Hibernating until the pandemic passes: Small student organizations, on pause this semester, imagine their futures
Valerie Pavilonis, Staff Illustrator
Avalon, in Celtic legend, is the idyllic isle where King Arthur’s sword was forged and where he is said to have returned after being mortally wounded in battle.
On weekends last year, the Stiles buttery moonlighted as Avalon, and sometimes Silliman’s and occasionally JE’s. The island — somewhere off the shore of reality — is as apt a provenance as any for the mix of first years who gathered for hours on end multiple times a week pre-pandemic to play the popular board game under the auspices of the Yale Undergraduate Avalon Club.
“There are so many things at Yale that add to the hectic pace of an already busy week,” said Python Chen ’23, the group’s vice president. “To its members, Avalon was less of a responsibility and more of an oasis.”
The student group was formed for the purpose of playing the social deduction card game, which splits players into two teams and asks them to determine the rest of the group’s identities without divulging their own. Its members, who number somewhere between a dozen and two, also draw heavily from the first generation low-income, or FGLI, community at Yale — the game is traditionally passed down from cohort to cohort during the First-Year Scholars summer program.
Avalon Club — which has paused its game sessions this term even after holding some virtually — is one of numerous small student organizations for which the pandemic has produced particular pressures.
Julian Johnson ’21, as a head student organizations consultant at Yale, helps student groups register with the University and plan events. According to Johnson, of the 470 student groups that reregistered this year, 35 have gone on hiatus for this fall semester.
“As you can probably imagine, many groups have been struggling to form online communities and create the same close knit culture and engagement they had in-person,” Johnson told the News. “Students are also dealing with Zoom fatigue from online class settings so this definitely has been challenging.”
But these challenges are not necessarily distributed evenly among organizations: some, like pre-professional groups and publications, have maintained their fundamental structures online; others, like performing arts groups and social organizations, have needed to undergo an almost-total restructuring.
And smaller organizations, which may already have more difficulty recruiting new members and sustaining their futures than well-established ones, are all the more likely to disappear.
When Kelsang Dolma ’19 arrived at Yale in the fall of 2015, she was the only Tibetan undergraduate.
“In an effort to raise awareness of Tibetan history and culture, I founded Tibetan Students Association at Yale—my roommates were my most loyal participants,” she wrote in a statement to the News.
The group soon expanded into the Himalayan Students Association at Yale — a group of Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Tibetan students who shared brunches and celebrated Losar, the Tibetan New Year, together with traditional dishes like momos, or Tibetan dumplings, and suja, which is yak butter tea.
They have also hosted events and seminars, inviting Lhakpa Sherpa, the first Nepalese woman to climb and descend Mount Everest, in 2017. Lhakpa brought a Yale logo with her on her eighth Everest climb — likely the first time Yale has been explicitly represented on the peak.
Now, Co-presidents Khenzom Alling ’23 and Kunsang Dorjee ’22 say there are around ten active members of the club.
Alling — who had grown up in Indonesia and the Philippines with few ties to a Tibetan community — met Dorjee, who knew a “surprisingly robust” Tibetan community in Old Saybrook, within the first week of their first year.
The community is small enough, Alling explained, that she found Dorjee by hitting “Command F” in the student directory for popular Tibetan surnames.
“When I came to Yale, a big question was whether or not I could find other Tibetans to form a kinship with in order to maintain my Tibetan identity,” Dorjee said. “Meeting members of HSAY has brought me immense joy because it was like I was chatting with my cousins from back home.”
As an affiliate organization of the Asian American Cultural Center, HSAY receives funding support from the AACC, though Alling and Dorjee explained that they did not apply for funding this year because they are not holding any in-person events.
However, while club brunches and Losar celebrations are off the table for now, neither seemed worried about the club’s future. If anything, Alling pointed out, that she is taking a leave of absence and can steer the group for another year actually might help extend the lifespan of the club.
