It seems like even though the worst of COVID-19 is past us and we aren’t dealing with the heavy restrictions that we were last year, student engagement still isn’t looking so great. Having seen how engaged my living community, Hinman College, was my freshman year, it’s been so hard not to compare my work as a student leader to the work of those in 2019. Back then, there was so much going on — just in the first few days, we had a game night in the main lounge, an ice cream social and a crazy, fun, incredible gathering of seemingly everyone who happened to have stepped foot in Hinman for the year where all the resident assistants (RAs) and professional staff introduced themselves and had us do building chants. I keep thinking, “They were so damn good at that, what’s wrong with us?”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m impressed with all that those in my community have accomplished this year despite all the challenges. I’ve seen my share of some super lively events, too. It’s just impossible not to compare these two realities, especially when it seems like so much is already back to normal. Unlike last year, we can actually get people together for really fun activities. It feels so difficult now, though, to engage students like we used to. The truth is the world is fundamentally different now. I don’t think it’s just because of the discomfort COVID-19 has caused about gathering in person with others, or even remaining restrictions like having to wear masks or the number of other things we’ve gotten so used to. Though, these things certainly play a role. I think a lot of it boils down to the fact that we are fundamentally starting over. All the time.
Restarting years upon years of tradition is tiring after the momentum has been broken. There’s research to back this up. James Clear, bestselling author of the book “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones,” discusses a study where participants were asked to track exercise. What made them most likely to be successful in exercising was making a concrete plan for how they would do it. He writes, “The researchers discovered that what pulls that desire out of you and turns it into real-world action isn’t your level of motivation, but rather your plan for implementation.” In Hinman College, we used to have plans upon plans for how to make things happen without even needing to spend that much time thinking about it. It just took less mental energy to make things happen. Now, there’s almost nothing to look to when thinking of how to make ideas come to life. Sure, we all know what fun events look like, and we’re motivated to make them happen. But the years of doing things a certain way and then learning from those experiences as a community just aren’t there. It’s exhausting trying to get the same results we used to get in previous years for community events. For Hinman College, this means that this is the first time in 54 years we aren’t building upon the previous year of traditions. It feels like we’re starting from square one.
This can apply to anyone who is trying to engage students now. The Hinman College Council is a great example. When we would have our annual Dorm Wars before, so much of the community would be involved. This year, my building had to forfeit several events due to the lack of people we had, and it wasn’t just us. One could ask why the events weren’t promoted better, or why they didn’t start earlier. I think those are easy questions to ask, but they also reveal uncomfortable truths if we really think about them. Having met the E-Board, they all seem so hardworking and caring. Having been on the E-Board the previous year, I don’t see any less initiative and passion in them than we had before. But what can you really do if it took months longer than usual to elect a full E-Board and start the usual planning? What do you do if in-person Dorm Wars didn’t happen the year before? If most of the people who made it happen the year before that are not around, or have moved on from Hinman College? Last year, we definitely kept up many of these Hinman College traditions, but the events we were able to make happen in last year’s digital world are almost nothing like the in-person version of these traditions we are trying to make happen now. We can try to help, but the world last year compared to now is so different. There are so many pieces to pick up.
The simplest things now feel like rebuilding rather than repeating. Novelty has its benefits but is tiring when constant. Another factor here is that people who did what we’re trying to do now would usually be right around us — people like the sophomores who loved Dorm Wars and getting all the freshmen on their floors to participate so they could win first place, or student leaders who knew how to build community beginning from move-in. Now, who do we have? We juniors and seniors saw what life was like here pre-COVID-19, but most weren’t in leadership positions during it where we can serve as effective mentors now.
I hear people all the time saying that Hinman College is doing great despite everything, and I don’t disagree. It’s really impressive to still see so many successful events and the vibrancy I knew this community for returning slowly. At the same time, I don’t think we need to sugarcoat it — this is a really damn hard year. I think recognizing where the difficulty is coming from is a crucial step, and this goes for anyone who is trying to get whatever sphere of work they’re involved in back up and running.
I’ve heard it said a lot of times after an event that didn’t get that many people: “Why didn’t they just advertise better?” or something like, “Why didn’t they focus on this instead? We would’ve loved it to be that way so much more.” It’s almost inevitable, though, for these shortcomings to happen, and it’s these conversations after the fact that will make the next project and the next year of engagement so much better. As former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan put it, “We’re building the ship as we sail it.”
I think in such a messy, complex situation like the one we’re in, where we’ve all gone through experiences that we wouldn’t have even been able to imagine two years ago, we need to stay curious about why the trends we see happening around us are occurring. I think we need to look past obvious answers — those that place the responsibility on the individuals doing the difficult work of attempting to restart our communities and make them as lively as they once were — and instead look to the unique, powerful, difficult-to-comprehend social conditions around us. I bet, as the years go on, we will reestablish the momentum we once had if we understand with one another along the way and keep doing the work we are doing, one sparsely attended event after another.
Max Kurant is a junior with an individualized major in social systems science.