Since Lower Beamer became a plastic maze of overflow dining space, students thought College Union’s popular “Coffee House” events would be a thing of the past. But a week ago, a memo invited students to come “vibe out with your fellow music-loving Wheaties” on the steps of Edman Chapel. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the show went on—this year, under the stars.
CU’s ingenuity hasn’t been a unique case this year. Students are required to adhere to Wheaton’s “COVID-Safe, Thunder-Strong” (CS/TS) policies, and it complicates meeting anybody in person. Students must mask and maintain constant social distance. They may only remove their face masks if they are outdoors, stationary and at least six feet apart.
These restrictions have deterred many groups from meeting in-person at all. According to Student Activities Office office coordinator Kimberley Fair, the requirements for groups can be summarized as “virtual first.”
Fair said that for student-led clubs, unofficial gatherings such as small meetings of club cabinet members are permissible as long as they comply with the CS/TS policy. However, official events that are open to the public and advertised may only meet online.
“For the ease of being able to get everybody together, that’s the safest way,” Fair said.
Many groups have struggled to find indoor spaces available on campus to host cabinet meetings. Since only 125 rooms are available to be reserved for any event on campus, including faculty meetings, classes and floor events, Fair recommended that clubs consider hosting their gatherings online, especially once Wheaton’s wintery weather sets in.
Senior Shannon Egan, president of the Tolkien Society, said that the SAO did reach out to some clubs about booking rooms to better facilitate in-person meetings at all. “That sort of communication is slow,” Egan said. “But they’re trying to figure this out as much as we are, so we’ll give them a little grace.”
However, the nature of some groups means that virtual get-togethers simply can’t replicate the club’s core activities. Fair pointed toward two groups in particular—the swing dance club and the badminton club—as prime examples. “All of them are still welcome to meet virtually,” she said, “but there are some clubs whose activities are going to be really limited, and so we may not see a lot from them.”
But even groups that are continuing to meet are having to cut events and change plans.
According to the president of College Union, junior Matt Meloch, popular events like Airjam, Presidents’ Ball and the Talent Show are generally attended by up to 1,500-1,800 students. This year, Meloch said these gatherings will look radically different, if they happen at all.
“In terms of events, rethinking what the schedule looks like has been the hardest thing and rethinking if we can even do certain events,” Meloch said.
To continue meeting in person, Meloch said CU may host more outdoor events on the football field, the quad or perhaps even the Billy Graham Hall parking lot.
Junior Grace Vannoy, the female Strongholds director of the Discipleship Ministries (DM) cabinet, said her group also hopes to meet outdoors when possible. As the leader of a DM small group, she plans to take advantage of the new outdoor spaces the Wheaton administration created for this year, such as the multitude of fire pits now available for student use. “That’s a really cool resource that we’re going to be able to use this year,” said Vannoy.
Beyond the challenge of finding a location, Wheaton’s clubs face another issue: how to advertise their events to freshmen and transfers. In past years, most groups utilized the annual club fair to promote their clubs and encourage new membership. Campus administration canceled the fair this year, citing the coronavirus pandemic and the logistical difficulties of facilitating crowds of students.
“We usually use the club fair to get new members and start meeting and making friends with freshmen,” said Egan. While she is concerned it will be difficult to recruit this year, her cabinet is striving to use the virtual circumstances to their advantage. “We’re hoping that the fact that we’re doing a lot of online stuff will also give alumni and people outside of Wheaton more of a chance to join in.”
Fair said the SAO is also working hard to establish different ways for clubs to advertise. One method is through a new, college-managed Instagram page which features event notices and recruitment campaigns to replace physical posters on campus. At present, the page has nearly fifty different posts advertising student events and over two hundred and fifty followers.
Despite the challenges of adapting events to obey the new rules, many student leaders expressed optimism for the year ahead and acknowledged the creativity the pandemic has inspired. Addressing concerns that CU will not host their major events, Meloch said, “There will still be fun on campus this year. We still will have spaces for people to come and enjoy and build relationships. COVID-Safe, Thunder-Strong, party on!”