Clubs nourish community

Club heads get creative to offer students a sense of connection during pandemic.

Sarah Pruitt ‘95
December 8, 2020

Members of Dramat took advantage of open-air tents on South Campus to gather for performances throughout fall term.

Ever since her prep year at Exeter, Maggie Wainwright ‘21 has relied on Dramat, the school’s student-run theater group, to provide her with not only a creative outlet, but a strong sense of community. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and she and her fellow Dramat members dispersed to their respective homes for the all-virtual spring term, Wainwright saw that community come together again in a new way.

“As soon as we went online, club members jumped in with creative ideas and ways to connect,” Wainwright says. Dramat held two performances over Zoom during the spring, along with a virtual awards show on Instagram, complete with fake golden trophies mailed to the student actors, directors, designers, and techies that had made those performances possible.

In the fall, most students returned to campus, but classes stayed virtual, and social distancing, mask-wearing, and restrictions on in-person gatherings remained in place. Faced with these challenges, Dramat and other clubs — along with affinity groups like the Afro-Latinx Exonian Society (ALES) and Asian Voices — again got creative in order to keep a vital sense of community alive for Exeter’s students.

You can’t say ‘oh, I'll bump into you on my way to class, or on the way to the dining hall.' That kind of spontaneity doesn't really exist on campus anymore.”
Nahla '21

The club heads have been aided in their efforts by the Student Activities Office, which worked hard to ensure that clubs could continue operations despite the ongoing pandemic-related restrictions. “This year we’re taking a more proactive approach to make sure that our clubs are accessible to all students, whether remote or in person,” says Joanne Lembo, Director of Student Activities. 

That nimbleness and creativity will carry into winter term, with the community once again scattered around the country and globe until mid-February. After setting a mandatory schedule for club and affinity group meetings in the fall, Lembo plans to ensure that scheduled club meeting times are in time zones that work for all club members, including international students. “We realized this fall it was not perfect for our remote students, especially when Daylight Savings Time hit,” she says. “We’re looking to make it better in the winter.”

A virtual conference

“In a typical year, we spend a lot of time preparing for conferences, which are held on college campuses,” says Nahla Owens ‘21, co-president of Model United Nations, another popular club. “But because of COVID-19, it was difficult for us to even think about leaving campus or bringing people to campus.”

The club usually hosts its own Model UN conference at Exeter, inviting about 500 students from schools around the country. In March 2020, Owens and her four co-presidents started planning to have their annual conference go virtual. Held over a weekend in early November, Exeter’s one-day online Model UN conference, PEAMUN XII, hosted delegates from all over North America. Each delegate paid just $5 to participate, and all the admissions proceeds went to charities chosen by Owens and her co-president, Noah James ‘21.

“We wanted to use the opportunity to be as non sibi a club as we could possibly be, and raise money for causes that we cared about while also bringing people into the fold that may not have had the opportunity to attend a Model UN conference before,” Owens says. 

Along with the virtual conference expanding its reach, it also allowed for a star speaker it might not otherwise have drawn: Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power delivered the keynote address, donating her time after a correspondence with James.

Samantha Power and Noah James

Avoiding “Zoom fatigue”

As a leader of both Mock Trial and Democratic Club, as well as Dramat, Wainwright has enjoyed the community provided through both virtual and in-person meetings. In the fall, she and her fellow club heads petitioned Student Activities to allow them to hold in-person auditions and rehearsals, a process that Lembo says was open to any dorm, class, club, or other group that wanted to meet in person. By November, Dramat had staged several student-run productions, performing under a large tent set up near The David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Theater and Dance.

While meetings of both ALES and Asian Voices, an Asian student affinity group, have in the past centered around discussion, simply moving that discussion online wasn’t enough, given that most students are spending much of their day in virtual classrooms already. “Convincing people to spend another hour of their day being on Zoom is really hard,” says Owens, who is also president of ALES and co-president of Democratic Club. 

It ties me back in with the Exeter community so I’m not just this washed-out senior. It’s nice being able to connect in that way.”
JaQ '21

“Zoom fatigue” is real, agrees JaQ Lai ‘21, who leads Asian Voices. With the arrival of the pandemic, his group shifted its structure from a straightforward biweekly discussion to a rotating split between discussion and other community-building virtual activities, such as watching movies together or playing online web games.

For Halloween, ALES partnered with Asian Voices to host a “Spooky Stories Night.” Courtney Marshall, an instructor in English, read short horror stories written by authors of color on Zoom, and her readings were projected into a space at Grainger Auditorium. Students attending in person enjoyed socially distanced snacks of apple cider and cider doughnuts, while remote students were able to attend the reading virtually.

Club Night reimagined

Signing up new members also took on a new format this year. Normally, the fall Club Night has been so popular that it’s been held in one of the hockey rinks, Lembo says. This year, instead of an in-person event, she created a page on ExeterConnect, gave each club a dedicated email address, and asked all club heads to create up-to-one-minute-long videos to promote their clubs.

On the first-ever Virtual Club Night in September, each club hosted its own Zoom meeting where interested students could get more information. The night was a success, with the sign-up page getting some 2,000 views, according to the Exonian.

Owens, Wainwright and Lai agree that clubs have been able to provide a sense of an all-important community, given that COVID-19 has limited the everyday social interactions that students used to take for granted. “You can’t say ‘oh, I'll bump into you on my way to class, or on the way to the dining hall,’” says Owens. “That kind of spontaneity doesn't really exist on campus anymore.”

At such an anxious and unsettled time, club meetings — whether virtual or in person — have given new students opportunities to meet people with common interests. Clubs are also the rare spaces where students from all grade levels and dorms can interact. This fall, Lai moved into the new all-upperclassmen dormitory in the Exeter Inn, and has relied on clubs for the chance to mix with younger students. “It ties me back in with the Exeter community so I’m not just this washed-out senior,” he says. “It’s nice being able to connect in that way.”