Challenges in building student communities online

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Concentrating more on the pets that take over Zoom calls than the people themselves. wes hicks (unsplash)

It’s a difficult task to support the students who have never heard of you

Being a student leader is oftentimes a tricky task to navigate. From interacting with faculty members to supporting students as we all move through different parts of our degrees, there is always something that can be done to help grow the communities present at the university.

To sound wonderfully optimistic, an ideal world where all the events held are successful and each conversation had leads to meaningful relationships being formed, and that the way in which support needs to be facilitated not only for other students but also between the board members is clear and distinct, is a world I wish we could live in.

Now, back to reality and how difficult it is trying to navigate the things that we as student leaders would like to accomplish along with how horrendously tiring it is trying to get the same, or at least similar, results in a completely remote setting.

Some organizations took this time to go through some major changes, whether that was restructuring, updating logos, or changing the focus that they want to take moving forward. But after doing all of that, where do you go from there? You have all these new pretty graphics and fresh ideas for moving forward, and you are stuck trying to reach people through a screen. Not only are you trying to reach them through the screen, but you now have to make them as excited about what you are doing as you are. How many emails are you really willing to send out until you lose your own enthusiasm?

I know you might be thinking “that doesn’t seem as hard as you are making it out to be. People must be wanting to do things.” Trust me, it is difficult to reach them in time before their Zoom battery finally runs out.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is being unable to interact and connect with the new students who have started in the last two years. There are first- and second-year students who have never seen campus, let alone heard about the student groups and programs that are available for them to be involved with. This poses a new issue, as we are now drawing from roughly half of the undergraduate student population regarding programming, events, and any media outreach that is done, while trying to determine how to find the other half. Losing out on the opportunity to engage with a large portion of students makes it difficult to feel as though you are doing meaningful work or contributing in a way that is useful and wanted.

Having a smaller audience intensifies the feeling that the work being done is not useful or wanted. With events now needing to be held primarily on Zoom, seeing the participant number in the bottom of the screen can be very disheartening. Everyone is forced to stare at their computer and phone screens for absurd amounts of time, meaning that they do not want to log in to yet another Zoom call. As well, this Zoom call comes with different expectations – if you are logging into an event on Zoom, there is the expectation that you are more likely to have your camera on and have your microphone on to interact rather than posting in the chat, as it should be “more natural.”

All of this makes it hard for people to want to engage, and as a result makes it increasingly difficult for the boards holding the events to push to continue doing so. Staring at a blank screen with a handful of names and talking to the void is a challenge that can become tiring.

As a result, we have landed in an endless cycle of things being hard to facilitate without feedback, and being unable to get adequate feedback as we are unable to facilitate reaching out to people to start that dialogue. For now, we must continue to move forward in reaching out to people and provide some forgiveness for ourselves if things do not work out as well as we hoped.

It is not an easy time to be a student leader, and it is not an easy time to be a student at all. Looking towards winter, we can be hopeful that connecting with other students will be easier and that the desire to socialize and attend events will continue to rise. Connecting is hard at the best of times – it is even harder now.

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