How am I going to meet anyone? Student societies and clubs race to go digital

From pickling to poetry, slacklining to samba, it’s a well-rehearsed line that there’s a club or society to suit every student’s interests at university. Ordinarily, joining in with extracurricular activities on campus is a sure way for new students to meet like-minded people and make friends – but the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic this year means the situation for incoming freshers may be a little different.

Students’ unions across the country face new dilemmas: what will the student experience look like come September? Is it possible to truly replicate the same social-bonding activities in an online-only world?

While the future may be uncertain, the answer to this second question, according to Jake Verity, a 2019 University of Sheffield graduate who is now president of the university’s students’ union, is a resounding yes. “As soon as the lockdown measures came in, we got to work on building up a big online community through Facebook,” he says. “The response has been amazing – 2,000 students joined within 24 hours – and societies have adapted really well to the new way of doing things, without needing any encouragement from us.”

Students who would once meet in the pub or on the football field have organised online baking tutorials, yoga and dance sessions, as well as social support meetings for club members to talk through their fears and anxieties. Sports societies unable to practise together have filled the time by setting up group challenges and fundraisers. “The athletics team ran the length of the UK in a day between them for charity, which was also a great way to raise morale,” says Verity.

Given that today’s students are already used to socialising online, and many connect through social media ahead of moving into halls and starting courses, the social shift faced by student clubs and societies may not feel so massive.

Where once students would stroll through freshers’ fairs, picking up leaflets and a plethora of free pens and tote bags, it’s likely this year’s student intake will browse extracurricular options online. Sheffield University was quick to put together a film showcasing the range of social clubs on offer to incoming students, and other universities are making similar efforts to recruit new society members online.

According to David Lavallee, a sports professor at Abertay University, the fact that students might not be able to train as a team or use most of the facilities should not be a barrier to those considering joining up at uni this year. “This is exactly the time to be signing up to a sports team or club, as they provide established networks of support,” he says.

The benefits of being part of a society or team go far beyond fitness and socialising, he adds. “Our research has shown how the transferable skills learned through sport, including communication and leadership, can make students more employable. These things, alongside learning collaboration skills, will be key for employability in a post-Covid-19 world.”

At a time when social activity is limited, there can be added pressure on students to feel they are using their free time productively. But it’s important that students find a balance between social and career-related options, advises Laura Regan, a member of the student services team at Imperial College London.

“It’s important for students to remember that their degree in itself will be enticing to employers and it’s OK to take advantage of the many unique social and fun opportunities universities offer,” she says. “My advice to any incoming students would be: don’t be afraid of trying new things. It takes time to strike a balance between work and socialising, and that process is all part of the university experience.”

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