UC Berkeley student organizations reflect on a year impacted by COVID-19

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As the first fully remote school year came to an end, UC Berkeley student organizations reflected on the ups, downs and challenges amid a year like no other struck by COVID-19.

When campus transitioned to online learning in spring 2020, clubs were forced to halt in-person activities and coordinate remotely. Since then, much of college life has been spent looking at Zoom icons behind a screen, making the online semester feel isolating.

Now that it has been a little more than a year, student organizations continue trying to host engaging activities and overcome remote obstacles.

Teaching and educational organizations

When the pandemic first hit, the campus community was quick to adapt to remote learning. As changes rolled out to keep the vibrant teaching community alive, it was no different for student organizations involved in teaching on campus.

However, with classes being taught behind screens, teaching clubs faced challenges similar to those endured by professors and GSIs.

Computer Science Mentors, or CSM, found itself searching for creative ways to continue offering tutoring to students in lower-division computer science classes.

With that came the need for additional technology and enhancements.

“We were suddenly trying to frantically get Zoom Pro for all of our mentors, and people who were used to teaching on whiteboards were now trying to get tablets or rig up crazy setups that allowed them to film their notebooks with their phones,” said Cooper Bedin, CSM socials chair, in an email.

Sean O’Brien, a member of electrical and computer engineering honor society Eta Kappa Nu, or HKN, recalled how in-person review sessions for exams have changed. Prior to the pandemic, HKN review sessions for lower-division courses were held in person with students scattered all over the floor.

Both HKN and CSM began holding sessions through Zoom, but with that came a lack of student engagement for some clubs.

“One of our really big desires as a club is to emphasize being not just teachers but mentors, and it can be really hard to build personal connections with your students over Zoom—especially when … students can’t turn their cameras on or they’re coming to a section from a difficult timezone,” Bedin said in his email.

Amid the darkness from remote learning, some clubs have managed to find a bright side.

With about 270 mentors and more than 1,200 students, CSM has struggled to book enough rooms in the past to accommodate everyone, according to Bedin. But with the nature of virtual learning, CSM has been able to operate at full capacity.

Machine Learning at Berkeley, or [email protected], also found a positive aspect of the virtual setting by expanding its machine-learning education mission.

Incoming president Arjun Sripathy noted that [email protected] is “grateful” for its growth during the pandemic, which includes the expansion of its blog.

New members try to find their niche

Amid the endless Zoom calls, recorded lectures and online educational activities, new club members have been a hard-hit community.

“We’ve historically had issues with helping new members (Junior Mentors/JMs) feel connected to the club as a whole, and that was exacerbated by the pandemic where in-person social events were no longer an option,” Bedin said in his email.

[email protected]’s New Member Education Program, or NMEP, a semester-long machine-learning boot camp, has traditionally helped new members integrate, according to its website.

Jason Dong, vice president of external at [email protected], fondly recalls meeting new people by working on NMEP homework and projects with other members and struggling through the work together.

Prior to the pandemic, [email protected] also had a retreat full of activities in Yosemite, which Dong said was one of his first interactions with many members. He recalled the bustling environment, noting that there was never a dull moment.

International student Maanav Khaitan began his first semester virtually across the world in India, making it more difficult to meet new people and find a community.

For Khaitan, joining the startup consulting club Venture Strategy Solutions was his “best decision” of college so far.

“Venture has been like a family for me,” Khaitan said in an email. “Team members supported me throughout my transition as a new member, helping me grow personally and professionally.”

Beyond O’Brien’s commitments at HKN, he recently joined Launchpad, a campus technology club, where he works on a project while helping other students with their projects.

Given the challenges of an online community, O’Brien has been very impressed with Launchpad’s approach to welcoming new members into the club.

Throughout the semester, club members have had the chance to meet one another through events such as online speed dating, in which members have three minutes to answer random prompts, O’Brien said.

“It’s a lot harder to make new friendships virtually than it is to preserve existing ones,” O’Brien said. “The default is no community in the online realm.”

“No one’s going anywhere”: Projects and conferences online 

Despite the challenges posed by the online semester, there is no halt in some clubs’ missions in carrying out projects and research and addressing client needs.

[email protected] members work on cutting-edge research and industry projects with partners such as GitHub and NASA throughout the semester, according to its website. The organization has found it important to maintain its quality of work with its clients despite the challenges of being online.

“When we talk to our industry partnerships, we want them to know that we do have a certain level of qualification for our members and our products will reach a certain degree of completion,” Dong said.

