Clubs, organizations adjust to engage students amid pandemic

In a large, open classroom, East Carolina University junior Brandon Scott stands alone. He talks with fellow student Logan Kelly, pictured on a television screen behind him.

This is a meeting of ECU’s chapter of the Association of Technology, Management and Applied Engineering (ATMAE), one of 30 student organizations in the College of Engineering and Technology.

As the coronavirus pandemic has brought online classes and residence hall closures, organizations that offer networking, leadership, learning, socialization and resume-building opportunities for students have faced challenges. However, students and faculty — understanding the importance of the organizations — are doing their best to have meetings and recruit new members amid the pandemic.

Jylyn Harris works on parts for a robot during an ATMAE meeting. Just a handful of members meet in person while others join virtually.

On this particular day, members of ATMAE are working on the creation of a new robot for the organization’s national competition. That event, which the ECU ATMAE team won last year, will be virtual this year.

Scott inventories parts for the robot and is later joined by a handful of other members, all wearing masks. For Scott, who moved back to his home in Burlington when classes moved online in the fall and comes to ECU only on Fridays for the ATMAE meetings, he’s happy for the interaction with other students.

“It’s the one day of the week I look forward to,” said Scott, a mechanical design major in the Department of Technology Systems. “I really do miss being on campus. It really does help to see other people and friends because we’re not seeing a lot of each other right now.”

Dr. Qin Ding, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science, serves as the faculty advisor for ECU’s Women in Tech student organization.

“Student organizations play an important role in keeping students engaged by forming a community for students and providing the support system and services for students,” Ding said. “During the pandemic, student organizations mean even more to students as they need more support from each other during challenging times.”

Ding gives credit to the students themselves for maintaining some semblance of normalcy during a time that’s anything but normal.

“Our student leaders have made great efforts to keep the organization active and keep students engaged,” Ding said.

One of those student leaders is Amelia Hernandez. She serves as president of Women in Tech (WiT) and is the public relations chair of ECU’s chapter of the Association of Computing Machinery.

“We are taking full advantage of any virtual equivalent to the options that we had before the pandemic,” said Hernandez, a software engineering major. “Zoom workshops, virtual study sessions, exclusive virtual events and virtual hackathons are all on the agenda.”

She said Women in Tech generally hosts workshops, shares job opportunities, offers tips to students to do better in school, has study sessions and organizes visits with technology companies.

Face-to-face meetings, site visits and travel to hackathons isn’t possible for members during the pandemic, but Hernandez said the group is making do with what is available.

Lilah El-Halabi, center, Shelby Brown, left, and Ameila Hernandez host a Women in Tech meeting in January. Women in Tech now meets virtually, as does the National Society of Black Engineers, of which Brown serves as president.

“As an organization mostly made up of people who had already taken tech savviness to the extreme before the pandemic, we were somewhat prepared for the virus forcing us into becoming a virtual club,” she said. “Our e-board this year has been very good at coming up with virtual alternatives that rival or even improve upon the events we normally do. It is unfortunate that we aren’t able to meet face-to-face or take road trips together to hackathons as we usually do. However, we are working very hard to maintain the same level of camaraderie despite all of the Covid-19 craziness.”

Also lost to the pandemic was this year’s scheduled Student Organization Day in which all of the college’s clubs set up tables in the Science and Technology Building to recruit new members. With that event called off, clubs altered how they could recruit new members, with many taking to social media.

“Now more than ever, we have to rely on social media and email blasts to get the word out about Women in Tech since we can’t physically campaign,” Hernandez said. “We have a wonderful new PR chair this year named Nimra Javed who is helping to transform our Instagram into a well-oiled recruitment machine. The whole executive board of WiT also spent a week taking over our Instagram story and showing the followers how we spend a day in the life while answering followers’ questions.

“We’re also offering fantastic incentives for joining. As a club, all members have access to things like prioritized job application links and invitations to exclusive virtual events hosted by companies who spill the beans on how to be the best candidate for a job there.”

Chelsea Buckhalter, teaching instructor and undergraduate program director in the Department of Construction Management, serves as the faculty advisor for the Sigma Lambda Chi Construction Honor Society. The society has been unable to elect new officers for the year, and the group’s fall induction ceremony had to be canceled.

Invitations to join are scheduled to go out to the top academic construction students in a few weeks, and Buckhalter is hoping for an induction ceremony in 2021.

“I am hoping that the situation will improve in the spring,” Buckhalter said.

The ECU chapter of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) is normally preparing for a national competition at this time of year. The event is virtual this year, but teaching instructor Dan Thomas, who serves as NAHB faculty advisor, said the “craziness of everybody’s schedule” as it relates to classes and the coronavirus prompted members to vote against participation.

Thomas said despite the lack of in-person recruitment and the cancellation of Student Organization Day, NAHB has managed to get a handful of new members this fall. He said he understands why students may be reluctant about joining an organization.

Students gather for last year’s Student Organization Day. Normally an opportunity for student clubs to recruit new members, this fall’s event had to be canceled because of the pandemic.

“The whole COVID situation puts a damper on a lot of things,” Thomas said. “There is so much confusion. Everyone is so stressed. It’s hard on the students, and it’s hard on the faculty. There’s so many peripheral things going on that it’s difficult to concentrate on student organizations right now. The students are doing all that they can to stay focused on what they need to do.”

Still, Thomas stresses the importance of being a part of a student group.

“Any student organization can impact positively on a student’s college experience,” he said. “The students get some camaraderie from it, and if they are interested in residential construction, there’s certainly no better place at ECU to get information and find other people who are interested in residential construction than joining NAHB.”

Shelby Brown, student president of ECU’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), said the club’s virtual meetings have included guest speakers, workshops and resume-building sessions, including visits from top tech companies like Cisco and Nutanix.

Brown said NSBE is using social media as well as partnerships with other student organizations to keep students engaged, recruit new members and share information about events. Still, she notes what’s been lost.

“Some of the biggest challenges that we have faced during the pandemic is missing out on the NSBE National Convention last year, connecting more with the new students coming to ECU, keeping current members engaged and being able to volunteer as much with Wellcome Middle School with whom we’ve built a relationship with over the years,” Brown said.

In the end, Brown said the organizations give students outlets for their leadership and creativity, even without face-to-face meetings.

“While it also allows students to showcase their skills, student organizations teach students how to network, build and strengthen relationships, give back to the community and prepare to work in teams, and offer opportunities that just going to class cannot provide,” Brown said.

For a complete list of student organizations in the College of Engineering and Technology, go online.