TUSC gets creative with virtual programming, ukulele lessons

With Tufts students currently scattered around the globe and campus social distancing guidelines requiring that most student organizations remain virtual, it is no surprise that managing an organization whose main purpose is to host campus-wide activities would be quite a challenge.

Yet, despite the setbacks of organizing large-scale events virtually, Tufts University Social Collective has continued to provide accessible and enjoyable programming, attempting to garner a sense of community for students at a time when it is truly hard to find.

TUSC’s executive coordinators, junior Cara Dufresne and senior Saherish Surani, spoke of how the programming board’s plans to ensure that this year’s events are accessible to all students. Surani explained that including both on-campus and remote students in events is a major goal for TUSC this year.

“One of the things that we’ve been really actively working on is making sure that our programming is inclusive to both students who are on campus or in the Medford/Somerville area as well as those who are in different time zones all across the world,” Surani said. “We have been trying to mail out items as much as we can so that students can still participate.” 

Dufresne added that TUSC is also working to make events economically accessible. 

“This year TUSC is trying to make the commitment that all of our events will be free to students,” Dufresne said. “And, so far, with all the Winter Weekend events, we’ve kept that up and hopefully for the rest of the semester everything will be the same … our mission is to make everything accessible for all students and that’s really important to us, especially with the impacts of COVID-19.”

In order to develop programming that encourages a sense of community for both on-campus and remote students while also complying with social distancing guidelines, TUSC members have had to be creative. 

Each of TUSC’s events expressed this creativity differently. Winter Weekend events included a virtual embroidery night, in which students were given their own embroidery kit and followed along with a student-teacher over Zoom. TUSC’s Film Series is no longer showing films in person, but students are allowed to access free movies through either the campus WiFi network or a virtual private network application.

For one particular events series, however, shifting to a virtual format was especially challenging. 

Sophomore Jordan Meek, programming coordinator for TUSC’s Concert Series, spoke of the difficulties the Concert Series faced in creating virtual programming. 

As coordinator of [the] Concert [Series], I felt like our department was particularly impacted by COVID because, obviously, there’s no concerts happening and then there’s also regulations on singing on campus,” Meek said. “So, we were forced to get creative a little bit, think outside the box on some events that we could plan, and we wanted to kind of keep people involved on campus.”

Thinking outside of the box, Meek and the Concert Series team developed an idea for a unique activity that TUSC had never attempted before –– ukulele lessons.

The lessons, which began on Feb. 16, are taught by junior Xiaokun Dong and sophomore Rachel Edelstein. Participants attend one live lesson over Zoom per week supplemented by pre-recorded videos. Dong and Edelstein both lead two groups of about 10 students, so there are close to 40 participants in total. 

The lessons, which Dong and Edelstein carefully developed, allow students to connect with one another in small cohorts. During these weekly Zoom sessions, students learn how to play hit songs such as “I’m Yours” (2008) by Jason Mraz, “Don’t Stop Believing” (1981) by Journey, and “Riptide” (2013) by Vance Joy. 

Junior Kianie Ramirez, a participant in the ukulele lessons, has found the lessons to be a great way to connect with other students.

“With the pandemic, it’s easy for days to start feeling the same with the same people. In a way, it’s a reminder that I am a student AT Tufts with other students as well. It’s really easy to forget sometimes that there is a world outside my living arrangements,” Ramirez wrote in an email to the Daily.

In addition to allowing students to meet new people, the ukulele lessons offer a chance to develop new skills and gain a creative outlet.

Junior Michelle Nguyen, another student participant, shared her experiences with the lessons. 

“Kianie and I are suitemates, and after our lessons, we always reconvene to show each other what we’ve learned,” Nguyen wrote in an email to the Daily. “Especially with COVID going on, it’s been hard to find new hobbies and find time to do something other than classwork. I’ve never had the opportunity to receive free instrument lessons, so I was really excited.” 

Dong has been playing the instrument on and off for five years. According to Dong, although teaching music lessons virtually has its challenges, the student participants have been making steady progress in their lessons and having fun along the way.

“The ukulele lessons definitely lightened up my life, and I feel like my students would feel the same,” Dong wrote in an email to the Daily. “It widens up our social circles, adds a touch of flavor in each of our weeks, and music always has a way to a smile on faces.”

Whether through ukulele lessons, free movie nights, embroidery or another one of their creative ideas, TUSC has certainly adapted to the reality of remaining virtual this semester. 

When looking ahead to the rest of the semester, Surani looks on the bright side. 

“I think something we’ve noticed, especially in this past year, is an opportunity for us to continue having programming because we do have an amazing group of coordinators and a staff advisor that works really closely with them,” Surani said. “We’re excited that … a silver lining of this whole year, this whole situation, is  trying new events that we might not have been able to otherwise.”