Some clubs such as Berkeley Model United Nations, or BMUN — which runs a conference competition for high schoolers — had a notably difficult transition to the remote setting, as the organization’s primary activity is the campus conference, according to BMUN secretary Ashwat Chidambaram.

Prior to the pandemic, BMUN had a very different set of logistics to worry about, such as finding large enough rooms to hold 2,000 to 3,000 people, Chidambaram said

“Just being in person made everything way more complicated because it’s hard managing crowds,” Chidambaram said. “This semester, pretty much every single aspect of that was gone because no one’s going anywhere. We’re all in the comfort of our homes, but it presented its own challenges.”

Keeping the same activities as engaging as they are in person is much harder to do online, and it invites problems such as overcrowded Zoom calls.

Chidambaram reminisced over the exciting pre-pandemic days when the organization’s crisis committee would meet to perform simulations of historical events.

“In person, the reason this is the most fun is because you can actually have guest speakers come into the room; you can have actors play out situations,” Chidambaram said. “You see it happen right in front of you, but being online, you know, unfortunately, wasn’t as engaging, but still we try to do the best that we could.”

Performing arts organizations

Performing arts is at the heart of in-person activities, inherently reliant on crowds of people. With the pandemic, clubs have had to shift from performing on large stages to home settings on a screen.

Prior to campus’s shutdown, Azaad — a Bollywood dance team — spent hours practicing dance routines until about 3 a.m. in the recreational sports facility garage with late night Taco Bell runs, according to former Azaad choreographer Richa Bhattacharya.

After no wins in the 2019 season, Azaad made its comeback, placing third and first in competitions, Bhattacharya said. However, before the team could wrap up the season with the nationals qualifier, COVID-19 guidelines called for closures, marking a temporary end to the team’s dance practice.

“I never got to go to nationals or Bollywood America or have any of that because everything was shut down,” Bhattacharya said. “Our season, kind of, we just ended. … Our entire dance team is centered around those competitions.”

With online performances came regrets and challenges to continue performing.

For BareStage Productions, UC Berkeley’s oldest and largest student-run theater group, its members continued to run at normal capacity during the pandemic.

“It’s harder to perform live because of internet issues, so we’d often prerecord shows,” Bedin, who is also a member of BareStage, said in his email. “Actors have to do things for themselves that they’d normally have help with like props and costumes and lighting; and it’s also just so much harder to create community in virtual rehearsals.”

Despite these challenges, Bedin helped work on two successful productions this year.

A major change for Azaad was the team’s practice schedule, Bhattacharya said. Because coordinating three to six hours of dance practice online was difficult, Azaad held dance office hour sessions for members to ask questions.

Nonetheless, the element of dancing in front of a mirror and naturally moving to come up with new choreography was lost for many members. Bhattacharya recalled lying in bed thinking of new movements, unable to dance due to lack of space.

When it was time to film its performance, a group of Azaad members collaborated with other dance teams to meet in person, all masked up and socially distanced, Bhattacharya said

“We had like one or two socially distant practices as well before shooting, which was really, really painful … wearing masks and practicing,” Bhattacharya said.

Keeping communities alive with socials

For many students, student organizations are an outlet outside of academic work, making socials an exciting aspect of clubs.

Keeping members engaged virtually is at the core of many challenges clubs have been facing throughout the pandemic — even with socials.

“It’s also just difficult to get folks to want to come to club-wide socials when you can’t provide them with a space to congregate or free food,” Bedin said in his email.

For [email protected], Dong said it is difficult to make sure members have a good time at home, especially because each event just becomes another Zoom call to join.

Before the pandemic, organizations such as the Society of Linguistics Undergraduate Students, or SLUgS, would organize mixer events such as board game nights and professional development workshops, according to Bedin, who is also a part of SLUgS. However, once COVID-19 began spreading, the organization became temporarily inactive.

“Everyone was obviously super stressed and frankly linguistics club isn’t really at the top of anyone’s priority pile, so we decided to table meetings until things might open up again,” Bedin said in his email.

To combat this, many clubs invested in online socials.

Launchpad spends a lot of time organizing socials, and O’Brien feels like he has gotten to know many people whom he would not have met otherwise.

“Launchpad very much prioritizes social cohesion,” O’Brien said. “Having a little bit more of an official platform to structure these sorts of hangouts might be useful.”

Aryia Dattamajumdar is a student life reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AryiaDm.