Student organizations persevere, one panther apart

By Maren Walsh

Clubs find new ways to organize on campus in the light of new Covid-19 restrictions. (Sean Rhee)

Luckily for the equestrian team, riding a horse is a socially distant activity. The ceramics club, too, can stay a panther apart at the pottery wheel. Yet during a pandemic fall semester at Middlebury, others — like Middlebury Model UN, the Quidditch team and many others — have had to think creatively to stay involved. 

The International Students’ Organization (ISO) hit the ground running this fall, hosting an online trivia event alongside Middlebury College Activities Board (MCAB) the week students moved back onto campus. Since then, they have hosted virtual Monthly Monday Tea events to discuss global issues. 

For ISO, online forums have provided an important tool for connecting with members.

“Being the International Students’ Organization, our membership — probably more so than any other group’s membership — is really scattered around the globe,” said Masud Lewis ’22, co-president and managing director.

ISO is working to develop the Remote Student Experience Program, which will help students keep in touch despite geographical distance. “[We are] trying to figure out how we can really engage with our international students who are studying outside of the US this semester,” Lewis said.

Like the ISO, Middlebury Model United Nations (MiddMUN) has been pleased with the online tools available for communication. “We’ve definitely been able to transition a lot of our activities to being online, including our meetings,” said Suria Vanrajah ’22, MiddMUN’s director of off-campus affairs. 

Many Model UN conferences have been moved online, and 10 MiddMUN members will compete in an upcoming remote conference hosted by Seton Hall University. The club is looking forward to another online conference hosted by Georgetown in January.

Vanrajah is also the President of Middlebury College Democrats, which has been putting together election year programming via Zoom despite encountering several roadblocks. Principal challenges have included college restrictions on political endorsements and fundraising, as well as difficulty getting approval from the Student Activities Office for in-person meetings. 

Other organizations, such as the Ceramics Club, rely more heavily on in-person connections. “Pottery […] is very hands on, so at this time it is very tricky,” Lexie Massa ’21, the ceramics club co-president, said.

The ceramics studio is now able to offer certain reduced hours every week, with some modifications to their typical format. Students are required to sign up ahead of time to ensure physical distancing and only one ceramics monitor is present at a time to help new artists get started.  

Despite the restrictions, Massa is satisfied with the new system. “I’m just happy to get people back into the studio in whichever way possible,” she said. 

Club sports have prioritized meeting in person in order to continue practices. The Middlebury College Equestrian Team had to cancel their show season but still meets as a team.

“In our practices, we remain socially distant and have our masks, although you pretty much keep more than six feet apart anyway because the horses stay spaced out in the ring,” equestrian team co-chair Tom Sacco ’20.5 said. 

The Middlebury College Quidditch Team is also practicing in person. The team has amended its techniques to avoid physical contact and canceled the annual Middlebury College Classic Tournament, but members are happy to continue finding community in their team.

“Given everything that is happening right now, we are incredibly pleased with how the semester is going,” agreed Peter Lawrence ’21 and Mary Scott, ’21, the team’s co-captains. 

“Multiple players have come up to us after practice expressing gratitude at an opportunity to connect with others and get a break from the often overwhelming world,” Lawrence said.

Some clubs experienced a surge of student interest this semester, especially from first-years. While Vanrajah expected that MUN would not receive much attention during a pandemic year, she was surprised to find that around 20 first-years were eager to join. 

“[This] is more than I think we’ve ever had,” Vanrajah said. 

Organizations have also spent this semester restructuring and reflecting. 

“We took this as an opportunity to really reevaluate our tutoring program, and I think what we’ve come up with is going to be more accessible,” said Alex Dobin ’22, a program coordinator for the English Language Lessons branch of Juntos, Middlebury’s Student-Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Group.

In a typical semester, Juntos runs weekly in-person English lessons for a group of approximately five Spanish-speaking migrant farmworkers. This year, they are embracing online learning platforms as a way to build one-on-one relationships between tutors and students. 

Dobin hopes that Juntos will continue using these online communication methods even after the pandemic is over as a way to maintain more consistent contact with farmworkers. 

“Hopefully we’re building up a strong foundation, so that in the future we can get started with this more quickly,” Dobin said. 

For many student organizations, this semester has gotten off to a slow start.

“We’re giving ourselves permission as student leaders to understand that this is a tough time. And we can have all these plans, we can be ambitious, but at some point we’ve got to be kind to ourselves,” Lewis said.