Six months into my Yale journey, I still do not know where the Asian American Cultural Center is. I hope that this does not disqualify me from being Korean next semester. I’m confident that every first year has something in place of the AACC that they expected to know better by the end of the first semester. As for the upperclassmen… at least the first years can’t miss what they never had. But this isn’t a tribute to the student organizations that once were, but an examination of what our clubs will be when the pandemic dwindles and we can all go back to not washing our hands every time we go outside.
The last live show I saw was my high school theatre troupe’s production of “The Addams Family” in the fall of 2019. In light of the fact that our common area and cafeteria was actually moonlighting as the theater auditorium, it was a great production.
But as they say, the show must go on, and a pandemic isn’t enough to break that holy testament. While in-person events that have been the staple of many performance groups have been rendered impossible for the sake of public health, this hasn’t stopped many organizations from reimagining their traditional events. Stella Vujic ’22, president of the Yale Symphony Orchestra, was tasked with virtually re-imagining the group’s annual Halloween show. “So this year was quite different from that, there were no in-person filming sessions, every part of the show was filmed over Zoom,” she said. Rather than crowding into Woolsey Hall on the spookiest night of the year, the 2020 YSO Halloween Show premiered online where viewers could tune in from anywhere.
For the performance groups that participate in competitions, these events have transformed to be even more unrecognizable. Usually a live event, the Varsity Vocals International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella — the real-life competition that the film series “Pitch Perfect” is based on — is supposed to be the Cadence of Yale’s annual magnum opus. But this year, the competition has been translated into a virtual format with competitive a cappella groups sending in video performances. As a result, says Zoe Berg ’24, Cadence’s brand manager, an unfamiliar emphasis has been placed on video and audio editing. Berg also doubles as the video editor — her first-ever dabble into Adobe Premiere Pro; she notes that the audio editors possess a similar level of experience as well. We can all probably relate to her response when asked about the learning curve: “This has definitely been … a process.”
Pandemic-era changes aren’t exclusive to music-based groups either. During an interview with Zoe Larkin ’24, the current director and former producer of the Red Hot Poker sketch comedy group, said that many of their recent productions — now, mostly YouTube videos — have embraced not only the recorded format, but the humor in the real-world crisis. “What we found early on in the pandemic is that we can’t just replicate our normal content and expect it to translate. We have to really capitalize on the strength of the medium, so we do a lot of content exploring what’s funny and absurd about Zoom and the peculiarities of life during COVID,” she elaborated.
The comedy group isn’t the only organization that’s turned to the power of internet video for a COVID-safe creative-outlet. At the end of each semester, Taps, the 25-year-old organization committed to celebrating and performing tap dance, usually hosts a pun-themed showcase of the student-choreographed pieces — previous themes include “Tap-italism,” “Tapitally Ever After” and, my personal favorite, “Cirque du Tap.” As the capstone for the fall 2020 semester, the group filmed “Blue World.” Recorded entirely outdoors with dancers on strategically distanced tapboards, the dynamic camerawork and always-changing locations bring a new flavor to tap dancing as I knew it. “It was such a cool way of using a new medium: dance on film. I had to think about choreographing the piece in a different way, because obviously viewing dance from a stage versus a camera is completely different, so it was a really cool experience for me and the dancers,” Gabrielle Niederhoffer ’23, the co-president of Taps, recounted about the experience.
Unwilling to be limited by their pre-COVID selves, some performance groups have actually begun entirely new initiatives that would have been impossible pre-pandemic when club resources would have been spent on traditional, in-person projects. Out of all the performance groups that I was able to speak to, the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective was leading the charge in this regard. Different from the other music-based groups that I spoke to, the YUJC is not a performance-centered group, but aims to “cultivate a jazz scene at Yale,” said Jason Altshuler ’23, the president of the organization. Aware that the likelihood of hosting guest jazz musicians for a campus event — usually, the most substantial part of the YUJC’s offerings — would be unlikely for the fall 2020 semester, Altshuler recalled wondering, “How can we make sure people still feel a part of this community?”
