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How the eating clubs went virtual

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

According to Gus Binnie ’21, president of Tower Club, one of the University’s eleven eating clubs, “there was no instruction manual left for dealing with a pandemic.”

It may be the year’s most resounding excuse. With members strewn across the globe, eating club officers have been on their own, as they’ve faced the daunting challenge of creating community in quarantine.

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In normal times, eating clubs represent a distinctive, if divisive, hallmark of campus social life. Beyond the “eating” that the clubs provide, members’ benefits include a mansion’s worth of study and hangout spaces, glitzy and raucous social events, and over one hundred new friends with whom to enjoy it all. According to the two-thirds of upperclass-students who belong to a club, these benefits are worth annual price tags of some $10,000.

Costs will be different this year. As COVID-19 continues to upend campus life, Princeton is all but deserted, meaning the eating clubs will remain closed at least through the fall semester. Of the five clubs represented in this piece — Tower, Charter, Cap and Gown, Terrace, and Quadrangle — none will charge fall dues. What’s at stake isn’t members’ money: it’s their time. 

Clubs are vying for their members’ attention during a global catastrophe, while also making the most of members’ time before they graduate. “Membership in your eating club lasts for life,” the Interclub Council (ICC) declares on its website. But it’s no secret that once a student walks through FitzRandolph Gate, their undergraduate days lie firmly in the past.

Eating club officers are striving to prove to current and future members that their institutions still hold value, even in an indefinitely quarantined world. Without the capacity to host in-person events — or to serve food — every club has gone virtual, left to rely on creativity and stable internet connections to maintain a semblance of community.

Learning from the spring

After Nassau Hall ordered the student body to evacuate campus in March, the ICC and its graduate counterpart shuttered the Prospect Avenue mansions. For the rest of the term, there would be no more open bars, no more dance floors, no more dining rooms — only Zoom. According to Charter President Jaren McKinnie ’21, adapting to the demands of the virtual realm was “as hard as you would think.”

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“Especially with everyone being in different time zones, on different schedules, making sure they’re doing their classwork, not in the same environment — it’s a lot harder to try and drum up a lot of interest in events,” he said. 

Charter’s turnout for virtual events was a rollercoaster, according to McKinnie. While virtual event attendance peaked at over sixty members, some events drew fewer than ten. Numbers at Cap were similarly unpredictable, according to Social Chair Gabby Chapman ’21, especially as the virtual spring dragged on. 

“Zoom fatigue is something I’m sure we’ve all felt, but we did our best to at least provide events for people who wanted or needed them,” she said in a text to the ‘Prince.’

Cap tried to adapt its typical social programming to a virtual format where possible, holding a virtual “paint ’n sip” night, as well as continuing its Thursday “club night” dinners, even as attendance dwindled. 

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“The turnout was not gonna be the same because some people really do value being in person more than online, and to them, it’s not worth it to do it online,” Chapman said. “But even if five people show up, it’s still worth it for those five people.”

Since the spring, it has become apparent that social connections, like the kind that eating clubs strive to foster, may hold immense importance in our present moment. A recent study, in which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the pandemic’s collateral health effects, found an increase in “reported adverse mental and behavioral health conditions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” with “social connectedness” promoted as one remedy.  

In the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, eating clubs have also faced the need for spaces where students can discuss systemic racism and social injustice. 

Charter launched a biweekly “racial workshop initiative,” McKinnie said, and, “they’ve been really good as far as getting people engaged in this discussion.” Quadrangle started its own antiracism initiative, which consists of a movie night and book club, focusing on Black art and Black experiences. And Terrace — which, unlike other clubs, did not hold weekly events during the spring — held a town hall for its members and alumni on Black Lives Matter and issues of race more generally. 

When asked about what other kinds of events he prepared for the virtual spring semester, Terrace Social Chair Enzo Dominguez ’21 responded candidly: “Nothing really, man.” 

Despite the lack of consistent weekly events, “nothing” isn’t quite accurate — Terrace facilitated online “thesis fairies,” a common activity in which sophomores and juniors send snacks and other goodies to thesis-writing seniors; in addition, the club held its own virtual reunions to make up for the University’s in-person cancellation

“We have a Discord and some other virtual chat things where everyone talks to each other, but we didn’t really do many events,” said Dominguez.

Discrete virtual events, as it turns out, aren’t the only venues for member engagement: several other clubs also found success last semester by staying in touch informally. Club members embraced unofficial socialization, sometimes congregating on the group video chatting app Houseparty or even creating chats for different purposes on the group messaging app GroupMe.

