

And optimism that the winter and spring semester will bring is important, while still keeping contingency plans for the possibility of the pandemic worsening or remaining steady in mind.

“Hopefully spring looks a little bit different and we have a little bit more freedom and we can just take off,” Jordan said. “We’re just trying to ride things out the best we can and prepare for a hopefully brighter spring semester.”

A brighter future devoid of the dangers of COVID-19 is something every multicultural student organization is crossing their fingers for.

A resounding theme of unity with one another remains consistent as well — whether it be through a laptop camera, phone screen or six feet apart behind a mask.

“We all want to help each other,” Jordan said. “And this is something that we can all get through together.”