Clubs, campus activities navigate student engagement amid virtual format

Grupo Folklórico de USC in their Día de los Muertos Showcase in 2019 that was held in the USC Village. Performers are dressed in vibrant, vestuarios as they strike a pose and smile towards the audience. Papel picado hang in the background of the dancers, with orange marigolds surrounding their feet.
Grupo Folklórico de USC are prerecording their routines for new members. Normally the group would have been preparing for upcoming performances, such as their 2019 Día de los Muertos Showcase held at USC Village. (Daily Trojan file photo)

Club and campus activities will certainly look different this semester, but student organizations and supporting staff are making it a priority to replicate the college experience as best as possible remotely. 

For performance groups such as Grupo Folklórico de USC, this semester comes with challenges on how to maintain the quality of their club offerings for their members as well as the greater USC community.

In an effort to keep business as usual, Grupo Folklórico de USC, a Mexican folk dance and cultural group, has adapted its regular meetings to fit an online format. According to GFU president Samantha Nuñez, since most of the organization’s veteran members will be in the Los Angeles area, they will be able to pre-record dance tutorial videos for incoming members to learn. 

“We’re also hosting weekly Zoom sessions to give everyone access to us and make sure that people know that, ‘Hey, we may not be doing this in person, but we have these videos for you to learn from,’” said Nuñez, a graduate student studying communication management. 

In addition to online member meetings, student organizations have also found creative digital alternatives to share their passions with the USC community. USC’s ten a cappella groups traditionally organize a semesterly show, All Hail A Capella, for the USC student body. However, due to the inability to hold in-person rehearsals and restrictions on performance venues, Trogons is working to make the performance virtually accessible through streaming platforms like YouTube and Facebook. 

Photography Club is also turning to more unconventional methods to share its work. In addition to a semesterly virtual zine, the club is working on launching a Minecraft gallery to simulate an open house for members to showcase their photos, according to club president Fiona Pestana. 

“Normally, photo club is an opportunity for students to go out and shoot and find a community where we can learn photography skills together as well as go outside of campus on events, on excursions around L.A., to  have a group to shoot together and to learn from each other,” said Pestana, a senior majoring in journalism. “But right now, [Photography Club] is going to be a virtual community where we’re going to have streams and social sessions online … and help refine the skills and inspire people to go out and shoot.”

The virtual involvement fairs, held during the first and second weeks of classes, will also provide an opportunity for registered student organizations to meet potential members.

Despite the possible difficulty of keeping students interested in online extracurricular activities, Pestana said she has had promising experiences at the virtual involvement fairs so far.

“There were quite a few freshmen coming in, so I think they were seeing this as an opportunity to start their college experience with people with similar interests,” Pestana said. “I was really excited that people showed up, which is definitely encouraging right now because hopefully, that means they’ll be staying in the future.”

Peaks and Professors president Colleen Corrigan also said she was pleasantly surprised by the turnout during the involvement fair sessions despite the limitations of meeting virtually.

“You know it’s awkward at times like every time someone new pops into the room, you have to reintroduce what the club is, so it’s a little bulky that way but it was still really fun to feel like we were meeting people at the involvement fair,” Corrigan said.

Though Photography Club has tried to make meetings as engaging as possible by teaching members how to make and photograph mocktails at home, it is also trying to maintain the social aspect as best and as safely as possible.

“One of the things we’re going to teach is how to take people’s  new and do portraits on Zoom,” Pestana said. “In this way, we can still use human subjects, and we’re encouraging members to, of course within [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines, go out and shoot in the area, shoot people they’re living with and meet up with people from a distance with masks on and take photos.” 

Corrigan, a senior majoring in human biology and NGOs and social change, also said she hopes students continue to go on outdoor adventures even without the Peaks and Professors’ in-person programming.   

“Being outside for anyone who enjoys the outdoors is such a source of mental health and therapy,” Corrigan said. “And it’s tough because as much as … I don’t want people to feel like now that there [aren’t] organized trips happening that they can’t try to organize them with their friends.”

To address this concern, Corrigan said that the club is looking to provide resources and host webinars that teach students wilderness survival tips, offer advice on what to bring and recommend their favorite hikes in the area in hopes of encouraging remote students to continue to explore the outdoors. She also admitted that she is grateful to have this time to focus on providing useful resources and tips to anyone who would want them. 

Another concern that student organizations are dealing with is maintaining member engagement because of growing Zoom fatigue. 

“It’s hard with these virtual events because you don’t want to induce any more Zoom fatigue than is already induced by just school online,” Corrigan said. “We want it to be something that people actually would gain … so we’re really trying to think about how to make it that kind of environment.” 

However, there are still some things that cannot be accomplished over Zoom and while remote. For an organization that is based on performance, like GFU, practicing at home has limitations.

“People having questions at a live practice in-person versus getting sent a video and trying to wing it on your own with guidance provided [the greatest challenge we face],” Nuñez said. “Some people may be confused about a certain step, and some of our dance routines involve skirtwork. Some of our dances can be very technical, so that’s a challenge we foresee going into the fall semester.”

For Trogons president Aaron Sha, a junior majoring in health and sciences, member engagement over virtual platforms may be the most challenging aspect of this semester. 

“You don’t get the same member reaction when you’re talking to people over Slack. You’d be lucky to get a 50% reaction rate, so trying to connect with all the members is really hard.” Sha said. “I think in the future, this issue will become more prominent as the semester moves on, people are going to be more busy.”

While student organizations are working hard to stay involved and engaged this fall, the USC administration also plans to host virtual events to engage the student body. Gabriel Valenzuela, director of campus activities, said in an email to the Daily Trojan that some of these virtual events will include game nights, craft events and trivia competitions. 

Valenzuela said he hopes students will find events they are excited to participate in and meet new people through the ExperienceSC virtual hub, prioritizing personal connections over physical space. Campus Activities has been exploring platforms outside of Zoom to bring students together in alternative spaces and avoid fatigue. 

Led by Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Dean Willow Bay, the faculty-based Student Experience Working Group was tasked with creating high-quality extracurricular activities that meet the diverse needs of the student population and that can be accessed online.

“Our assignment by the provost was initially to create a set of rich extracurricular experiences for students who wouldn’t be able to have a traditional, on campus experience and to communicate the value of the USC experience that was not tied to our physical space or physical place.” Bay said.

Visions & Voices plans to host online programming and concerts focused on social issues and inspiring resilience throughout the semester, which are available on the organization’s website. The event schedule will include cooking with L.A.-based Asian American women chefs Cecilia Leung, Isa Fabro and Sonoko Sakai, and an evening with rapper Chuck D from Public Enemy.

Daria Yudacufski, executive director of Visions & Voices, said during the USC Student Experience Webinar on July 28, they are able to take advantage of the online format because virtual events allow them to speakers who would normally be unable to travel to campus to deliver live performances.

“There’s a lot that we can do online that we’d might not be able to do in person and there’s something really intimate about [remote experiences], which I love.” Yudacufski said. 

As campus activities and clubs continue to adapt to the virtual semester, they hope they can still emulate the valuable in-person experiences that students would get on campus.

“College is a time where the relationships you develop are going to last you for an entire lifetime, and the biggest thing about remote learning is that you’re not able to see the faces that we’re used to seeing,” Sha said. “In order to try to maintain some normalcy, I just want to make sure that our members get to hang out with each other [and be social].” 

Ana Mata contributed to this report.