As students shuffled from booth to booth at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s fall student organization fair, many took wide berths around a certain org’s table. Others approached with questions and inquisitive looks.
As time passed, the members of the student org “Unmasked at UW-Madison” attached signs to their display board reading, “Mental health organization,” “NOT an anti-mask organization” and “physical masks on, emotional masks off.”
“We’ve been doing a lot of explaining to students that we are very inclusive. We’re about supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing — not an anti-mask organization,” said Nicole Schyvinck, vice president of Unmasked at UW-Madison. “It’s been an interesting night for us, that’s for sure.”
Unmasked at UW-Madison provides a space for students to express themselves and give and receive support. It’s associated with Unmasked, LLC., an independent organization and mobile app that provides an anonymous community for college students. It was first launched in January 2020 at Dartmouth College with the goal of removing students’ “emotional masks” and giving them the opportunity to talk about the things that they’re struggling with.
“Then the pandemic hit and kind of ruined our name,” Schyvinck explained.
The student group has not only been facing a unique conundrum due to the recent connotations behind “unmasking,” but is now confronting heightened concerns and criticisms due to the emergence of a similarly-named, anti-mask student-led organization — Unmask UW-Madison.
Unmask UW-Madison was formed in early August to combat the university’s decision to require masks in campus buildings. It is not a registered student organization (RSO) or “affiliated with any groups.” Candidate for Wisconsin State Treasurer Orlando Owens was pictured posing with the group at a protest. 10 other members were also photographed wearing sunglasses and baseball hats; the caption noted that “half the people are out of frame.”
The anti-mask organization has also previously been reprimanded by the university for using registered trademarks of UW-Madison without permission.
The confusion regarding the two organizations is beginning to weigh on Unmasked members. Schyvinck clarified that since their organization is national, pursuing a name change would be complicated.
“We had that conversation tonight, actually. We re-applied to be an RSO, but the problem is that we happen to be a national-level organization, so we’re going to have to talk more with our national-level leadership about what that change would look like,” she said. “But we’re definitely going to look into it.”
Until then, Unmasked will continue supporting students' mental health as they have been for the past two years.
“We don’t want to spread any kind of negativity … We still have the same goal of providing mental health resources to students on campus,” Schyvinck said. “That’s not going away.”