Societies in University College Dublin are the meat of the sandwich that is the college experience. The events, the interactions, and the ability to surround yourself with like-minded people have been a staple of campus life in UCD for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen societies having to shift from in-person events to virtual ones and many of the staples that have become synonymous with campus evenings such as movie nights, rehearsals and table quizzes have become a thing of the past.

Having been involved in society organisation and planning myself I am aware of what attracts members and participants to events, most notably the promise of free food to fill your belly after a day in labs or lecture theatres, however; the question remains of how societies have had to adapt to the virtual experience if at all. We recently spoke to several societies about online events and how it has changed their approach to engagement and interaction with their respective communities.

Firstly, the UCD Classics society told us that membership for their society has actually increased this year despite the virtual setting but actual event attendance remaining the same “Our membership has increased a little but participation and regular attendance is about the same. We’re pretty small so we had more people join—mainly because they didn’t have to pay the €2”. Despite the increase, they feel that for a society the virtual setting might be too much for some members who have spent their days looking at a screen “Virtual is tedious, especially since our screen time is already up tenfold due to classes being online. It’s made it to where a lot of members (and even some of the committee) don’t want to participate in events.” The events they do hold are quite unique and the objective is to create as much fun and normality as possible “We’ve kept our usual events and made them virtual: so, movie nights, presentation nights etc. The only solution for the screen time issue has been to keep events under an hour or two, but for a lot of members that’s still too much”.

We also spoke to the UCD Harry Potter Society who told us that “it (the pandemic) hasn’t affected our membership at all we’ve actually slightly grown from last year. It has obviously impacted our events that we would have liked to do in person but we have had quite good engagement online” With regards to events the rep commented that the format has not changed much “we still do events which get pretty similar turnout but it is definitely more tricky doing it online without necessarily as much return for the committee in terms of stress vs fun but we are managing okay” going on to add “I think we definitely have found the balance of only doing two events a week, we tried to do more last semester and I think that was definitely a little bit of zoom overload but generally speaking a coffee morning and one other event works quite well.”

Finally, LawSoc told us how they have had to transition to online events. They said “despite the Pandemic, we are still running the same number if not more events than we did last year (on average we are running 4-5 events a week).  Luckily, our main activities (debating, mooting, guest speakers, and career workshops) are easy to run via Zoom (brought in by the Societies Council).  We try to put the recordings up afterwards so that more people can watch and re-watch our events.  Recording our events is a new initiative for this year but is something LawSoc is likely to retain post-pandemic.”

They went on to add that, “the Societies Council has been very helpful.  As well as advising us on all the normal issues that arise in a year, they have provided us with some COVID support too.  They regularly update us as to different ideas for events that work well via Zoom.   Just before Christmas, we were allowed to access our office and to stream our debates from the Fitzgerald chamber using high-quality cameras and stable Wi-Fi (although this has been curtailed in the recent lockdown”. 

It is without question that societies, like all of us, have had an incredibly difficult year and have had to adapt to a virtual environment. In doing so, I would believe that the pandemic in many ways has brought out the best in societies who have had to adapt to the challenging changes and issues. With some societies even growing in membership this year, it is without question that the UCD community would be lost without the hard work and commitment of societies done each year and with this year, in particular, their work is truly appreciated.

Dylan McKeever