Many brainstorms and board meetings later, the group arrived at the two completely original initiatives that have been actualized since the beginning of the fall semester: “The Turnaround” publication and a subsidized lessons program. With the focus of “showcasing the jazz community on campus and in New Haven,” the first issue of “The Turnaround” was released in September of 2020 and was completely produced internally, and showcased the graphic design and writing abilities of already-established YUJC members. “It just seemed like a great way to sort of bring people in from the fringes that would not be not be feeling like a part of the community this year,” Altshuler said, “And so we just did it.” The YUJC’s second approach to engaging the community came in the form of its lessons programs; using the funds that would have usually gone to paying artists for performances, the organization decided to retool those funds to pay the same artists for five free jazz lessons for participating Yale students. Altshuler noted that the idea for a lessons program has always been in the back of the organization’s mind, and he considered it a good way to eliminate barriers for Yalies who want to get into jazz. For all of this year’s success, Altshuler said that he cannot definitively guarantee the longevity of either program, but he remains optimistic: “Hopefully, we’ll be in a place in the coming semesters to where we will be able to not only continue the program but perfect, improve, and expand it.”
While the pandemic has forced the postponement of many 2020 plans, the one thing that was thankfully unhindered was the 59th presidential election. Mirroring the nature of politics, the political organizations that Yale have been similarly unrelenting.
The Yale Political Union, an organization made up of a variety of political parties, was forced to virtually reimagine the core of their organization’s purpose: communitywide debates. Instead of gathering in the auditorium with every party filling in their long-established positions, YPU members populate Zoom to participate. Ali Brown ’24, the current treasurer of the organization, laments the absence of YPU’s tradition of audience engagement. “If you hear something you like in a speech you tap the desk or literally hiss if you hear something you don’t like,” she described. These rituals, being impossible over Zoom without causing bandwidth-related issues, have been relegated to typing the tap or hiss in the chat. Unsatisfying, to say the least.
While YPU members are counting down the days until they can tap and hiss in person again, Emma Knight ’23, the current president of the YPU, expressed her optimism on continuing to embrace the accessibility of the virtual platform. Knight mentioned that the organization is able to host a great number and diversity of guest speakers. “Coming up, we have Noam Chomsky coming in the middle of the semester who is over 90 years old, who probably wouldn’t be joining us in person during the pandemic,” Knight highlighted. This wider diversity extends internationally, with Rory Stewart, a member of the U.K. parliament and a senior fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute, also being on the slate of guest speakers. Brown, the treasurer, mentions that her role this semester is pretty “simple” since she no longer has to arrange compensation for guest speakers’ travel arrangements. Both officers hope that even after the pandemic recedes, hosting online speakers will remain a staple of YPU activities.
When asked about the challenges of this year, Knight said, “One thing we’ve all been struggling with is our Constitution, which basically defines everything as you must be physically present in the room for it to count as a presence in a meeting.” Going forward she said, “We want to make sure that future generations, if we were to have some kind of crisis where we’re not on all on campus or we’re not physically in the same place, would have some kind of framework of how things should go.” At the very least, Knight hopes to document the experiences of the past year to the YPU’s extensive historical archives.
The Yale College Democrats, a more activism-focused political group, faced different challenges in the pandemic. To fulfill their mission of mobilizing students for the Democratic Party in elections, the Dems have shifted their attention to expanding channels of communication and outreach. “We have revamped our social media presence (@yaledems), restructured our website, and began a podcast over the summer in which we interview alumni and brief members about our elections, legislative, city engagement, and voter engagement work in the upcoming semester,” wrote Grace Whittington ’22, the current president of the organization, in an email to the News.
Interestingly, in some aspects, the pandemic has actually allowed the Dems to be more active. “Because the [Connecticut General Assembly] is in Hartford, we have historically not been able to give oral testimony on many of the bills we work on in a semester. In this upcoming session we will be working on 34 different bills, and have a much better chance at testifying verbally because the session is entirely virtual,” wrote Whittington. And like the YPU, Yale Dems has found the virtual setting hospitable for hosting usually inaccessible guest speakers. “Just this week, we had a conversation with Congresswoman Katie Porter, who might not have been able to get to New Haven from California or D.C. but was able to engage with members over Zoom,” elaborated Katie Taylor ’24, the organization’s communications director.
Despite being limited to virtual campaigning for the 2020 election cycle, Whittington takes pride in the impact that the organization has had in the past three virtual semesters: “Our members have worked hard to get progressive candidates elected to local and federal office and advocate for just COVID-19 responses on the issues of health care, equitable housing, workers’ rights, and criminal justice reform.”
Business and Professional Groups
For Yale Undergraduate Diversified Investments, the greatest change of the pandemic has been the increase in its accessibility, says Tiffany Liao ’22, the co-president of the finance education organization. “The curriculum itself hasn’t changed. We’re still going through the same exact stuff but what has changed is the mode of the way that we run them,” she explained in reference to their new presence on Zoom. Liao called into our interview from Taiwan, where she has been hosting classes on investment and private equity for almost a year. Beyond the usual communication challenges, Liao hasn’t felt that pandemic restrictions have been particularly limiting for YUDI. “It just goes to show how much technology has grown and how much these tools that we have, have improved,” she said.
