Student groups plan fall engagement tactics following sharp decline in participation

By: Caitlyn Freeman, Associate Editor
Photo by Meghan Hudson/ The Towerlight

As Towson University (TU) prepares to fully reopen its campus for the Fall 2021 semester, clubs and organizations look ahead for what’s to come, and reflect on the challenges they’ve faced with a primarily online modality. 

As with the Fall 2020 semester, this past spring semester saw several clubs and organizations on-campus switch to a fully online modality. At the beginning of the semester, the Office of Student Activities held a virtual involvement fair that included over 100 organizations, as explained in a February press release

“So we really had to rethink how we do our student organization support this year,” said Chris Rindosh, a student organizations coordinator at TU. “A lot of our effort has been focused on trying to make sure we’re getting student organizations the correct information, and the training to best adapt to a virtual environment.”

He also explained that the pandemic has taken a toll on student engagement as well. He said that in a “normal year,“ he’d receive approximately 40 requests for a new club and organization, but this year he has seen a decline in applications. 

“So, some of these things, are the nature of the situation, the students aren’t here, they’re consumed with things in their own lives,” Rindosh said. “And that makes it a little bit more challenging for them to want to stay connected and stay engaged.” 

Similarly, another challenge Rindosh cites is the retention and recruitment struggles clubs and organizations have faced as well. He attributes this to the struggles students have with digital learning.

“I mean, if you’ve been on Zoom for, you know, four hours of classes during the day, do you want to log in for an extra hour at night to do a student group meeting on top of it? Rindosh said. “Like, Zoom fatigue’s real, right?”  

Mikenna Rogowsky, outgoing president of Cru, a christian-based student organization, said the group has utilized Zoom to host weekly meetings, bible studies and other events. 

“We have really been missing face to face interactions and in-person community,” Rogowsky said. “Some members decided to stop attending events until we had in-person opportunities again.” 

She estimates that about half of the group’s previous membership has not returned during their time online. 

Jeff Keenan, assistant director of competitive sports at TU, said that TU’s sports clubs have also seen a decline in participation over this last year. He said that typically, the organization would have approximately 1,500 participants across their over 30 clubs, but this semester they had around 500 participants total. 

Keenan said that while some sports clubs chose not to participate this year, others did and were able to practice two to three times per week. However, he said the inability of the teams to compete against others this year influenced some athletes and their decision not to participate. While the lack of competitions attributed, Keenan said the “strict” COVID-19 protocols had a significant impact on participation as well.  

“People join a Sport Club to participate in sport and to participate in competition,” Keenan said. “And when you can’t do that, that’s a big barrier, for participation and for our clubs.” 

In terms of what’s to come for the upcoming fall semester, both Keenan and Rindosh are looking forward to returning to in-person activities. 

Rindosh said that while TU’s plan for an in-person fall modality is “good news” for student organizations, he still anticipates challenges in the fall in terms of COVID-19 safety guidelines.  

“We want to bring people back, but we want to do it in a safe manner,” Rindosh said. 

Another struggle Rindosh anticipates is that of student leaders within clubs and organizations who’ve never run an in-person club meeting or done in-person recruitment before. He said that’s something they’ll have to train them for. 

In terms of student involvement that was lost during the online modality, Rindosh added that there may be a struggle to reignite the flame due to how students have become “demotivated” during the pandemic. 

“So like students, they may be coming back to campus, they might be excited, but this idea of doing extracurricular activities, you know, they might need a little bit of incentive or push to like, be like, ‘yeah, it’s gonna be worth like, you know, pulling myself out of my room and having the motivation to go to this meeting,’” Rindosh said. 

Rogowsky said while discussions are still happening, the group is intending to host in-person events and activities next semester. 

“There are exciting things ahead for Cru, and we can’t wait to welcome both new and old members back onto campus,” Rogowsky said. 

In terms of next semester, Keenan said that while sports clubs are hoping to go back to regular, pre-COVID participation, their ability to do so will depend upon TU’s restrictions on travel, spectators and where the pandemic is in the fall. 

“I think we are definitely excited for that,” Keenan said. “We are excited to get back to normal or close to normal. We are looking forward to seeing an active lively campus for the fall. And we think sport clubs can contribute to that.”

While Keenan thinks the on-campus vaccine mandate will aid in the return as well, he said that a level of caution should remain. 

“I think if there’s one thing we’ve learned with this pandemic, is you never know where it’s gonna go, we make plans, and we have to be able to pivot,” Keenan said. “We have to be like Gumby, you know, change at the last minute.”

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