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CIOs overcome distance learning limitations to maintain a sense of community

Student leaders adjust their events and programs to unite and recruit members while adhering to a socially-distant fall semester

<p>Many of the University’s CIOs are working harder than ever to not only establish unity among current members, but to also aid in the socially limited transition to Grounds that most first-year students will experience in the coming weeks.&nbsp;</p>

Many of the University’s CIOs are working harder than ever to not only establish unity among current members, but to also aid in the socially limited transition to Grounds that most first-year students will experience in the coming weeks. 

Whether students are remaining at home or returning to Grounds, social distancing protocol and a primarily online deliverance of classes will challenge the student body’s ability to feel connected to one another. Thus, many of the University’s CIOs are working harder than ever to not only establish unity among current members, but to also aid in the socially limited transition to Grounds that most first-year students will experience in the coming weeks.

The University Programs Council has always focused on organizing fun and educational events for students to help enhance their University experience. Due to social distancing protocol, this year’s efforts to create a sense of community must primarily occur digitally. UPC’s leadership has had to make many innovative adjustments to its plans for fall semester events in order to fulfill its mission while still ensuring public safety. 

UPC plays an important role in facilitating the transition to life on Grounds for first-year students, especially with regards to their annual Welcome Week events. Last year, Welcome Week included a carnival, food trucks and a concert featuring A$AP Ferg. However, this year UPC was forced to get creative and work closely with the University’s administration to ensure that all events follow social distancing protocol. 

“The regulations have certainly made us think outside the box when planning events for the coming semester, and we’re really excited to share what we’ve been working on as we get closer to returning to classes,” said Akhil Rekulapelli, third-year College student and UPC vice chair of programming, in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “While this year’s Welcome Week may look a little different from years past, we hope it’ll bring the same excitement and energy as we get ready for a new school year.”

Over the summer, UPC organized a “Summer Series” of events beginning July 7 which was headlined by a “By Hoos For Hoos” podcast available on Spotify and a “Hoos Got Talent” talent show held digitally between July 19 and Aug. 5. These online activities replaced the traditional undergraduate orientation, which was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

“The podcast brought the orientation experience online and discussed topics like class selection, the Tech-U.Va. rivalry and the U.Va. dating scene,” Rekulapelli said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “The talent show, which just had its final competition broadcast on YouTube on Aug. 2, showcased the wide range of talent found on Grounds and had 20 individuals and student groups compete for the top prize.” 

Although social distancing and online classes have hindered UPC’s ability to physically unite students, its members have dedicated themselves to overcoming these unforeseen circumstances through creativity and passion for the University community. 

“As we move into socially distanced programming, our goals remain the same,” Rekulapelli said. “We’re committed to building a strong sense of community at U.Va. that knows no distance and brings students together regardless of if they’ve chosen to return to Grounds or stay virtual for the fall.”

Similarly, the University Dance Club has had to transition to the virtual format and cancel all of its in-person events this semester, including auditions, weekly rehearsals and the fall semester show as a result of social distancing policies and concern for public health. However, executive board members are working hard to create feasible online events and workshops to keep members connected. 

“We are planning to hold a regularly scheduled series of workshops — both virtual and in-person if and when possible — instead of our usual auditions and weekly rehearsals,” said Zoe Garman, fourth-year College student and UDC president, in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We are making sure that everything in-person is also online for those who are not returning to Grounds this semester.”

The executive board of the Chinese Student Association has also been making considerable efforts to continue creating a sense of community, as well as sharing an appreciation for Chinese culture by transitioning many of its popular events to a digital format. CSA’s annual Full Moon Fest — a celebration of the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival — will be conducted entirely online. CSA’s leadership has tapped into its creativity to ensure that it delivers a meaningful and memorable experience for all student attendees. 

“This year we have moved the whole event online through the collaboration of our executive board and culture chairs,” said Sam Chen, third-year College student and CSA president, in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We decided to have our culture chairs hold online workshops and teach their dances so that our members can still participate in our annual event.” 

Another major concern among CIOs working to create a global sense of community is ensuring that international students are given the recognition and opportunities they deserve to stay connected with their peers. CSA has made a notable effort to acknowledge and adapt to international students by including a section in their new member form where students can list their time zone, so they will be able to show more consideration and inclusivity when scheduling event times. Additionally, the CSA executive board has been working to improve its family system to provide optimal support and outreach for its diverse group of students. 

“Our family system will also have many upperclassmen who can help new members get closer to one another because we will be staying at home all day,” Chen said. “Also, I am sure that many of our members will be up late at night so we will be able to interact with our international members, as well.”

The strong community that exists among the University’s students would be nothing without the support of the broader Charlottesville community. For that reason, Madison House directors and student volunteers have remained dedicated to serving the people of Charlottesville and supporting them through the most difficult times of the pandemic. Although Madison House’s volunteer services will function very differently than in previous years, many efforts will continue virtually in order to strengthen the Charlottesville community. 

“Our programs will focus almost exclusively on virtual volunteering,” said Rose Cole, Madison House director of community engagement, in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “There will be some exceptions made for in-person volunteering based on community needs — focused only on medical services, food insecurity and food justice and support for essential workers — but we can’t begin in-person volunteering until we know how safe it will be.”

While certain programs such as Adopt-A-Grandparent are able to continue operating through a pen pal or video conferencing socially distant format, other programs like child care and medical services may only continue with strict testing and regulation by the community partner. However, even that is limited until the pandemic is under control and in-person contact is safe. Despite these setbacks, Madison House staff and student leaders have been working hard to continue providing the services that the Charlottesville community needs during these trying times. 

“Even if things won’t function as normal, we are cautiously optimistic that none of our programs will have to totally halt their programs,” Cole said. “For example, our CASH program — volunteer tax preparation services — is working with the United Way to figure out how to do taxes safely and remotely for the coming spring.”

Madison House has also created a number of new connections between the University’s students and the people of Charlottesville to further instill a sense of community support. They have recognized the widespread economic crisis caused by the pandemic and are working on a variety of programs to address major public concerns such as education. 

“We have partnered with Thomas Jefferson Health District for the first time on public health support,” Cole said. “We have also worked to create a new framework for virtual tutoring and mentoring ... that will allow us to be quite responsive to family needs.”

While this fall semester will look anything but ordinary for all students, regardless of their decision to stay home or return to Grounds, the University’s CIOs and volunteer organizations are dedicated to restoring a small sense of normalcy in the strong sense of community that has defined the University. 

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