Student organizations still fighting through pandemic-era restrictions


Davin Roberts / Courtesy

Students at Nation Broadcast Society meeting.

By Ann E. Matica, Deputy News Editor

Student organizations, a focal point of the Emerson experience for many, have weathered a year in the pandemic despite an abundance of logistical hurdles and safety guidelines curtailing typical programming. 

Since last spring, student organizations have been forced to adapt to strict capacity limits and social distancing guidelines set by the college and state to continue operating. 

Director of Student Engagement and Leadership Jason Meier said when students were sent home last March, SEAL had to scramble to determine how student organizations would be able to continue to operate once they returned for the fall semester. 

“I would say those first few weeks we were meeting as an office every single day to toss out ideas, ways to move things virtually, how we were going to do budgets for the next year …  how we’re going to do anything,” Meier said.

In July, the college notified students that room capacity limits on campus would be reduced to 20 to 25 percent of their normal capacity. This caused many student organizations to transition their operations completely online or to go into ‘hibernation’—which allowed organizations on campus to go inactive over the fall semester without losing funding or their affiliation with the college.

“We went in with this idea that this is jarring, this is overwhelming, and not everyone has the same setup at home,” Meier said. “We quickly decided we wouldn’t close an [organization] over it, we wouldn’t shut anyone down, there would be no judgement.”

When students returned to Emerson’s Boston campus last fall, they were challenged with adapting their organizations to a new set of guidelines surrounding food, capacity limits, and activity restrictions.

Emerson Hillel President Rachel Tabin said the biggest challenge has been hosting events that include organization members who are studying remotely, but they have found ways to accommodate students in both modalities.

“You can come pick up your meal in the Lion’s Den from us and then join us on Zoom for Shabbat service,” Tabin said. “People who are in Boston can pick up the meals and then people who are all the way in California can still come to Shabbat.”

Although the pandemic has restricted student organizations from consuming food in the same space, multicultural events like ASIA’S bubble tea series, EBONI’s ‘Popeyes and pop-off’ events, Hillel’s Shabbat dinners, and picnics on Boston Common AMIGOS have continued to happen with some alterations, Meier said. 

Organizations on campus are now required to submit food requests that must be reviewed and approved by SEAL. If approved, members pick up food supplied by SEAL and either eat it socially distanced in an outdoor area or take it to their individual dorm rooms to eat together over Zoom. 

Meier said that due to the increase of COVID-19 cases throughout the state, restrictions on organization gatherings became even more strict this semester. 

“We are not here to break anyone, we are just here to make sure that we can stay open,” he said. “Really coming down from that has been a challenge, not having nice weather, not being able to play in the common and gather with your friends outside.” 

Diana Holiner, president of Hidden Lantern—an organization that focuses on art-based conversations about mental health—said there has been a sharp decline of new members since the pandemic.  

“A lot of the reason that we got more submissions in previous years was because we were able to go to [organization] fairs in person,” Holiner said. “We were able to put posters up a lot more, and that was one of the reasons that we got more submissions in previous years than during the pandemic. I think the most challenging part is getting people to sign up, because it’s been really hard to get outreach and visibility during the pandemic.”

Currently, Hidden Lantern has a total of eight members that organize and host an annual arts festival. During the fall semester, the festival took place completely online which posed some technological difficulties, according to Holiner. 

“Logistics were actually pretty tough … I had to call my dad because he’s a tech person and ask what we were doing wrong,” she said. 

Although, connecting with other members of the organization has been far from easy. Holiner said she enjoys attending the virtual bi-weekly meetings and staying active on Hidden Lanterns’ Instagram page.

“The pandemic has made people more aware of mental health than ever,” she said. “If everyone is vaccinated by the fall, it would be great to have in-person festivals again. There’s a certain connectivity to being in person. I feel like that is something we lost during the pandemic and I feel like that would be really important to get back, especially because Hidden Lantern is all about mental health and human connection.”

Robby Gessel, president of the student comedy troupe Chocolate Cake City, said the group hosted their auditions over Zoom last semester, which posed challenges.

“Some people might not be as comfortable auditioning over Zoom or might be different over Zoom than they are in person, so we had to sort of navigate that,” he said.

The organization is currently operating completely over Zoom this semester and is focusing on pitching, writing, and filming comedy sketches. 

“Navigating all the rules was something we had to work on,” Gessel said. “I definitely learned a lot between last semester and now about how to plan and how important it is to plan things to make sure that everything is within guidelines.” 

Despite the challenges of creating comedy through virtual platforms, Gessel said his organization provides him with comfort during a period of uncertainty. 

“It’s nice to have a group of people that you can talk to and make comedy with,” he said. “That’s still there even in the pandemic. It’s a comforting thing to have a group of people that you can talk with.”