Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the Muslim Students Association would meet every Friday night in a crowded room to pray, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder.
Now, their shoulders are separated by Zoom boxes, and they no longer congregate in one room. Instead, they continue to meet from their own individual bedrooms.
When UNC switched to a remote-only learning strategy in the spring, religious student groups scrambled to adjust to a new normal. These groups were used to meeting in large spaces to socialize and pray.
When the University made the same switch last week, however, groups not only expected it, but were prepared for it.
Architha Pavuluri, president of Hindu YUVA, was among club leaders who chose to forgo in-person events from the beginning.
“We didn't want students sitting at home to feel alienated, so we went ahead and had all of our meetings virtual from the get-go,” Pavuluri said. “We had talked about some in-person meetings if there was interest in it, but our initial plan was to go online, just to be safe.”
The Muslim Students Association decided to host their general body meetings online before the semester began, though the organization chose to initially keep their prayer room open. Four people were permitted in the room at a time, but few chose to visit. When classes went remote last week, the group elected to close the on-campus space.
“We thought it was best to close it and if students on campus do need a place to pray or other resources, they can reach out to us and we'll find them something,” Nour Zarrouk, the organization’s community service chair, said.
UNC Hillel also chose to conduct their meetings remotely before the start of the semester, closing their building and canceling their weekly Shabbat dinners. Instead, students can sign up to pick up Shabbat kits on the building’s doorstep and join a virtual celebration each Friday at 5 p.m.
“Of all the things we do that we may be evaluating or experimenting or doing differently, it was very important to the entire team and to our student leadership board to maintain that consistency of at least some sort of marking of time every single week as a community,” Hannah Spinrad, campus director of UNC Hillel, said.
Cru at UNC-Chapel Hill also chose to hold all meetings remotely, though their transition has been slightly more difficult due to the addition of a new lead pastor.
“The level of communication is different,” said Alex Salvaggio, a senior and campus relations intern for Cru. “You can't just find someone and ask them questions. It's been hard to organize things. We're doing the best we can.”
Despite the changes inherent to moving from in-person meetings to a remote format, several groups are offering more programming than usual to give members a version of the social opportunities meetings usually provide. Both Hillel and YUVA have created mentorship programs which allow first-year and transfer students, who may feel isolated from the college experience, to interact with upperclassmen in the respective organizations.
“That allows them to get a better understanding of what campus life was like before all of this started and ask all the questions they want to ask their friends but now can't,” Pavuluri said.
YUVA has also begun hosting professional workshops for members, the most recent being for students interested in enrollment at Kenan-Flagler Business School. Pavuluri said these events might not have been possible in person.
“While we are a spiritual and religious organization, I think it's also important to understand that these are some of the issues students are dealing with in terms of career,” Pavuluri said.
Despite the cancellation of FallFest and other in-person events that aid in the recruitment of first-year and transfer students, each group has found ways to bring in new members.
In the short time that first-year students were on campus, Cru was able to set up stations at which students could scan a QR code and fill out a survey to get more information. MSA was able to recruit new members through social media and Hillel did so through a virtual town hall the organization hosted over the summer.
The main commonality between the groups, however, is how important they believe their respective communities are during the pandemic.
“They may be at home by themselves and even though Cru's meeting online, there's still a sense of community,” Salvaggio said. “It’s good for the soul.”
Spinrad said Hillel prides itself on bringing that sense of community to students.
“Judaism is very much a communal religion,” Spinrad said. “It has traditions that have gone on for thousands of years. There's something about being able to opt into something and having this comfort of knowing you may be alone in your dorm or with your roommate, but there are people around the world doing the same exact ritual of lighting candles or saying blessings every single Friday night.
"I think the idea of feeling bigger than yourself in a time that's very hard is quite moving.”
Zarrouk said returning to meetings has brought her and her peers some light during these dark times.
“Islam teaches us that God is the best of planners,” Zarrouk said. “With that, there will always be uncertainty. It gives us hope in some way because I feel like having that community of people with the same beliefs and being able to connect with each other through our religion really helps, especially in these times of hardship.”
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