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Rethinking community: How student organizations are coping off-campus

Princeton Engineers Without Borders

Members of Engineers Without Borders, a club adjusting to this new, virtual normal. 

Josh Umansky Castro for The Daily Princetonian

By March 10, the student-run contemporary and hip-hop dance company diSiac had spent six weeks planning its spring show. The 46 members had agreed on “Illusion” as the theme; they’d spent 20 hours on the casting alone; they’d haggled their way to using the Berlind Theater for their performances; they’d pored over their publicity photos for hours, striving for perfection. 

And on March 11, the University announced that students would finish their semesters from home. In an instant, the hopes of Artistic Director Liam Lynch ’21 — and the rest of his company — were dashed.


“It’s difficult to manage,” Lynch said, “because people did put so much work in and didn’t really get to do anything with it.”

Lynch expressed hope for reworking some of the spring pieces come fall. But seniors will graduate, first-years will join, moods will shift — and, realistically, the company will have to start over in September. 

As this paper reported two weeks ago, performing arts at Princeton have been hit particularly hard by the transition to virtual instruction. But they aren’t alone. All clubs, all extracurriculars, have had to adjust their meetings and projects to make them possible remotely. And without performances, conferences, and competitions to attend, most student organizations face the same challenge as diSiac — it seems there’s nothing for which to prepare, no reason to keep working.  

Even worse is what Harry Shapiro ’22, captain of the Model UN team, cited as the “biggest shame of all”: the lost community-building time. For many students, clubs, teams, and arts groups are what make Princeton their home. And now, sitting in their real homes cities and countries and oceans apart, groups find themselves wondering how — and if — they will proceed. 

Most groups have proved more fortunate than diSiac, forging ahead undaunted with their plans, making the necessary virtual adjustments along the way. 

Celia Buchband ’22 is President of the Princeton College Democrats. A normal week on campus sees at least one meeting or event — such as phone-banking, watch parties for presidential debates, and visits from guest speakers. Buchband insists that her group will continue its efforts remotely. 


Buchband is an Associate Chief Copy Editor for The Daily Princetonian.

“One of the big things we were working on was writing letters to voters with Vote Forward, and that can kind of be accomplished from home,” Buchband said. “People can write their own letters for sure, although we don’t really have the experience of writing them together as a group.”

“We were also doing some phone banking,” she added, “which can continue online — again, not together, but people can totally continue from their own homes.” 

And despite the difficulties of remote community building, Buchband says that the College Dems are working on ways to cultivate social dynamics, though her club members can’t be physically together. 

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“There’s a GroupMe with the entire club in it, so we really encourage people to send political news in there, send articles, or just chat with each other,” Buchband said. “So I think that’s been a nice source of community. There was a debate two weeks ago; since we couldn’t have a debate watch party on campus, we live-GroupMe-d the debate, which was fun. And there were polls and reactions, so I think that will be a nice, informal way for people to stay in touch.”

Princeton Students for Reproductive Justice (PSRJ) is encouraging its members to stay politically active as well. Usually, PSRJ hosts meetings every two weeks to check in with its many committees. 

Students had been working on organizing volunteers to escort patients into a women’s health clinic, planning guest lectures for the spring, and distributing contraceptives to their peers. PSRJ may try to schedule Zoom meetings later in the spring when students have adjusted to online classes — but for now the club’s primary focus is on political outreach.  

PSRJ Co-President Ana Pranger ’22 wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’: “Call your representatives! They have a lot on their plates right now, but it can never hurt to remind them that their constituents support reproductive justice.”

As for a sense of club normalcy? “We will turn our lectures into webinars, work on some funding applications remotely, and push back the in-person work until we come back in the fall,” Pranger wrote. 

And PSRJ will focus this spring on laying the groundwork for its plans on-campus next fall. Upon the student body’s presumed September return to the University, PSRJ’s Emergency Contraceptive Committee will put to use the logistical work they completed this term to install emergency contraceptive vending machines on campus.

While many clubs like PSRJ are pushing on-campus projects until students return, it’s business as usual for Princeton’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

Each summer, EWB sends groups of six to seven students to work on potable water systems at their three project sites: El Cajuil, Dominican Republic; Kuria West, Kenya; and Pusunchas, Peru.

EWB Co-President of Ritika Ramprasad ’22 explained that despite the University’s current suspension of travel, their teams are working normally until the University’s final decision about off-campus travel for the summer is announced in April.

“We’re still planning as though we are going to send students,” Ramprasad said. “So that means we’re still continually applying for grants to get the funding to travel, we’re still having meetings — everyone’s just continuing as though we are traveling.”

The club holds its weekly team meetings each Sunday over Zoom. Ramprasad explained that, even if the University prohibits their travel, they will still find a way to implement their projects. 

“Because we’re working on water systems that these communities need, and they are relying on us in some ways to get this done, we’re just going to continue as though we are able to travel until we officially hear otherwise,” Ramprasad said. “And if it comes down to it and we do hear otherwise, we might have to look into other alternatives like remote implementation.”

Princeton’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) has the same approach as EWB — they’ve continued all their training, just remotely. 

“The attitude in the Army has not changed at all,” said Squad Leader and Cadet Staff Sergeant Tucker Hill ’22. “We all still have to maintain a standard and keep accomplishing our tasks.” 

Those tasks usually include physical training three times a week in addition to a weekly military science class and a four-hour tactical lab or field training. Some of those activities are off the table; tactical labs planned to take place at the off-campus Fort Dix can no longer happen. 

Students on stay-at-home orders also may not be able to carry out their regimented physical training normally. In response to these concerns about remote training, Major General John R. Evans, Jr., the Commanding General of the United States Army Cadet Command, answered questions for ROTC Cadets in a Facebook town hall. 

“The message we’ve gotten [from Major Evans],” Hill said, “is that you need to do whatever you can or whatever’s in your ability to maintain unit readiness.”

As a student ROTC leader, Hill is regularly checking in on cadets. From texting and online strategy games to official counselings with team leaders once a month, the ROTC community has stayed in touch in both formal and casual ways. 

Hill captured the sense of connection and family that students find at Princeton, whether it’s in ROTC or another student organization.

“ROTC was always my first group of friends and one of my closest groups of friends, so that hasn’t changed from not being on campus,” Hill said, “because we all are talking to each other all the time anyway, we all love each other.”