Interrupted Beginnings and New Openings
The Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee disburses the central pot of money from which Yale student groups receive their funding. Unlike in previous years, the UOFC only offered one application round for student groups this fall semester, which ended on Oct. 23.
According to Yale College Council President Aliesa Bahri ’22 and YCC Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee Director Olivia Johann ’22, 164 student organizations submitted applications for funding on YaleConnect, the campus groups platform, which is “substantially less than previous years, likely because most student groups are holding virtual events that do not incur any costs.”
Though the UOFC budget this year was more than halved from its $330,000 annual budget in previous years, YCC Business Director Ishan Patel ’23 told the News that he expects the “amount of funds applicants receive not to decrease from that of previous years because the total number of applicants has decreased as well” — though funding has yet to be finalized.
Bulldog Brewing, a student group founded last winter by Nissim Roffe ’21, Eleazar Camez ’21 and Zach Gold ’21, is one of the groups that submitted an application for UOFC funding this year. But sustaining new brewing projects as a new organization has proven especially challenging this year because the club cannot host on-campus events nor admit members below the legal drinking age.
Their newest project — a flax-colored liquid sitting in a repurposed plastic water jug in their off-campus apartment — is called “Zoomin’ Pale Ale,” which they explain is an experimental brew with gold and amber malt as well as three kinds of hops.
“There are a lot of ways for people to engage in drinking differently beyond what’s typical in college,” Gold said. “We want to give an outlet for people to study the science and craft of alcohol and think about it more meaningfully.”
“It’s as if we baked bread and are sharing with friends,” Roffe added.
For Luna Garcia ’23 and Lydia Hill ’22, who run The Opening, the pandemic is presenting an opportunity to reimagine what the self-described “rag tag” stand-up comedy group of eight members could become.
Neither are sure where the group’s name comes from, though they were willing to spitball some origin stories on the spot.
“No one knows who we are,” Hill admitted.
That is in part due to their recruitment strategy: they have in years past primarily solicited auditions from upperclassmen members of other comedy groups on campus rather than through widely publicized auditions.
Monthly sets, according to Hill and Garcia, sometimes drew upwards of fifty people, and on other occasions a small handful in a member’s basement.
“It adds to the serendipity about going to a live show — you can’t count on anyone to show up so you have to go because you love it,” Hill said.
Though the group hasn’t met in the past six months — stand-up, they explain, doesn’t land the same way over Zoom — Garcia is optimistic that the group can reframe its focus more on community building and less on individual acts.
Not for the game, but for each other
That clubs at Yale sometimes dry up almost as rapidly as new ones are formed is no unfamiliar phenomenon to Chen.
He explained that he joined the board of the Avalon Club because he had heard that it was in danger of dissolving. In that sense, he said, the pandemic’s eruptive consequences on student life worries him less than if members drifted apart of their own accord.
After playing the game during his summer enrolled in the FSY program, it seemed natural to continue with his friends throughout the regular semester.
“Avalon wasn’t the catalyst for friendships within the FGLI community, but it was definitely the reason I was able to make friends outside the community,” Chen said.
New members — both strangers and plus-ones — were quickly folded into their club as the game caught on through word-of-mouth.
Katherine Sylvester ’23, who joined the club several months after coming to Yale, explained that she felt welcomed into the group from her first game.
“There’s something about playing games with people,” she said. “You know their characters better, and you open up because you’re engaging with them competitively.”
But since students left campus abruptly in the spring, interest in playing online has diminished, Chen said. After a few attempts to play Avalon over Zoom, the group has agreed to put games on hold until next semester or next year.
Chen was quick to insist that Avalon is superior to social deduction games with similar rules, like Among Us and Secret Hitler. He’s also confident that seven or nine are the “magic” group sizes for a competitive game. But he said the game is a “good excuse” to spend time with a close-knight circle of friends.
“In the end, it’s not about the game for us, it’s about each other,” he said.
Emily Tian| email@example.com