“We have a specific animals-only group chat,” said Quad President Krystal Delnoce ’22. “That one, everyone loves.”

Fall social plans

While virtual learning came as a surprise last spring, the clubs had both more time and more experience to plan events for the fall. According to club officers, however, there was no interclub brainstorming when it came to virtual social programming.  

“Each club kind of has its own identity and its own traditions,” Chapman said. “Some things work better for some people … I don’t know how well interclub social planning would go.” 

This approach was evident in the sometimes conflicting lessons that officers gleaned from their spring experiences.

For example, Dominguez, the Terrace officer, learned that a laissez-faire approach was generally all the club needed. “We’re just kind of waiting until we can open up again,” he said. But things will be more planned than they were in the spring — based on the results of a recent member survey, Dominguez wrote in a text, the club intends to hold “loosely planned social hangouts (possibly movie nights, etc.) later this semester.”

Quad learned the opposite: “Regularly scheduled events would be really important so people can plan and have some reasonable expectations,” Delnoce said.

Although she initially thought that a virtual semester would be expense-free, Delnoce has since reconsidered. Quad’s officers are brainstorming how to promote civic engagement — for example, by creating a raffle for members who submit photos with their “I voted” stickers.  

“[We’re organizing activities] like that to encourage being connected to your community but also being connected to Quad,” Delnoce said. With regards to enticing members with giveaways and prizes, she said, “You should have a social budget.”

In a way, she said, the virtual semester has proven a blessing — in a normal, in-person semester, many ideas get “pushed aside for the daily grind.” Without having to plan parties every week, club officers can put more effort into overdue initiatives, such as planning small house renovations and improving safety procedures for nights out. Additionally, Delnoce considers the virtual semester a good time to breathe life into Quad’s “dead” alumni community.

She referenced Cap, which, according to her, “has focused a lot on alumni connections and will continue to.” 

In addition to fostering alumni connections, Cap will be refitting its normal fall schedule for a virtual context, according to Chapman. 

“I looked at the typical events that we do in the fall and tried to figure out which of those we could try to simulate, or which parts of it,” she said.

She gave an example: the club typically holds an annual “Cap Prom,” a members-only, ’80s-themed event, where seniors undertake elaborate “prom-posals” for their assigned junior dates and attendees vote on crowned superlatives. Members consider Cap Prom one of the club’s flagship events, and it’s still on the agenda for October — virtually.  

“We’d still like to keep up our tradition of naming prom king and prom queen, and send out little fake sashes to whoever wins the nomination,” Chapman said. “It’s not going to be the same big event that it was, but it’s still something to mark that this event is still a part of our tradition, and we’re gonna try to replicate what we can.”

She hopes that a hybrid model of weekly events combined with bigger monthly events “won’t be overkill,” but “will give people something to look forward to, which is more important now than ever, in my opinion.” 

Cap’s September social calendar included weekly events that spanned from speed friending and a trivia night to a mixology night and virtual escape room. 

Chapman didn’t assume it would be easy, or that the experience would be the same as it used to be. But, she said, “If [members’] experience was anything like mine, they found a home somewhere in their clubs. And, so I think, because of that, the clubs are doing everything they can — even if it’s in a virtual capacity — to keep that going.” 

In light of the virtual semester, over seven hundred students elected to take a leave of absence this year. Because eating clubs are separate legal entities from the University, the usual rule that students must be enrolled to participate in campus activities does not apply to the same extent. Delnoce, Quad’s president, is taking a gap year — and it’s presented no logistical issues for her responsibilities.  

While a gap year would normally mean being away from an eating club’s physical events, quarantine is different. All members shoulder the same disadvantage of being apart, meaning that a member who’s taking a gap year can just as easily continue participating in virtual events as anyone else. Practically, the only difference is that people on gap years may have an extra year of membership. 

“Currently, our idea is if you want to be involved with Charter activities … we want you to still be welcome to our events,” McKinnie said. “We will still keep those [activities] open to people taking gap years.”

His attitude reflects a dynamic common among the clubs. Officers are embracing whatever they can to provide the best possible experience for their members. Clubs are soldiering on, attempting to provide friends and community to hundreds of members. 

On the second day of classes, Cap officers emailed members a five-minute video clip, in which each of the club’s seven officers took a turn addressing their geographically-scattered members. 

“Just think,” said Gear Chair Alyssa Nguyen ’21, “you are the first class to have to do a full semester like this — you’re gonna kill it!”

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