Students prepare to hit Lake Sagatagan for canoeing during an event sponsored by Outdoor University Sept. 25.
Photo by Nick Gilman ’23.
There’s been some talk lately about the new block academic schedule being offered at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that isn’t the only kind of schedule that has been altered because of the virus.
Campus activities are still being presented by various areas and departments. They just look a little different - whether they’re offered online, so students can stay safe, or in small groups in-person in accordance with Minnesota Department of Health recommendations.
“I think that we’re at a point that we need to embrace technology and embrace what is going on,” said Lacey Solheid, the associate director of programming and orientation for Student Activities and Leadership Development at CSB and SJU. “We’re trying to make the best of the situations we have, and problem solve and try new things.”
Like Solheid, many administrators have been successfully creating an entirely new student activity experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. True, it’s not the typical college experience. But these aren’t typical times, and they require a new way of thinking.
There are a number of areas offering activities to students – campus recreation and intramurals at CSB and SJU; Campus Ministry offices at CSB and SJU; Fine Arts Programming events (both visual arts and concerts and workshops); Outdoor U at SJU; the Peer Resource Center; various student clubs; and speakers from a variety of academic disciplines, just to name a few.
For this story, however, we are focusing on three main programming areas: Student Activities and Leadership Development, and the Residential Life offices at CSB and SJU.
Using a mix of events that occur virtually as well as small, in-person gatherings, community building is still happening at CSB and SJU.
Br. Dan Morgan, OSB, director of Residential Life and Housing at SJU, said he has asked his Resident Assistants (RA’s) “to come up with an activity that you could do for 10 people or less. You end up with a whole mix of ideas.”
One example of that, Morgan said, were a small people going for the Stella Maris Chapel walk and getting pizza afterwards.
The same approach is happening at CSB.
“Each of our residential areas have taken a different approach to outreach and events,” said Christy Brown, director of Residential Life and Housing at CSB. “In terms of our first-year students, we really still are putting an emphasis on floor activities, just because there is still that idea of trying to limit the number of people that are interacting, and trying to broaden peoples’ circles in kind of a discreet way.”
That’s exactly what Gina Honek ’19, residence director of CSB’s Regina Hall, did for first-year students in Corona, Aurora and Regina Halls. Her idea? Creating Connections, which connected fellow female first-year students.
“A lot of the feedback that I got from our RA’s was that they felt like the residents weren’t meeting people from across the halls,” Honek said. “If I hear feedback, I want to do something about it.
“I just really thought about what is a really simple way to provide structure, but also allow residents to have the autonomy of how they want to meet people,” Honek said. “It just dawned on me – I might as well make a form and people can fill it out and I’ll see what matches up.”
Honek asked residents to describe their passions, interests and majors, and any fun facts they wanted to share about themselves. She also asked residents to list three words that described themselves.
Based on those responses, she matched about 50 people – 20 individuals and 15 sets of roommates. Some have met for dinner or ice cream.
“At the end of the email, there’s a little disclaimer. There’s no pressure for you to have to stay in contact with this person, but if you choose to, that’s awesome. It’s really just providing an opportunity (to meet someone),” Honek said.
“If you become friends, great. If you don’t, that’s OK. If you had a conversation with someone that’s a little bit different than you, and you learn about somebody new, there’s still so much value in that,” Honek said.
There are also virtual opportunities present on both campuses – for instance, watching a movie or even playing a board game. Plus, there are always video games to play.
“I would say the beginning of the semester, we were doing about half and half – some virtual, some in-person,” Brown said. “Even in the upper-class residence halls, we got some really good feedback from students saying, ‘I like that we can be watching a movie and talking a bit, but I also don’t have to put on clothes. I can just hang out in my pajamas, or I can be multi-tasking at the same time.’
“I think sometime screen fatigue is a real thing. But I also know we have a couple of RA’s in the first-year areas who are really interested in table-top gaming, board games. They’ve done some game nights online where people can play virtually through Zoom,” Brown said.
Morgan said that virtual activities promoted at SJU included a virtual trivia night; playing virtual games like Kahoots and Among Us; and watching an NBA playoff game between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics.
In addition, “We’re in the process of creating a Johnnies engagement organization called RedGage,” Morgan said.
RedGage is a Johnnie-focused organization that activates community through social, spiritual, intellectual, intercultural and physical programming and experiences on campus. It will promote SJU student engagement on campus – an initiative of SJU Interim President Dr. Eugene McAllister.
Most of the activities Solheid’s area promotes come virtually, including magician Dan Martin, who appeared virtually Oct. 16 on what would have been Family Weekend.
“We were able to do a virtual program with him, where he was calling bingo games and doing magic in-between (games),” Solheid said.
“Things that you think you couldn’t do virtually are happening,” Solheid said. “Escape rooms, magicians, performers like mind readers … I’ve seen incredible creativity coming out of the entertainment industry, particularly those who work in the college market.”
Solheid had several suggestions for students and parents who want a rundown of upcoming events at CSB and SJU.
“If anyone was to look at that bulletin app as a student, you will see there are plenty of things to do on campus,” she said. “The bulletin app is where they need to be going and checking for events.”
Simply titled “Bulletin,” the app allows students, their families, faculty, staff and other interested parties to stay up-to-date on what’s happening on the two campuses – exploring CSB/SJU news, events and updates anytime on their mobile devices.
The app, which is available to anyone to download in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store, serves the same function as the community Daily Bulletin (formerly Bulletin Board) that already exists on the CSB/SJU website. Announcements submitted there will now go to both the app and the Daily Bulletin.
In addition, Student Activities and Leadership Development posts a weekly activity calendar.
Solheid also believes the narrative around virtual events needs to change.
“Community building can take place in an online setting. Students can make connections in an online setting,” Solheid said. “We’ll never replace being in-person with someone, but for the time being, there’s a lot of ways to utilize technology to allow students to build connections.
“You see students taking their phones out to Snapchat with each other, or to connect on Instagram. I think virtual events are just another way for students to connect with each other,” Solheid said.