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Student Orgs Innovate, Create Amid Fall COVID Restrictions

students in masks with film gear walking down street
Rachel Gallarello ’22 (front) and crew film Man in the Box for Emerson Independent Video (EIV). Despite new restrictions and policies, Emerson’s student orgs have found ways to thrive. Courtesy photo

By Zenebou Sylla ‘22

As the Emerson community mobilized over the summer to make sure students could safely return to classes in the fall, Jason Meier, director of student engagement and leadership (SEAL), needed to figure out how they could participate in the roughly 100 student organizations in this new COVID-inflected campus.

Meier said there was never any doubt in his mind that orgs would operate over the Fall semester. And in the end, the pandemic has not hampered student orgs so much as allowed them to innovate in the way they operate, test the boundaries of their creativity, expand on their ability to adapt to the future. 

“We had a very real opportunity to give our students a trial run for what it’s going to be like to work remote, what [it’s] going to be like to manage a group remotely and to create some sense of community and cohesion,” said Meier.

man in mask behind news desk with man in mask looking on
Amogh Matthews ’21, left, host of EIV’s The Timeline, looks something over with crew member Joe Davidi ’22. Courtesy photo

But before Meier could give a green light to these organizations, he needed to consider how students could safely hold meetings and events, and how much of an org’s activity could be done virtually. He met virtually twice a week with people in similar positions across the country, and weekly with students to discuss directions, policies, and procedures, then drafted a policy, which he ran by about 20 students for feedback.

The organizations were split into groups, from theatrical performance orgs to print publications. Each cohort of leaders within these groups met online throughout the summer to plan the Fall semester. 

Annabelle Gustat-Karzen ‘21, general manager of Emerson Independent Video (EIV), said there were a lot of unknowns in the beginning.

“At first, it was pretty startling. We were at the point where we didn’t know too, too much about the campus plans and just kind of the virus in general,” recalled Gustat-Karzen, a Marketing Communication major.

“We just started making plans for every situation and scenario we could and eventually, we just realized, ultimately even if we are allowed to have [access to a] set – which, thankfully, we were — there probably wouldn’t be as many positions available, we’ll probably have to have small crews. [W]e wanted to just … give as many opportunities to current students as possible knowing that our usual positions available will be minimized,” said Gustat-Karzen. 

While there were some challenges ahead, it didn’t take these organizations long to adapt to these new changes. 

“One of our biggest challenges was actually our hiring weekend,” Gustat-Karzen said. “I’d say that was the biggest event where we did not know how we would keep up the same energy and interest within our org.”

woman in mask behind control panel points at camera
Ryan Flaherty ’24 works in the studio on The Timeline, EIV’s news show. Courtesy photo

Making it Work

During a typical hiring weekend, EIV would book rooms across campus where students could interview or audition for positions or roles. This year, they tried a new tactic, using their social media and marketing skills to invite students to their Zoom-based hiring weekend.

And while there was a question of whether or not these orgs would still have physical spaces to use, they were surprised and relieved to learn they could create their own spaces.

“I was definitely … relieved that we would have space, because they told us we weren’t going to be able to use any of the Paramount studios because they had converted it into classrooms,” said Lauren Bjella ’22, president of Emerson Dance Company (EDC).

Organizations like EDC found other studios in the Little Building and Tufte to hold their rehearsals and film.  “Some rehearsals now and then [were held] on Zoom, which was totally fine, it worked out really well.”

EDC concluded their semester with an online watch party, rather than their typical in-person show that showcases about 50 to 70 performers. They decided the show must go on, hoping the performance would have the same feeling as the previous live ones. 

Coming Together, Apart

While Covid-19 guidelines and procedures have caused changes in how student organizations run, Emerson’s student organizations found that there are ways in which you can still build a sense of community and remain safe. 

Many organizations, such as ASIA with its bubble tea event, EBONI’s Popeyes & Popoff, and Hillel Shabbat Dinners, carried on the tradition safely by doing an order-in and take-out system, carrying the conversations on Zoom. 

Seven women on Zoom screen
Emerson Dance Company members meet over Zoom. Courtesy photo

Other student organizations are keeping their communities thriving outside of just Zoom, with events such as virtual movie nights, Minecraft meetings, playing games like Among Us and Discord, using Instagram stories with a March Madness-style cookie bracket, with cookies delivered from Insomnia Cookies. Groups like Emerson Dance Company also held Instagram live dance classes, remote masterclasses, and even outdoor rehearsals when the weather was nice.

Safety First

Safety as well was definitely a big factor in allowing student organizations to keep running throughout the semester. 

For production sets, there are a maximum of five crew members and three cast members allowed at any one time. Other requirements include temperature checks and hand sanitizer upon entering sets. Shows must submit their finalized permits to give location stamps, their hours of the day, and a COVID safety plan, a week before any show airs. 

“Everyone was wearing the proper face masks, [and] they were wearing face shields when they were close to the actors, but there were just a lot of different restrictions that were all followed,” said EIV General Manager Gustat-Karzen

The restrictions have sparked new ideas about how to create programs.

“We actually started a [remote] panel series called Emerson Revisited, where we would have notable alumni come in and talk about their Emerson experience, but also their transition into real-world work,” said Gustat-Karzen.

And there’s one more thing the pandemic has given student orgs: confidence.  

“I’m really proud of what we ended up with, with all the obstacles and everything,” said EDC’s Bjella. “To stay calm and know that it’s going to be OK, and we’re all still able to move and dance, even if it is on Zoom. There is this great community that we’ve created, and it’s still going to be there even if we aren’t there in-person or if something happens.”  

While COVID restrictions will continue to be in place in the Spring semester, Meier said that is a perfect time for students to get involved with new orgs.

“Student organizations need you just as much as you need them, right? They thrive off of your ideas and your energy,” Meier said. “To be patient. To be creative. To ask for help. This is tough, and what’s great is we have hundreds of students in the same position who are struggling to find solutions and to lean on each other.” 

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