For more than a decade, the Student Involvement Fair has been the place where Johns Hopkins students discover and join the more than 300 social, gaming, volunteer, and cultural organizations that the university has to offer. This year, instead of navigating the crowded aisles of the O'Connor Rec Center, students will log on to the university's first-ever virtual fair, held remotely Thursday through Saturday.
Carolyn Harris, associate director of student leadership and involvement at the university, said that more than 1,000 students are expected to participate in the virtual involvement fair. With the help of a new platform called Hopkins Groups, students can search for clubs and groups based on their interests. Each club's Hopkins Groups page features text chats with the club's leaders, videos and photos of their events, an opportunity to ask questions through video chat, and a place to sign up for more information.
According to Nikki Trivedi, president of South Asian Students at Hopkins, clubs are going to be a vital part of the university social scene for incoming first-year students who won't have opportunities for in-person connections this fall as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. All Hopkins classes are being conducted remotely this semester, and only a small number of students have received special permission to live on campus. To make sure they feel involved and welcome in an unusual semester, Trivedi said SASH has created a new Freshmen Outreach position on its board for 2020.
"We've also set up a freshman welcome week, where we ask freshmen what they want to see from our organization," Trivedi said. "This is going to be a hard year for them, and we want to make sure the transition goes as smoothly as possible."
During the fair, students can converse with SASH members via Zoom and learn a little about the group's planned programming for the year. Because many of the club's events consist of small discussion groups, Trivedi said the transition to digital planning has been fairly simple. For larger events, like dances or cultural celebrations, they plan to leverage social media trends and viral challenges to try to recreate the feeling of camaraderie they would have if they were together on campus.
Similarly, Mishel Malik and the sisters of the Hopkins multicultural sorority Delta Xi Phi have been considering ways to transform the group's most popular outings and celebrations into virtual events. Ideas include live-streamed cooking classes, multicultural presentations, and remote volunteer opportunities.
Malik said this is an important year for recruitment, with many of the sorority's members graduating at the end of the academic year.
"We're just finding new methods to reach out to people online, whether it's just following them, sending nice personal messages, or becoming their friend before you invite them to your club," Malik said.
Those looking for a brief break from the fair's festivities—or anyone who would prefer to spend time blasting Pikachu into the stratosphere—can stop by the Smash@JHU digital booth, where the competitive video-gaming club will host live Super Smash Bros. matches.
Since its founding, Smash@JHU has been an in-person club, with players facing off literally face-to-face in the game. Over the summer, though, club president Ryan O'Connor says the group began experimenting with online play coupled with video feeds to recreate the club's communal atmosphere—and to facilitate some well-timed trash talk. This semester, the group plans to host weekly online tournaments and stream the results on their website for those who want to watch along.
The group's discord server, initially set up to help players find matches and partners, has grown into a larger social space for the club. Though these changes have been implemented out of necessity for a remote semester, O'Connor says he hopes some of them become permanent additions to the way the group is run.
"This has opened a lot of interesting avenues for us," O'Connor said. "A lot of the students who come to our events are alumni, and we've started hosting competitions against other Maryland schools, so now undergrads can interact with people across the entire world that might not be able to make it to campus."
According to Harris, the digital fair may become a permanent fixture, continuing to supplement the in-person experience after students return to campus.
"No matter what the semester looks like, the Student Involvement Fair is a way for students to really get engaged with the campus community," Harris said. "This is how our students build friendships, develop their skills, and find their interests. If that has to be done in a virtual space, that's how it's going to be done."