UI student organizations adapt to COVID-19, off-campus format

After campus closed due to community spread of COVID-19 in March, student organizations at the University of Iowa are adapting to virtual communication with the goal of keeping the Hawkeye community alive and engaged amid the global pandemic.


Chris Kalous

Kate Berlant performs during the CAB comedy show on Sunday, April 29, 2018 at the IMU.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Reporter

The university-wide move to a digital format canceled events and pushed all meetings online for student organizations, but members and leaders are finding ways to stay connected and plan for the fall semester.

The UI Undergraduate Student Government and Graduate and Professional Student Government both had to discover how to best support the students they serve from home, rather than on campus. In-person meetings had to be canceled and legislation passed virtually.

USG President Noel Mills said in an email to The Daily Iowan that initially USG focused on protecting students in this unprecedented time through the Student Emergency Fund — a resource several students in financial distress have utilized since the outbreak of COVID-19.

The fund, said GPSG President Dexter Golinghorst, was designed to provide microgrants to students in times of emergency or financial hardships. The fund goes on a case-by-case basis for the funds it gives to individual students, with the average funds ranging from $50 to $350.

Mills said USG immediately moved funds from its contingency and Student Auditing Budgeting and Allocations Committee to the emergency fund to help more students. The organization passed legislation virtually to allow executives to move unused operational funds to the Emergency Support Fund April 1.

Both of these decisions, Mills said, were the best way to create some financial security for students in a time of need.

“This fund is important for the students we serve because many of them are losing [the] income they rely on to pay their bills,” she said. “With income stripped away, they may be in need of a ‘hand up’ to get through this time.”

Related: COVID-19 knocks freshman year off course for University of Iowa students

Golinghorst said in an email to the DI that GPSG also transferred funds to the Emergency Support Fund, working in tandem with the undergraduate branch of UI student governments.

“GPSG has run on a tight budget the past two years, so I am looking at ways we can creatively increase allocations to the fund should it become necessary,” he said. “[President Mills] and I created a process by which student organizations who are now unable to use their funds can make the decision to transfer them to the emergency fund to help other students. This fund is critical to help support our students who have been hit the hardest by the abrupt changes caused by COVID-19.”

Some student organizations are focusing specifically on what they can do to keep students engaged when they can’t attend events — a struggle the Campus Activity Board is beginning to solve.

Related: How the UI moved to virtual instruction in a matter of weeks

In an email to the DI, CAB Executive Director Lillie Ahlgren said her organization is focusing on having weekly virtual events from trivia nights to cooking demonstrations, where they include a reminder of all the resources the UI is currently offering to students.

“We are finding new ways to connect with the campus community through virtual programming, and hope to continue providing free, enjoyable, and inclusive events,” she said. “We are striving to take advantage of any way that we can ensure students know the university and CAB is here for them … and want them to continue to enjoy their Iowa experience, even remotely.”

Ahlgren said they are shifting previous executing and marketing funds to their virtual programs, which has allowed there to be a steady flow of new ideas for events and experiences.

CAB isn’t the only organization that is focusing on keeping students engaged this semester. In an email to the DI, Fraternity and Sorority Life Programs Coordinator Meghan Bullard said FSL is trying to support every chapter with community engagement and questions that they have.

“Fraternity and Sorority Life is working to continue to support our students and adapt to these consistently changing times,” she said. “Much of our work, including advocating for and supporting students, is continuing in a virtual format and we are continuing to advocate for students as much as possible.”

Bullard said FSL’s current focus is to keep the larger community engaged and ready to start fresh when it returns to campus.

Other organizations, however, are focusing heavily on the future. UI Dance Marathon, one of the biggest student organizations on campus, is focused on maintaining student interaction as its leadership plans for DM27 next spring, said Public Relations Director Maddie Huntley in an email to the DI.

Huntley said the organization is also trying to find creative ways to support and connect with the kids and families it serves while social distancing.

“We are going to do the best we can to keep things as normal as possible,” she said. “It is important to be aware of the world around us, and as we fulfill our mission, we hope to support our health care providers and community through this time.”

Huntley said her organization is still planning for its Big Event next February. As members of next year’s leadership for DM settle into their positions, she said, they are using virtual programs to ensure success.

Student organizations are adapting every day to news about the COVID-19 outbreak and focusing on how they can best serve their members and the campus community, said the Student Engagement and Campus Programs Coordinator for and advisor to CAB Shelley Hartman in an email to the DI.

“The hardest part of moving online is that it is so new to us,” she said. “Our approach is day by day to make sure we’re not putting ourselves ahead of what is to come. We believe having …virtual events may be a great option continuing once we are back on campus as another form of options for events.”

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