Virtual conferences have helped some students feel connected to the community during the pandemic

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Each year McMaster University hosts at least half a dozen conferences, most of which are student-run. Most students are guaranteed to attend at least one of these conferences during their time at university. These events bring together like-minded and passionate individuals, offering them a chance to learn more about niche topics and network with a larger community.

As with all campus events this year, conferences have had to adjust their approach due to the pandemic and make the transition to the virtual environment. For many of these conferences — that typically occur during the latter half of the winter semester — planning has been well underway since the summer or early fall.

Similar to the conferences themselves, this planning took place exclusively in the virtual environment, through Zoom calls and group chats, as students sought out new ways to carry forward events that they had loved in past years in these strange times.

Unlike typical in-person conferences which often follow a similar format, each virtual conference this year looked slightly different, with organizers choosing the platform and structure that best suited their needs. 

For example, the arts and science program’s New World of Work Forum used Microsoft Teams to host a week-long series of events as opposed to their typical one-day conference. On the other hand, McMaster Model UN used the platform Gatherly to allow delegates to interact in a manner more reminiscent of a typical conference.

“What was really great about [Gatherly] was that you’re able to see everybody’s faces and in a way you’re able to have different floors. So comparing it to where the conference would have taken place, Gatherly had different floors that you could go through and I know delegates who really enjoyed that. So it wasn’t like you had to leave a Zoom chat, and then join another one to go see your friends on another committee, you just go through the different floors. It was like a real Model UN conference,” explained Zahra Panju, one of the MacMUN executives.

“So comparing it to where the conference would have taken place, Gatherly had different floors that you could go through and I know delegates who really enjoyed that. So it wasn’t like you had to leave a Zoom chat, and then join another one to go see your friends on another committee, you just go through the different floors. It was like a real Model UN conference.”

Zahra Panju
MacMUN executive

McMaster Energy Association and McMaster Indigenous Health Movement both used Zoom to host their conferences, allowing students the flexibility to drop in for events.

“[The conference] usually runs from the morning around till 5 o’clock and this year it was on a drop-in basis. We just provided the same Zoom link for the whole day so no one was obligated to stay the whole time. No one really wants to stay in front of a computer from nine to five. We understood that and so we made it a drop-in basis,” Iyah Alideeb, one of the co-presidents of McMaster’s Energy Association.

Many groups also recorded their events so that if students couldn’t attend the live event, they would still be able to attend in a way.

While this flexibility is something that many students appreciated about virtual conferences, it also might have contributed to the lack of connection others felt. Typically, many of these conferences involve formal or informal networking events that allow students to connect with each other as well as professors and other community members. However, such events are difficult in the virtual environment.

“When you have that in-person experience, you’re networking with so many people, you’re basically surrounded by so many different people who have similar goals and interests to you . . .  So that does build a sense of community. I guess that it was a bit harder this year just because not everyone has a camera and you can just drop in and drop out. There wasn’t really a networking session, because it made it difficult to balance the professionalism of Zoom and using Zoom Webinar, versus a regular Zoom call that might not spotlight the speakers well enough,” said Alideeb.

When you have that in-person experience, you’re networking with so many people, you’re basically surrounded by so many different people who have similar goals and interests to you . . .  So that does build a sense of community. I guess that it was a bit harder this year just because not everyone has a camera and you can just drop in and drop out.

Iyah Alideeb
co-president of McMaster’s Energy Association

Although networking in the traditional sense was difficult, some students noted that they appreciated the opportunity the virtual format provided to invite speakers from across the country or even around the world, who may not have been able to attend if the event was in person.

“We had a speaker from the Northwest Territories who was able to join us, who we probably wouldn’t have been able to have at an in-person conference, just due to costs and travel and things like that. So that was a real positive of the Zoom format,” said Konrad Kucheran, one of the students behind the Indigenous Health Conference.

Furthermore, many students involved in organizing these events felt that they were able to form strong connections with students also on planning committees. There was not only a sense of solidarity as they navigated these new experiences together but also a sense of community and connection as they worked to make the events they cared for so passionately a reality.

“I think definitely within our team — we have a team of eight executive members plus a writing team  —  so I think it was definitely good community-building for us, facing the challenge together and all figuring out how to run an online conference,” explained Desmond Kennedy, co-president of McMaster Energy Association.

“I would say the conference and more specifically the club that put it on are really one of the only ways this year that I’ve managed to have that sense of community. Discussion posts in classes and things like that don’t really cut it in terms of creating that connection to community and so on. So [the Indigenous Health Conference] has been great for developing community,” said Kucheran.

I would say the conference and more specifically the club that put it on are really one of the only ways this year that I’ve managed to have that sense of community.

Konrad Kucheran
Indigenous Health Conference Organizer

Students did note though that they were concerned this same sense of community might not have been felt by the conference attendees, for similar reasons as to why networking was difficult. The virtual environment demands a kind of proactive element to forming connections that just isn’t present when you are physically in the same space as others.

“I think, because it was purely online and certain friend groups had joined together, there was still a barrier, where it wasn’t like you could just go and talk to them after [the conference] because everyone is just signing out the platform . . . you just left the platform and went on to do your own work,” said Panju.

Organizers also found it difficult to reach students, first-years in particular, noting that not everyone has social media or follows their particular accounts while almost everyone would have been able to view a poster put up in the McMaster University Student Centre. 

It’s important to remember that even though it has been just over a year since the pandemic was officially declared, that these events are still new and that we’re all still learning. The hard work and care these students have done to ensure these conferences continued to run as best as possible are commendable. There certainly would have been much less to look forward to and many fewer opportunities to connect without them.

“Because even if you can’t reach as many people, those that you do, it’ll still have an impact on them. So I think still providing opportunities for people to get involved, even if it’s not the year when people are able to as easily get involved, I think that is still an important thing to do,” emphasized Kennedy.

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