Colorado College keeps traditions alive, even through pandemic

Continually creative approaches to activities, including live events, have kept campus thriving and fun for students.

As fatigue and isolation overwhelmed students during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado College got creative to try to boost morale and participation on campus. Instead of shutting down or burying all activities online, it made event planning and outreach a priority.

It rented out a local theatre for movie premieres and took over a mini-golf course for students to play for a few hours. It held several safe live events and offered DIY kits around national causes such as Black History Month and Women’s History Month to pry them from their screens and give them fun, hands-on experiences. And it offered a lot of free food – “because free food is a huge attractor” – including midnight breakfasts to get students out of their residences.

Although some of its planned events did go virtual or hybrid, Colorado College managed to save many traditions, including its Llampalooza music festival and end-of-year Champagne Shower. It also created new ones that may stick for the upcoming academic year. What might have seemed impossible last March proved to be possible, primarily because campus leaders kept such a positive mindset.

“We’ve been trying to tell our students, this is what you can do instead of saying, no, you can’t do that,” says Amy Hill, Director of Campus Activities and Student Orientation at Colorado College. “I deeply empathize with students who feel they’ve been robbed of something in terms of building community and connecting with friends. We have tried to get people to change their frame of reference from the deficit mentality to what opportunities have come out of this.”

As a result, many of the college’s events were filled to capacity or attracted new audiences in virtual formats. Yes, there were limitations and restrictions on gatherings. Students had to RSVP and pre-register for events. And sometimes, bigger ones had to be scaled back or done in shifts on different days.

But for the most part, Colorado College’s activities continued, albeit with several new looks for the 800 to 900 students that remained on campus.

“The events have been really well-received,” Hill says. “It’s been rewarding to ditch the old models and come up with what’s new, and see what works and what doesn’t, and what we can take away from it.”

In April, Sounds of Colorado College and Campus Activities hosted the Student Artist Showcase where student bands and poets performed for a socially distanced audience. Photo by: Chidera Ikpeamarom

Safety has remained constant. Masks remain on for now and Colorado College is mandating that students have COVID-19 vaccinations by Aug. 1 for orientation on Aug. 18. So, what does mean for the near future for activities on campus?

To learn more about how Colorado College has made adjustments, kept students active and what they are planning for the summer and beyond, University Business sat down for a conversation with Amy Hill:

What’s been different about planning and hosting events this past year from previous years?

Amy Hill

In the past, we would say, come one, come all, whenever you like, drop in, stay for as long as you would like. Students now have to preregister. The idea is we want to be able to manage event capacity, but we also want to know who is there and when. So, if someone went to our event and tested positive, we’re not having to quarantine the entire event if the people weren’t there at the same time. In the registration form, students have agreed to some guidelines. Recognizing that campus risk mitigations are in place, they need to follow directions from staff. Even with that, it doesn’t mean that the event is 100% safe. We’ve been calling them ‘COVID Safer’ events. We’ve been using the risk index to plan – for example, sitting in a park is safe vs. going to a concert or being in a crowded venue.

How did the college manage to hold student interest, even in events or activities that were difficult to hold in-person?

We tried not to just cancel everything because we wanted to honor the student experience as much as possible and mark those traditions or milestones as best we could. For instance, our Asian Student Union typically has a Lunar New Year celebration in February with 250 people sharing family-style meals, or doing a buffet from different cultures. This year, we put the majority of the program online. But we did do a pickup-to-go meal, and students could go back to their rooms to watch and engage. We had breakout rooms, with students who were performing live or had been prerecorded.

Photo by John Le

What did some of the live events and activities look like, and were they well-received?

We did have several live events, and they progressed over the year. Our Battle of the Bands normally would have 10 student groups competing against each other over two nights. That was difficult to plan during COVID because of shared equipment and space airflow. We found two student groups that were willing to play. We worked with our spoken word group and our student comedy group, and we came up with a first set and second set. Outside, on one of spaces that has a natural stage, we set up two different stages so we could swap out equipment and have cleaning times in between sets. They weren’t sharing microphones. That ended up being a 2½-hour-long event. We had 175 people come through overall, but no more than 100 people at a given time.

We started to develop other events based off that model, introducing yard games like cornhole and giant Jenga. This year, we invested in an outdoor screen that’s 20-feet tall and an outdoor projector to do more outdoor screenings.

Another popular event we host every year is our Dance Workshop. This is a student organization that has over 300 people in a typical year. It’s open to all students who want to dance, whether they’re professional choreographers or first-time dancers. With our campus guidelines, anything over 10 people needed to be supervised. That group just knocked it out of the park. They got so creative – with small groups of 10 dancing outside in parks and filming it with drones, and then basically making music videos of their work. In the spring, we did an outdoor screening that had 100 people come through to watch.

Are there any events you are hoping to keep as you head into summer and fall?

The Dance Workshop example. I’m almost sad to go back into an auditorium where we can sit 700 people at a time because I think a lot of creativity and performance came out of this. Maybe each year, there could be four video pieces, so we’re not limited by the constraints of the stage and what lighting we can do within a space. In Colorado, we have so many beautiful outdoor spaces, and to record students dancing in one of our parks is so awesome. It’s inspiring to see that vs. just being in a little black box theater.

We also have a little food truck on campus, and we started to do a lot of events where we just pushed out free food. Every fourth Monday, we’ll do a study break where students can stop by and get a coffee and a cookie. We did elote (Mexican street corn). Those popup events were super popular and a nice way for people to see others and have a more organic outdoor experience.

Maintaining Zoom accessibility is really important because not everyone will be able to come to in-person campus events.

Members of Colorado College’s indigenous community gathered for an end-of-year gift giving celebration. Monique Gaspar posed with her newly received blanket. (Photo by Josh Birndorf)

What are you expecting for the fall?

We’re waiting on our scientific advisory group and our consultants to make recommendations on what fall arrival procedures will be. We have to plan backwards so that our events are universally designed for everyone to be able to access them. It’s hard for me to imagine a world where we just go back from having 100 people at events to having 700 people in our auditorium.

I do anticipate that some of our required sessions will still be delivered over Zoom, but then we will have breakout sessions in the afternoon, where students can meet in small groups and have discussions and do social events.

Are there any plans yet for student orientation?

We have five required sessions, which are pillars of our community values and our expectations for students. We have conference style sessions that are offered by different departments – so they can learn about study skills, financial management, they can go on a tour of the athletic facility, do a session on intramurals. I anticipate our conference-style sessions will be in person if staff are comfortable offering that way.

And then bringing back some of our ‘traditional’ events. We have an event called Get Active With Athletics, where we open up our entire athletic facility. People can go ice skating, play soccer, or they can climb on our climbing wall. We’ll probably bring those back, but have three sessions instead of all 700 students at once.

We have three to four days that students get to be in small groups and really immerse themselves the local culture, do local service and community building. One of those things had been students getting on a bus and driving seven hours to camp overnight in Santa Fe. We’ll be doing a modification of that tradition for this year and likely for the foreseeable future for a few reasons.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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