Reimagining the Purpose of Clubs during the Pandemic

Undoubtedly the pandemic has changed Swarthmore campus life in an academic, social, and cultural setting. We all know classes are going online and people will be chatting over Zoom or meeting socially distanced to fill some of the void, but how is Swarthmore culture doing? I would argue that what fills and defines the culture of Swarthmore is the various clubs and organizations into which the students channel effort and time such as arts performances, LARPs, newspapers, teaching, and activism. But due to COVID-19, most Swarthmore organizations are facing an existential crisis as normal culminating events, socials, and performances are impossible. Now whatever else these groups decide to do in the interim, I want to argue that across all of Swarthmore, clubs should make sure they are fulfilling at least one role: to introduce first years to Swarthmore’s club culture.

 I’ve found myself in leadership positions in various arts groups on campus, and in past years we’ve been focused on putting on full productions and events for our members and the greater community. The question inside our groups has been what we should do rather than pausing until things reset back to normal, but I always stressed in meetings that we should look past outcomes and think about community.

As stated before, the role of arts clubs is easily reduced to the end goals such as plays, performances, or gallery events at the end of every semester, but clubs also fulfill another role as creators of communities that allow students to follow their individual passions. It is a given at Swarthmore that clubs are tightly knit enough that the social groups become cultures in and of themselves, like with the ultimate frisbee teams or Psi Phi, which have been as important to many, as, say, hall or academic life. 

Clubs also have the special purpose at Swarthmore of building relationships between class years, as clubs don’t have prerequisites or a linear departmental structure. This, in turn, allows students of any level to join. Having a structure that allows for different class years to mingle has been a boon at Swarthmore and has been successful in the past for tying all classes together under a unified Swarthmore culture. 

But now there is a disconnect; due to Swarthmore’s COVID-19 plan, first years, sophomores, and a few scattered juniors and seniors are the only folks on campus while upperclassman leadership  operates clubs from home. There is a very physical divide from the previous system, which means that there are now very few ways for underclassmen to meet upperclassmen and vice versa.

Since arts clubs will not have the opportunity to perform their normal functions, it’s only logical for them to maintain presence by focusing on holding meetings or creating chat rooms where people of similar passions can reach common ground and maintain the interclass connections Swarthmore cherishes. During the pandemic, clubs should dedicate more time to simply building relationships among their members. While arts clubs might not be able to produce the same content they do during a normal semester, they can still fulfill a necessary role on campus.

This is not to say groups can’t do anything else. Transitioning to an online format of performance can be refreshing and artistically stimulating; many groups I’ve spoken with are still planning on producing an online, converted show. I encourage other types of groups to do the same. While I can only speak from experience from the arts crowd, I think that it is in the best interest of all clubs to reflect on their purpose for a semester and work to maintain the health of the Swarthmore community post ‘pause’. 

The world will most likely continue past this year despite the trends and it is important that we ensure long-term community on our home turf. Clubs are a special piece of the Swarthmore experience, and it is important that group leaders and organizers plan past the chaos so that future classes at Swarthmore won’t have any less of an experience than we had before the apocalypse.

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