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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Student organizations discuss struggles, worries, successes amid pandemic

A mix of both online and in-person classes during the spring 2021 semester means that many student clubs and organizations must meet remotely due to public health guidelines intended to curb the spread of COVID-19 across campus. 

The Filipinx-American Student Organization (FASO) is one among hundreds of student clubs and organizations adjusting to the remote model. 

According to the FASO executive board, holding meetings and events online hasn’t interfered with the organization’s missions of fostering friendship and identity through events and programming. Virtual meetings have also not obstructed the FASO mission of the Bayanihan spirit, which — according to the executive board — emphasizes “the values of family, community and exploring one’s sense of self.”

“As COVID-19 has shown us, a community does not have to be in a single, in-person location,” members of the board wrote. “A community can be anywhere because of the people who are in it.” 

The use of messaging and social media platforms such as Discord, Facebook, Snapchat and iMessage — outside of general meetings — have served an integral role in creating strong bonds at FASO. 

Ultimately, the FASO executive board and the entirety of the organization’s body crave to be back in-person. Despite this yearning, the executive board maintains that involvement has increased as a result of being online this year. 

“Considering that everything was online, we were concerned about how to maintain member retention in our organization,” said the board. “However, through several online meetings and hangouts, members have been able to create relationships easily online.” 

The FASO executive board credits increased involvement to the bonds created through the organization.

“Our organization has grown so much this year and people keep coming back because of the friends they’ve made in FASO,” said the executive board. “Everyone is eager for the day we’ll be together in person again, so everyone’s trying to be involved as much as possible despite being online.” 

Other UW student organizations, like the newly-created Beyond Symptoms and Advocates for Rare Diseases, are also operating via the online format. 

“We started during COVID, so it really challenged us to use our own networks to find ways to connect with other people and create a community,” said Beyond Symptoms Co-Founder Brooke Wilczewski.

Beyond Symptoms was created this past summer and works to educate members — UW students interested in healthcare professions — on a variety of issues relating to systemic disparities in healthcare. 

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As of now, Beyond Symptoms is hoping to continue to grow and gain new members, but as the organization looks to the future they are striving to keep members engaged and ultimately establish an organization that can be passed onto future generations of UW students. 

The challenge to create a new student organization amid the pandemic was reiterated by Advocates for Rare Diseases Founder Abri Click. 

“The circumstances of COVID-19 have greatly affected the creation of my student organization since I started this semester,” said Click. “I wanted to start this club freshman year but I had to postpone because of everything that has happened.” 

Advocates for Rare Diseases aims to raise awareness and fundraise for research about various diseases. Each month, the group discusses one disease and looks at ways to raise funds and bring attention to the issue.

“It is difficult to spread the word since everything must be remote, however, I am using my resources as much as I can,” Click said, citing Greek life and friendships as ways in which she has boosted involvement. 

Click said that despite the challenges associated with COVID-19, several of her fundraising ideas rely on social media and outdoor events — modes of involvement that adhere to guidelines in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We are working to overcome these challenges simply by being more creative and thinking out of the box,” said Click, underscoring her relationship with the Mayo Clinic — a health system with which she is exploring more options for raising consciousness and fundraising research into a variety of rare diseases. 

“In the end, the purpose of Advocates for Rare Diseases is to fundraise and raise awareness for rare diseases and we are going to continue to do the best we can to achieve this, during these times,” emphasized Click when asked about involvement due to the pandemic. She is sure involvement will increase as coronavirus restrictions are lifted. 

Another student organization, the Wisconsin Hoofers — an outdoors club and one of UW-Madison’s largest and oldest student organizations — has also faced some issues adapting to COVID-19 circumstances.

“Due to COVID-19, Hoofers has put out programming unique to anything we’ve done in the past,” said Hoofer Council President Ansley Laev. “We had to learn how to run meetings online and get all of our administrative work done virtually while both coming up with brand-new virtual programming and figuring out how to run our old in-person programming safely under guidelines we developed.”

By the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, Hoofers staff had figured out how to hold in-person, outdoor events safely — leading to a surge in participation. But, according to Laev, the two-week shutdown as a result of a spike in coronavirus cases during the fall semester curtailed their effort.

“COVID-19 has taken a hit to our membership levels for sure,” said Laev, noting how time spent without programming due to campus spikes paired with slowness in developing coronavirus protocol played a role. “We lost a lot of folks who just decided to invest in their own gear and get outside on their own time.” 

According to Laev, a significant drop in community member engagement in different clubs under the Wisconsin Hoofers umbrella — spurred by the Wisconsin Union only allowing UW students and staff in their spaces — also affected involvement with the organization.

Still, the club is encouraging its members to spend time outdoors, with a focus on the community.

“Within the Wisconsin Hoofers, our main focus is the wellbeing of our community,” said Laev. “We mostly try to meet this by promoting folks to get outside; that’s why we’re here. But wellbeing also includes mental health and a feeling of safety and support from the community you’re a part of.” 

Overall, Laev feels that the ways in which the university handled the pandemic did not allow the Hoofers to adapt to the current circumstances efficiently.  

The UW’s decision to start the school year off partially in-person, as well as university treatment of BIPOC students and its response to calls for racial justice, have been “negligent at best,” according to Laev. 

“We are actively working to dismantle the systems of oppression and the standard of whiteness we have within the outdoor industry and within Hoofers specifically, as we are a predominantly white institution,” said Laev. “But we need the university to do their part in prioritizing these same things in the name of community wellness and racial justice.” 

Yet, as the year has progressed, Hoofers has become increasingly skillful in conducting online meetings and refining programming, said Laev. 

“Our main goal within Hoofers is getting people outside and finding community in whatever ways they are able to,” highlighted Laev. “Whether that is by joining a virtual social hangout or taking out a pair of club cross-country skis to spend the day on Lake Mendota.” 

Laev shared her ultimate goals for the Wisconsin Hoofers’ purpose.

“I want every Hoofer to be able to get outside and explore Madison, and I want the campus community to know that we are here to provide the gear and lessons to make your outdoor dreams come true,” said Laev. “We want campus and the greater Madison community to know that Hoofers is open to all people, all identities, all experience levels.” 

Student organizations such as FASO, Beyond Symptoms, Advocates for Rare Diseases and the Wisconsin Hoofers do not yet know when they will be able to function without the public health restrictions of the pandemic in place. 

A recent order issued by Public Health Madison Dane County (PHMDC) increased the number of people allowed at in-person events Feb. 10, but the university continues to maintain its original policy, limiting indoor events at 10 people and outdoor events at twenty-five. A decision regarding any changes to this policy at a university level will be communicated on March 1. 

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