Graduate Student Social Events During Lockdown: Building Connections Virtually
by Rob Dyer, UVA ChemSciComm
The Chemistry Graduate students at the University of Virginia are a social group, either co-sponsoring or hosting numerous events throughout the year for the greater chemistry community that includes faculty, staff, and students. Each season presents a new opportunity to get together, socialize, and celebrate the successes of our department. The events of the COVID-19 pandemic this year has forced us to reevaluate our sense of community and how we gather. We have missed summer cookouts, departmental retreats, holiday parties, and other events, where members of the University community both within and beyond our department could meet, interact, or just catch up and say hello. In the absence of in-person social opportunities, several members of the Chemistry Student Council and our Director of Graduate Studies, Brent Gunnoe, have worked this past year to maintain a “socially-distant” sense of community among graduate students.
I was fortunate to have an opportunity to interview several students and Prof. Gunnoe about their experiences participating in the monthly Graduate Student Socials. The following is a transcript of our interview.
“How did you originally come up with this idea?”
Professor Gunnoe: “As Director of Graduate Studies, a primary goal for me is to better understand the students who comprise our program. This is important as I consider, along with colleagues, strategies to improve the graduate student experience. I have many opportunities to learn about students’ academic and professional goals, achievements and challenges, but, with a large program that generally involves approximately 150 graduate students, opportunities to get to know students on a more personal level are more limited. In addition, due to the COVID restrictions, I wanted to develop a mechanism to provide a social outlet.
One of my wife’s (Trecia Gunnoe) responsibilities is to help manage a program through UVA’s CAELC program called VISAS (https://caelc.virginia.edu/visas-english-language-volunteering). Within this program is a weekly social gathering called VISAS Café (https://visasatuva.wordpress.com/visas-cafe/). One evening, I was discussing how to get to know the chemistry graduate students better, and she recommended a monthly social gathering similar to VISAS Cafe. I though it was a great idea. I discussed the concept with members of the Graduate Studies Committee, and they were enthusiastic.”
“How do you all decide the topics?”
Professor Gunnoe: “I solicit ideas from the graduate students and officers of the Grad. Student Council as well as contributing my own ideas. Then, I discuss the ideas with the Graduate Student Council (during our monthly meetings), and we jointly agree on a topic. We seek topics that will allow diverse participation, that will be fun and light-hearted, and that will allow students to talk about some personal aspects.”
“How has this helped you better connect with the graduate students?”
Professor Gunnoe: “It has been an absolute highlight to hold an informal and relaxed monthly social with a large number of the graduate students in our program. The discussion topics provide a platform for personal stories, which has given me the pleasure of getting to know the students in a way that otherwise would not be possible. I take it as a compliment and a privilege that so many students are willing to participate and share their stories.
“How important were the Graduate Student Social Events to you before the Covid-19 Pandemic?”
Annika: “I think that graduate student social events are essential. They are very important opportunities for graduate students to connect with one another and develop a sense of belonging in the program. I feel these events serve to establish and build community within the department.”
Abagail: “The chemistry department has many subdivisions, and social events are vital because they bring us together. These events allow us to learn from each other, form relationships, and grow together. We have a wonderful group of students and professors in our department, and social events help minimize missed connections.”
“How have these experiences been helpful to keeping up with the UVA chemistry community?”
Annika: “Attending the virtual graduate student gatherings has been very helpful in connecting and feeling part of the chemistry graduate student community. I wouldn't say UVA chemistry community because the events did not include the entire community (ex. faculty and staff other than the DGS). Honestly besides interactions with graduate students at monthly chemistry GSC meetings, these socials were the only time I saw or heard from other chemistry graduate students outside of my research group or those who are in my social circle. They played a key role in feeling connected to the department or at least provided some aspect of feeling part of the UVA chemistry community while working from home.”
Abagail: “These events have been an excellent way to safely keep in touch with colleagues. Although we all have Zoom fatigue, these online meetings provided an environment to form unexpected friendships that may not have been formed otherwise. Honestly, all I can do is smile when I think about all of the conversations we had in these monthly meetings.”
“What are some interesting things you've learned from the Socials about your colleagues?”
Professor Gunnoe: “There are surprisingly strong opinions about the movie Shrek and the Oxford comma. I have had an opportunity to hear several stories from students, and I have appreciated the unique opportunity to laugh, smile and appreciate the chance to understand some history that is important to them.”
Annika: “Lots of fun stories and conversations were shared in these socials, with some even carrying on in the chemistry graduate student slack. I learned about some of my colleagues’ favorite foods to eat/prepare, family/holiday traditions, books/television/movies they enjoy, and their favorite concert stories. I was disappointed to learn people are not familiar with caramel rolls or they are apparently known as "sticky buns" although it is still unconfirmed if they really are the same thing or not. If you are looking for some good stories, ask Spencer L about his 'Ye' concert experience, Abigail G about morel mushrooms, or Dr. Gunnoe about the "bean pot" (you will not be disappointed!).
Abagail: “I have learned quite a few fun facts from these socials! Number one: Dr. Gunnoe was in a band, and has kindly volunteered to play at the next chemistry holiday party. Number two: Anna D. is a poetry master. Number three: Haley S. has superb music taste.”
“Do you think you will continue to do these events post-pandemic?”
Professor Gunnoe: “Without question, as long as interest among the graduate students remain, we will continue the graduate student gatherings post-pandemic. I am looking forward to the ability to interact in person, and I hope that the in-person events will attract even greater interest from a larger number of students. “
“Some of the graduate students mentioned that they learned you disapproved of the Oxford comma, why?”
Professor Gunnoe: “This topic has become quite controversial, and I wish to avoid any written commentary.”
“Where do you stand on the Oxford Comma?”
Annika: “Pro Oxford comma.”
Abagail: “The Oxford comma is something I feel deeply about. If you do not use the Oxford comma, you are choosing to create mass chaos.”
With vaccines for COVID-19 becoming readily available and social distancing measures winding down, we will be able to have regular social gatherings. Yet even as we return to pre-pandemic conditions, I think many of us will have a greater appreciation for the social interactions and events that we previously had. The Graduate Student Zoom Socials have been a great opportunity for some of us to keep in touch and maintain a small sense of community during these difficult times. I hope that this past year will renew our importance for community amongst our department, even if those might include small interactions in the hallway or catching up with staff. We will be able to celebrate again as a department with our annual summer cookouts and look forward to seeing everyone’s happy (unmasked) faces, once again.
Professor Gunnoe is the Commonwealth Professor of Chemistry and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Chemistry.
Annika Kraft is a PhD candidate in the M. Stains group and the Secretary for the Chemistry Graduate Student Council.
Abagail Graham is a PhD candidate in the Cafiso group and the Vice President of the Chemistry Graduate Student Council.