Along similar lines, Mia Haraguchi ’22, the president of Y-BioIncubate — a recently founded club that aims to prepare students for biology-facing careers — mentioned that the organization plans on continuing to host Zoom events even after pandemic. “It’s been helpful, especially for the career development workshops we’ve hosted where people can share their screen and it’s pretty easy to give people a rundown or for the presenter to give students a rundown of virtual resources,” Haraguchi remarked. She did note, however, that an entirely online curriculum seems unsustainable. “I think we are seeing some fatigue, to some extent,” she answered when asked about attendance. “Last semester, the average attendance was probably around 10 students per speaker event, which is pretty good, but I think we are seeing people feeling reluctant to attend events in the evening after a full day of Zoom classes.”
Leaders of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society expressed uncertainty about returning to the pre-pandemic norms. “Entrepreneurship is all about collaboration and having a place to rally amazing minds across the country to do thought shares is just really important and now we’re at a place to finally be able to actually take lead in that,” Brihu Sundararaman ’23, the president of YES, explained. By partnering with other entrepreneurial organizations across 11 different campuses, YES is in the planning stages of a virtual pitch competition. Not limiting collaboration to just peers, YES has connected college students with more than 100 remote internships last fall. They’ve recently released their internship catalog for the spring and summer 2021 internship cycle and encourages all students to apply.
Sundararaman attributes this ease of collaboration across vast distances to increased familiarization of communication technologies due to the pandemic. “I think a lot of the stuff that we’ve been able to do is enabled by everyone literally being comfortable with Zoom and just being like, ‘Hey, can we grab a Zoom?’ and you send a calendar invite with the Zoom link and it’s literally that easy,” he said.
The latest addition to the entrepreneurial society, the YES Startup Incubator, was actually born amid the pandemic. After pondering the idea for unifying the startup scene at Yale, “We revived it because we have the infrastructure and the means through YES to sort of kick this off,” said Clark Klitenic ’24, the lead for YES Startup Incubator. With a community of over 25 student-driven startups in various stages of development, Klitenic and his team of incubator curators strive to find and provide relevant resources for their startup community. “The ability to connect people and, at the end of the day, getting the right people in the right Zoom at the right time is really what this whole thing is about,” Klitenic explained. He also noted that the pandemic has created a unique opportunity — with its gap semesters and online classes — to establish time-intensive groundwork for a community like this one.
If there’s one thing that nearly all Yale students do, it’s read. So naturally, evidenced by the quantity and diversity of publications, a lot of Yalies like to write. And if the pandemic isn’t going to stop us from reading, it definitely isn’t going to stop us from writing.
At least that’s the unofficial motto at our very own Yale Daily News, where writers from every desk continue to create content from our separate locations. When the pandemic is over, the YDN building will be my immediate next stop after the AACC building. When asked what aspects of the COVID-era YDN she anticipated would stick around post-pandemic, Mackenzie Hawkins ’23 — our editor-in-chief — responded in email, “COVID-19 accelerated our transition to a digital-first approach to journalism that integrates multimedia content into our daily reporting. I anticipate and hope that our focus on new audio and visual elements will outlast the pandemic as we find new ways to engage with our audience on a variety of platforms.”
This reshifted focus on digital mediums isn’t exclusive to the oldest college daily — during an interview with both editors-in-chief for the Yale Review of International Studies, Tyler Jager ’23 and Numi Katz ’22, mentioned shifting resources away from YRIS’ traditional, quarterly-printed magazine. “We realized that our multimedia offerings could be expanded more since people were paying attention to that,” Jager explained. “Since those were directions we wanted to move into anyway and we figured since we have less we can do with print, we … might as well expand online.” Also understanding that community-building within the organization would be hindered by the virtual format of the meetings, the organization has doubled down on its emphasis grouping people into small teams under subject-focused desks. “YRIS has always been a very coherent social group for me and when we moved online there was no waiting in the halls of [William L. Harkness Hall], getting to chat with people and getting to know people in a low stakes way,” Katz said. “And so the desk system became a very obvious way to create smaller settings for YRIS and for staff writers to get to know other staff writers, desk heads and editors.”
