Pandemic or Pandemonium? How Student Leaders Can Navigate the Situation

“As student organization leaders, we are in a position of power that allows us to pick a new “ship” entirely. The team, the objectives, and the goals are what defines us, not the vessel that carries us.”

Emily Carnder

By: Emily Carnder
The University of Tennessee College of Law Class of 2021

Before the College of Law announced the new restrictions for student organizations this fall due to COVID-19, I knew there would be restrictions.  I knew there were going to be drastic changes to how student organizations operate, including with respect to events and extracurricular activities.  While I recognized the importance of these restrictions and was thankful to see them implemented, I was simultaneously devastated.  I had held on to hope, but hearing the fall semester plan confirmed that what I was looking forward to doing as a student organization leader would be impossible. 

I serve as Justice for the Sanford Chapter of Phi Alpha Delta, a legal fraternity focused on providing “service to the student, the school, the profession, and the community.”  The Phi Alpha Delta community, both at The University of Tennessee College of Law and nationwide, is a family.  From the day that I joined, I felt that sense of community.  Being in a position of leadership means so much to me because I can welcome others into that family and represent the values of Phi Alpha Delta.

At first, I felt as though my leadership position became irrelevant.  One of my friends told me that the traditional events were not what defined me as a leader, and I responded, “I am Captain Jack Sparrow without the Black Pearl.” In title, I was a “captain,” and the traditional events were my “Black Pearl.”  What is a captain without a ship? Everything I had envisioned for my 3L year was shifting. I started to resent instructions to “be creative in these unprecedented times.”[1]  The traditional events were off the table, and of course I was disappointed.  But what was most disappointing wasn’t that I couldn’t host a tailgate (although that was a big one…I had already planned themed drinks); rather, I was disheartened because I had intended to use my leadership position to reach out to students who seemed overwhelmed.  My overarching goal was to serve as a resource for my peers and colleagues and to create an environment free from judgment where they could get whatever help they needed. 

Continuing with our old calendar would mean trying to cut away pieces of an in-person event to conform rules that would essentially undermine my goals.  What was the point of hosting an event intended to be welcoming and inclusive if we had to restrict the number of people able to attend?  Moreover, the policies and procedures are necessarily strict, and compliance requires a significant amount of work that might turn out to be wasted if we were to have to cancel due to new restrictions. 

After taking a moment to grieve the loss of normalcy, I knew that I needed to think of ways to accomplish my goals in a virtual setting.  I consulted with everyone I could think of, including friends, professors, my mom, and my executive board. We started scrambling to create an entire fall calendar from scratch.  While virtual events are a wonderful way to stay connected, they can be draining.[2]  In contrast, in-person social interactions often have both mental and physical health benefits.[3]  After spending an entire day in class, sometimes entirely virtual, who wants to log on to yet another Zoom to hang out with people?  I also recognized that, because law school is a highly competitive environment, there was a potential for a stigma associated with the events.  If students felt the events were only for those that were struggling, I worried they would not attend because it would mean admitting needing help in a group, rather than a one-on-one setting I might have been able to accomplish in person. 

My biggest takeaway from navigating the COVID-19 restrictions is that student leaders need to recognize the limitations of the current situation and learn to work within those limitations.  This is not to say that student leaders should just “deal with it” when plans shift; rather, this means that leaders need to be realistic about the constraints of the limitations and find ways to make the most of the situation.  Making the most of this situation requires student leaders to define the goals that they hope to accomplish and then redefine how they measure success.

Accepting that “traditional” was no longer within the realm of possibilities, I abandoned the constraining pre-existing framework and was able to see my goals on their own.  Being able to articulate those goals forced me to ask what purpose each event served in accomplishing those goals; only then was I able to start thinking about how virtual events could create an inclusive and open environment.

Shifting perspectives to the goals themselves also allowed me and my team to recognize that we could host moreevents.  Sure, students would not want to come to all of the virtual events we hosted (recognizing a limitation).  But if we hosted enough events, structured and unstructured, there would be plenty of opportunities for students to use us as a resource when it was convenient for them (working within it).  My team and I came up with topics for presentations and panels that would benefit a majority of the 1Ls and also scheduled social events unrelated to classes.  We hope that by doing both, we are informative and helpful and can create the fun environment we are striving for.  Additionally, both types of events will allow students to get to know us, so they would hopefully feel comfortable reaching out for one-on-one help when needed. 

Finally, recognizing limitations has to extend beyond internal constituents or small groups (e.g., the executive board of an organization) to event participants.  For a student organization, success is often measured by the turnout for the event. Recognizing limitations (such as “Zoom Fatigue”) to external participation signals to our members that we are upfront and honest about what we hope to accomplish with each event.  This, in turn, allows us to ask for feedback that directly addresses our success metrics—in other words, to gauge our effectiveness at working within that limitation.

While this semester is not what I had hoped or planned for, I have come to realize – in large part due to the wonderful leaders who have supported me and helped me work through the challenges presented by COVID-19 – that my success as a leader is not defined by the number of people who come to my organization’s lunch or the execution of traditional events we’ve previously held each semester. I am still a Captain, whether or not I have the “Black Pearl.” As student organization leaders, we are in a position of power that allows us to pick a new “ship” entirely. The team, the objectives, and the goals are what defines us, not the vessel that carries us. 

[1] Though well-intended, the instruction seemed to gloss over the fact that a pandemic necessarily means that things cannot be controlled. While my “takeaways,” might essentially be the same as instructions to “be creative in unprecedented times,” my goal is to convey that recognizing limitations also means accepting that certain things cannot be controlled. 

[2] Manyu Jiang, The Reason Zoom Calls Drain Your Energy, BBC (April 22, 2020).

[3] Jane E. Brody, Social Interaction is Critical for Mental and Physical Health, The New York Times (June 12, 2017).

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