As the fall semester approached, RSO leaders stepped up to ensure organizational success.

In March 2020 Illinois State University and the rest of the world stopped. The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, had emerged into the United States and was starting to change our world as we knew it. Businesses closed, universities closed, and everyone was sheltering in place not knowing what to expect next. This took a very large toll on many registered student organizations on Illinois State’s campus. With so little time to prepare for the switch to online meetings, many RSOs on campus failed to continue during the duration of the spring semester. But as the fall semester approached, the leaders within these organizations stepped up. 

Within the School of Communication (COM) there are seven different registered student organizations (RSOs), which are built to help communication students prepare to be professionals. With their many different resources and experiences, the RSOs offer important ways for students to apply what they learn in their classes. Among the RSOs in COM, some of them shared how they handled the pandemic situation, turning troubles into triumphs. 

The ISU Chapter of The Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) was founded in 1979. Since then it has been strengthening and developing ethically responsible pre-professionals who champion diversity, strive for an outstanding education, and advocate for the profession. By hosting guest speakers, providing workshops and networking PRSSA has helped student members immensely over the past four decades, but just like many organizations, it struggled in the spring semester to adapt in the abrupt transition to online meetings. Faculty advisor of PRSSA, Dr. Rebecca Hayes, guided the chapter’s executive board and president, Sarah Lisewski, into a successful fall semester. 

“Everybody was at loose ends because the whole semester and all of the activities were planned out, and there were very few ways to make what was planned work in an online space,” said Dr. Hayes. “We did our best, but it mostly fell apart.” 

Although they may have hit a rough patch during the spring semester, for the fall semester PRSSA turned what most people viewed as a challenge into an amazing opportunity. Typically, PRSSA would host guest speakers and workshops in person, but given that the university’s restrictions on group gatherings, all meetings were set to be held virtually on Zoom. This gave the organization’s leaders an opportunity that they knew they had to take advantage of.  With all meetings being moved online, PRSSA scheduled guest speakers who typically wouldn’t be able to make it to onsite meetings because of distance. 

“We hosted a variety of speakers this semester, who ranged from Chicago to LA,” said PRSSA President Sarah Lisewski. “We were able to get people to join our meetings because everything was online.” 

Similar to PRSSA, the Speech and Debate Forensics Union also turned this unpredictable challenge into an opportunity to grow. The Forensics Union at Illinois State dates back to 1875, being the campus’ oldest RSO. In a typical year the team may attend 30 to 40 tournaments, where speakers compete against various universities in different categories–public speaking, oral interpretation, limited preparation events and debate. This year, rather than in-person competitions, the tournaments have been held virtually, using Zoom. Competing at these virtual events has proven to be vastly different from the in-person experience. Some students had difficulties in doing just so. Wi-Fi problems, loud roommates and proper resources where just a few of the things that members struggled with during their tournaments. 

“The dean of the college and Dr. Steve Hunt, who is the director of the School of Communication, have been fantastic about advocating to get us space, resources and texts so that the students can compete with stable Wi-Fi and cameras that are pretty user friendly and good for performance,” said Megan Koch, faulty advisor to the Forensics Union. “Even though we’re performing over Zoom, it’s hard to give a good performance of literature, if the camera is so bad that it doesn’t pick up facial nuance or if the microphone is so bad that it’s not getting all of your vocal inflections.” 

Having proper equipment is something that the ISU and the School of Communication continued to advocate for during these uncertain times. Making sure students, faculty and the RSOs have all the resources they need to function has been a top priority. 

WZND, the University’s student-run radio station, has been functioning in a completely different way than before. What was once a busy office fluttering with eager students and creative minds is now empty with few socially distanced students in sight. 

“We had a plan set in place where our students were social distancing, there were room capacities and we have sanitary wipes and hand sanitizers all over the place, but when the students came back, there was a surge of cases on campus,” said Steve Suess, director of convergent radio broadcasting and faculty adviser for WZND. “We then had to reevaluate our plan and got even stricter with some of the procedures we put in place. We de-densified our entire office and there is a lot of remote work going on, but to the listener it sounds like what we would normally be doing.” 

A constant worry among all RSOs within the School of Communication is recruitment. With Festival ISU, begin such a large recruiting event at the beginning of every fall semester, numbers were impacted among all organization due to the online platform on which it was held.  

“It was a struggle getting people to join our session. Whereas, if we were on the quad, people would just walk up because it was there, and they wouldn’t have to worry about joining a Zoom meeting and being nervous that they will the only ones there or not know people,” said Lisewski.      

Although there have been many challenges among the RSOs on campus. One thing that has rung true among all of them is that Redbirds are resilient. We stay connected, reach out to one another, pick each other up when we are down. In the words of Koch, “Redbirds are Redbirds. We are unflappable.” 

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