Differentiating itself from the other organizations in this piece, my interview with The Yale Record began immediately with a surprisingly prudent announcement of the magazine’s singular purpose for the pandemic: survive. “Our extracurricular in general has changed from more of a like, ‘Oh, this is fun, we love it’ to more like ‘We just got to power through this and then we can go back to being that fun thing we once were,’” confessed Harry Rubin ’22, the chair of the country’s oldest humor magazine. Considering that Rubin spent most of our interview reminiscing about traditional Record events, it’s safe to assume that not a lot of the COVID-born adaptations will be sticking around. But like many other student organizations, Rubin does acknowledge the potential of Zoom to host special guests — one of the most recent Record speakers was Joel McHale of the NBC sitcom “Community.”
Some student groups strive to make an impact on the community outside of Yale, and sometimes, even beyond New Haven.
One of the groups with the farthest-reaching impact — measured in actual distance — that I spoke to was the Yale Model United Nations. Every year, YMUN usually hosts over 1,500 high school students from around the world who participate in multi-day reenactments of various transnational organizations. A large part of the experience is based on the fact that the event is set on the Yale campus, explained Claire Calkins ’22, who served as secretary-general of the organization’s latest conference in January 2021. “Yes, we’re a conference, but we also represent the University as a whole and students who come to YMUN often are inspired by the Yalies they interact with and later on come to Yale as students,” said Calkins.
This year, the conference was hosted entirely virtually, but the YMUN team got creative with a format that they hoped would be more engaging than a series of Zoom links. By partnering with Classrooms.Cloud, the conference was able to build its own unique platform to host more than 1,700 high school students. “We were able to give the opportunity to experience Yale to students from around the world,” said Calkins, “And a lot of students who could have never come to Yale were able to actually attend and that was crazy.”
Cameron Janssens ’24, the director of Committees, admitted that the 47th Model UN conference went better than he could have imagined, but for all its success, he is hesitant to organize another virtual event once pandemic restrictions are lifted. “I think, given COVID, this was a great response and I think we learned a lot from it, but I personally don’t have any interest in running another virtual conference if an in-person conference is possible,” he maintained. If demand for a virtual conference remains high, Janssens proposed a new branch of YIRA should be established to independently manage the virtual conference — similar to YMUN Korea and YMUN Taiwan.
Closer to campus, Dwight Hall’s launched a new initiative called the Homework Hotline to directly support low-income students in New Haven who are attending virtual school. Through a system of Google Meet links, Rachel Pontious ’24 — the HW Hotline coordinator — and a squadron of Yalie volunteers assist students one-on-one, for two hours a day, from Monday through Thursday. Even though the program was a direct response to COVID-19, Pontious is optimistic that the program will continue after the pandemic. “We haven’t talked about it that much but I’ve had some small discussions about the future of it with people from New Haven Public Schools and everyone’s just basically like, ‘Why not keep it going, kids are going to need homework help, even if they’re going to school in person,’” Pontious reasons.
Code Haven is another Yale group that works with local students to broaden access to computer science in the New Haven area. Usually, the students in the group go directly into NHPS classrooms every week to teach lessons on computer science to elementary and middle school students. But with this being impossible and with no plans to return to the classroom if NHPS returns to in-person classes this school year, Code Haven has created an online curriculum. A large part of this effort lies with the expansion of the video team that generates content for the virtualized curriculum. “We have a YouTube channel now and we’re uploading videos and trying to transfer what we would teach online to the virtual setting asynchronously which I think has been a really big change,” said Eden Gorevoy ’24, the co-president of Code Haven. She anticipates that the newfound emphasis on video production will outlast the pandemic because of its potential to recruit Yale mentors and students.
Another COVID-19-era change that Gorevoy thinks could possibly stick around is the virtualization of “Teach Tech.” Usually one of Code Haven’s biggest events, Teach Tech is an educator-focused conference that gathers teachers across the New England area at Yale to talk about teaching techniques specific to CS education. “We did that online this year, obviously, and were able to kind of reach a wider scope of teachers, and I think there’s a lot of potential for reaching more teachers that way, so I do think that is something that we are not going to immediately write off,” Gorevoy explains.
While administrators anticipate the return of all students to campus for the fall 2021 semester, it remains unclear how strict general COVID-19 restrictions will be and remains even more unclear how student organizations will be affected. Despite the severity of this year’s guidelines, there wasn’t a single student that I spoke to that expressed anything less than absolute pride in their organization’s accomplishments. So no matter how strict next year’s guidelines may be, I hope this article will endure as evidence of our individual dedications to our organizations.
Chanwook Park | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Mar. 26: A previous version of this story misspelled Altshuler’s last name on two occasions. The story has been updated with correct spellings.