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Cultural groups at Brown forge connections online

Five cultural student groups discuss challenges and successes of adapting their communities to an online setting

As the pandemic continues to restrict in-person social interaction, cultural student groups are turning to Zoom and social media to maintain community and build connections with new members. 

In interviews with The Herald, executive board members of five on-campus organizations discussed the difficulties of fostering a fun and comfortable environment while transitioning from in-person programming to an online format. 

Korean-American Students Association Co-Communications Chair Yee Won Kim ’21 said that “a big purpose of our group is to just bring the community together and get everyone to get to know each other, but our initial thoughts were (that) this is going to be really difficult.”

Many of these organizations fall under the purview of the Student Activities Office, and the Brown Center for Students of Color has served as an additional resource to cultural student organizations during this time.

Assistant Vice President for Campus Life Engagement and Interim Director of the BCSC Loc Truong said the center has heard that students feel drained by the online format. “Considering classes, social events, workshops and community building opportunities are all happening in the same format, students have expressed fatigue of screens and missing the personal connections developed in community with one another,” Truong wrote in an email to The Herald.

But Truong also shared that students are excited by the possibility of hosting virtual speaker sessions, which has been made easier with the online format.

Difficulties in remote programming

Some of the e-board members who spoke with The Herald reported a slight decrease in attendance at their virtual general body meetings. Japanese Cultural Association Co-President Tomoki Yamanaka ’22 added that general body members seem less comfortable coming to online meetings than in-person gatherings, citing “psychological barriers” to the new virtual setting.

Chinese Students Association Co-President Charles Wang ’22 said that the new virtual programming often lacks personal connection in the absence of face-to-face interaction. “Break out rooms will increase interactions to a certain extent, but nothing will replicate having a one-on-one conversation with someone at an event,” Wang said.

For the Afro-Latinx Alliance, the shift to an online presence took more planning and flexibility, given that the organization was formed only a year ago. ALA Co-President Alexalee Gonzalez ’23 explained that before March, the organization was focused on creating a strong foundation for years to come. But those plans were interrupted with the University’s announcement that campus was closing and students would be sent home, she said. 

To help with the shift to online programming, the BCSC has provided training support for student staffers focused on building online communities. All BCSC staff members also provide office hours during the week for students to ask questions and seek advice as to how to successfully adjust to the online format.

Forging bonds in a virtual setting

Despite the current barriers for these organizations, many have already held successful meetings and have begun planning future events. Groups like KASA and CSA have hosted game nights with activities such as, Cards Against Humanity and Among Us.

Kim said that despite a few technical issues with Zoom and the gaming platforms, KASA’s first few meetings were successful. “I think we all met a lot of new people and a lot of (first-years) also came, which was great,” Kim said. “It made a memory that we wouldn't have expected to ever make.”

Many groups said that they were able to employ social media platforms to engage their community and spread the word about meetings and events.

The Black Student Union adopted an affirmations campaign via its Instagram, where people can direct-message the account and share a positive note about a Black student in the community, which BSU will then add to its Instagram story. According to BSU Co-President Daneva Moncrieffe ’21, the organization plans to continue this initiative even after the pandemic subsides and the organization can once again hold in-person meetings. 

“It's a really nice way to just show love for each other and maintain that sense of community even though we aren't physically together,” Moncrieffe said.

Gonzalez also said social media has actually helped the relatively new ALA grow and spread awareness about the Afro-Latinx identity.

And many organizations said that collaboration with other cultural organizations on campus has been helpful in forging bonds with other groups.

CSA, KASA, JCA and the Asian/Asian-American House have discussed possibly co-hosting a speaker session in the future, and Wang said that clubs are taking inspiration from each other’s events and practices and adopting similar ideas that are feasible for an online platform.

Reaching outside of College Hill and engaging first-years

The pandemic has also made it possible for organizations to reach outside of the Brown community and work with similar organizations at other universities.

KASA has already participated in an “Intercollegiate Voter Registration KAmpaign” with 13 other collegiate Korean associations in place of its annual voter registration drive, usually held in the Blue Room.

For ALA, Gonzalez said that there are very few students at Brown who identify as Afro-Latinx. This semester, the group has been able to reach out to other collegiate Afro-Latinx organizations to learn how they manage identity discussions at their schools and what kind of programming has been helpful.

Despite the virtual format of meetings and the absence of first-years on campus, most organizations that spoke with The Herald report success in recruiting and have turned to social media and the virtual Student Activities Fair to grow their communities.

The BSU, in collaboration with Afrisa and The League of Black United Women, is continuing BSU Unite, its annual mentorship program in which Black first-years who join are paired up with a Black upperclassman in order to create a support system for younger members within the University. According to Moncrieffe, roughly 34 first-years have already signed up for the program.

JCA is continuing a similar program where members from all classes are divided into “families,” said JCA Co-President Youkie Shiozawa ’22. 

“We're going to continue that especially because it's virtual,” Shiozawa said. “We can't have this physical bond, so hopefully that will connect people together again.”


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