Building Community on a Socially Distant Campus with Student Activities


Courtesy of Dustin Franz

The Program Board screened Black Panther for students in Bailey Field.

The Student Union, Program Board, the ՚Sco, and other student organizations have taken on the monumental challenge of fostering community in a time of separation. By collaborating in new ways, students involved with these organizations have come up with innovative ideas. As a member of the Program Board, I’ve experienced firsthand the time and effort being put into building community on campus.

The guidelines governing student safety must be at the forefront of our minds when planning activities, which precludes us from many of our customary events. Any event we put on must have a limited capacity and enforce physical distancing requirements. But we’ve found that these constraints inspire our creativity. Without traditional avenues for activity-planning, many surprising new collaborations have arisen. 

Take Program Board’s outdoor movie series, for example, which takes place at Bailey Field. 

“The A/V department [loaned] us their mega-projector, and that would never have happened in the past,” said Tina Zwegat, associate director of the Student Union and director of orientation and student activities. “Showing the film in the football field would have been unheard of at any other point in time. … Departments are working together more [now] than in the history of my 30 years.” 

I joined the Program Board because I loved the events they put on during the first semester of my freshman year, like the apple-picking trip, bus trips to Playhouse Square, and Wilder Halloween. These were opportunities that everyone could participate in, and when I was still making my first connections, they allowed me to explore Oberlin, try new things, and meet new people. 

In my opinion, nothing brings people together like a good story. Watching movies is an experience that allows you to completely tune in and forget the worries of the world around you. We wanted to give this all-consuming experience to current students, especially since the real world is so stressful at present. So far, the student response to the outdoor movie series has been positive. 

“Watching a movie outside on a big screen is a totally different experience than sitting inside in front of a laptop, something we’ve all been spending a lot of time doing these days,” College second-year Sofia Herron-Geller said. “It lets you be fully immersed in, say, Cher’s Valley party or The Breakfast Club’s confession circle.” 

I’m glad that these events can offer a space to decompress and, if nothing else, break up the monotony of Zoom calls as we reach the middle of the semester. I hope that other students share these sentiments and continue to engage with our programming this fall. 

So far, the in-person events have been largely successful. These events include the outdoor movie series, livestreams of the presidential debates, and TGIFs in Wilder Bowl. At each of these programs, students remain physically distant and wear masks, but I feel that an atmosphere of camaraderie can still fill the air. 

As much as we feel the need and desire for in-person events, safety requires that the majority of events go virtual, and the list of online programs continues to grow. Remote programs have included trivia, bingo, board game nights, and the Date my Friend PowerPoint event, which had a successful turnout this last Friday evening. All of these streaming events have been made possible by the Student Finance Committee, who have really stepped up to support the new event formats. 

Looking forward, there are many events that we’re excited to share, including dramatic readings of student-written plays touching on the Black Lives Matter movement, an OSteel performance streamed from Finney Chapel, and slam poetry streamed from the Cat in the Cream. Even more, we are looking to offer many of the more popular events such as Drag Ball and Colors of Rhythm in an online format, so stay tuned for future developments.

The Ohio winter will soon settle in, and Student Activities will need to innovate once more. Our goal is to take advantage of the opportunities we’re given — not to focus on the limitations. So far we’ve discussed bonfires, ice sculpture viewings, and a more socially distant take on Winter Wonderland. 

At the end of the day, all of us — the Program Board, the Student Union, and student organizations — share the same goal: to offer community through engaging programming for students. The Oberlin community hasn’t faded away; it’s just evolved to take on new, possibly unfamiliar forms. I believe in the strength of this community, and it is my hope that by innovating and collaborating in new ways, Student Activities can continue to create impactful experiences for students that bring us closer in spirit. 

Even with the uncertainties that lie ahead, you can be sure that Student Activities is doing its best to create engaging events that bring energy to campus life. If you have any ideas, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Student Union. Your ideas are what keep this community strong.