The transition to an online semester has left campus academic halls silent, whiteboards blank, and desks empty. However, learning continues as students and educators work to master tools like Canvas and Zoom. 

Similarly, just as educators have adapted, student leaders from various Virginia Tech clubs and organizations have switched to online operations in an effort to ensure that the feeling of community so essential to the university experience lives on. Student government, fraternity and sorority chapters, and design teams, just to name a few, are using virtual tools to convene students from across the country.

The transition hasn’t been without some turmoil. Will Langan, assistant director for the First Year Leadership Experience (FLEX) program within the Student Government Association, remembers the initial shock of learning that the rest of the school year would be online. 

“I felt a strange and overwhelming wave of uncertainty,” said Langan, a sophomore studying business information technology. “The vast majority of FLEX’s activities hinge on interacting together and building a sense of community. I remember calling my co-director and realizing that neither of us had any thoughts on how to proceed. I think there was some comfort in that. We both thought, ‘Well this is going to be weird; but how can we stay true to our purpose?’”

After the pause in operations, Langan and other club leaders adjusted their calendars, altered their communications, and built confidence in the online format. FLEX, which brings together first-year students to explore leadership styles and perspectives, has continued to host weekly meetings with its full membership of 30 students and facilitates smaller calls between first-year students and their upperclassmen mentors. 

Dan Harvey, a mechanical engineering master’s degree student, didn’t let the shift to online-only interactions halt the progress of the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team, for which he serves as project manager. The group is still in constant contact to ensure that they are well-prepared for their competition in the summer of 2022.

“Our team is usually based out of the Ware Lab, so everything we do is in person, hands on, and working toward integrating and refining our competition vehicle,” said Harvey. “Understanding that we wouldn't get the chance to work on our vehicle for the remainder of the year, we knew that maintaining a meeting schedule was important to ensure proper communication across the team and to make sure everyone was comfortable and confident with the new situation. Coming from someone who has never used Zoom before, it was a much easier transition than I had expected, and I think the university provided great information and help with getting set up and oriented with Zoom.”

Zoom and other webcam applications have allowed club executive teams to meet in calls of just five or six people, but have also enabled dozens to gather, as entire organizations come together to continue as normally as possible.

Andrew Bowers, a junior studying building construction, is president of Sigma Phi Epsilon. He has managed weekly Zoom meetings for his 70-person fraternity chapter. Each Sunday, members meet to talk a little business, but primarily to give each other updates on their lives under quarantine. 

“I think our chapter members need to continue to be vulnerable and open with each other during these weekly meetings,” said Bowers. “We need to know what our brothers are going through during these challenging times so we can be there for them and make sure they are okay. Our top priority as a fraternity is ensuring that every member is always healthy, mentally and physically, before anything else.”

The chapter has started a book club, offered meetings on self-care and skill-building, and hosted a few game nights to keep members engaged.

The needs of students to learn and connect has not changed, but the guidelines for social distancing have affected how groups remain connected during the remainder of the 2020 spring semester. The ability of clubs to bring students together may never have been more important. 

“Even before social distancing, feelings of loneliness and isolation were already an all-too-common affliction amongst college students,” said Langan. “During the past few weeks, certain aspects of the FLEX program have been brought to the forefront and strengthened: a sense of community, a support system, and an opportunity for growth and reflection.”

As club leaders find ways to use electronic tools to reach even more students, the unexpected positive outcome of this unprecedented experience may actually be increased opportunities for bringing people together that extend well into the future.

By Brendan Coffey, Virginia Tech Magazine intern