KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Are you an anime aficionado? Psyched about STEM careers? Or are fashion and philanthropy more your style? Whatever your interest, there's a place for everyone to find community at Western Michigan University.
"Being a part of a Registered Student Organization is important because members become family and make Western Michigan University feel like a home away from home," says Myron Tate, public relations chair of X-Hale, an organization focused on student mental health and providing a safe space for support and discussion. "RSOs help build relationships while also being involved on campus."
"Now, more than ever, connection and support are a crucial component to the success and well-being of our students," adds Brad Kosiba, assistant director of campus engagement. "Even in a largely virtual world, RSOs are a fantastic way for students to connect with the University and to grow as leaders, teammates, and individuals."
While campus life may look a little different this year, WMU's more than 300 Registered Student Organizations are ready to offer connections and foster fellowship, both virtually and in person.
"There will be some really cool opportunities and some really cool innovation" among RSOs this year, says Chris Sligh, director of the Office of Student Engagement. "They've expanded their reach. They're getting more views. Students might be nervous or shy to go to an event, but through social media, it's more comfortable and easier to check in and see what's going on."
Some student groups are adapting their community involvement for the pandemic. A Moment of Magic, a group of students who dress up as popular fairy tale characters and superheroes to cheer up children in the hospital, added virtual visits and car parades to its repertoire. Other RSOs, like the Western Student Association, have spent the summer crafting creative ways to interact with the student body.
"In understanding the aftershock effects of COVID-19, RSOs have been working to provide the opportunity to get involved," says Taylor West, president of the Western Student Association. "We are in conversation with many different departments to partner and collaborate on events to uplift the virtual involvement experience."
The college experience is about much more than what's learned in the classroom; it's about taking time to explore and find passion and purpose. Registered Student Organizations and other extracurricular activities give students a chance to identify areas where they can thrive.
"It's a great way to make friends. It's a great way to network. It's a great way to really become career-ready," says Sligh. "For first-year students, it's a great way to explore and meet new people, redefine yourself and reaffirm yourself. College is not meant to be done alone."
According to Sligh, about 75% of undergraduates participate in RSOs. Many make their first connections at Bronco Bash, which brings hundreds of campus organizations and community partners together every year. Due to the pandemic, the event is transitioning to Virtual Bash this year and moving online—something that has been no small task for the dedicated student interns and graduate assistants on the team.
"They have faced a great deal of obstacles created by the pandemic … and have embraced every challenge with outstanding energy and enthusiasm," Kosiba says. "It is the efforts of a few extremely passionate and motivated students that allows our campus community to come together, connect and find their place at Western Michigan University."
While it will be different from the traditional experience, the reimagined event will still give students the opportunity to explore a virtual outdoor plaza and view, explore and click through numerous booths hosted by RSOs, WMU department and colleges, and businesses and nonprofit organizations from the Kalamazoo community.
“Inside the customizable virtual booths, participants will be able to view information about the organization, connect with the hosts via lived chat, video conference and links to websites, and will have the ability to sign up for future meetings hosted by the organization,” says Kosiba, adding that the team is even working on a plan for a swag drive-thru for everyone worried about missing out on all of the traditional Bash giveaways. Two Virtual Bashes are planned this year, on Thursday, Oct. 8 and Wednesday, Jan. 13 from 4 to 7 p.m.
Many RSOs will also participate in Fall Welcome activities and explore other ways to reach out to interested students. The Office of Student Engagement plans to elevate events and organizations on its Instagram account, and events are also posted on the ExperienceWMU webpage throughout the year.
Like the re-imagined Bronco Bash, the Office of Student Engagement is recommending RSOs hold events virtually if at all possible. In addition to providing a safe space for interaction, it also provides opportunities for students participating in distance education to still be involved. If groups want to meet in person, gatherings should be held outside whenever possible to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The University is expanding outdoor infrastructure and adding tents in various areas across campus to accommodate events. Indoor gatherings should only be held in small numbers where adequate physical distancing is possible and participants can follow all federal, state and local guidelines.
Finding harmony outside of academics sometimes means venturing outside of comfort zones.
"The best part of being in an RSO is getting the chance to meet people outside your major and residence hall," says Hawke Osterhout, president of No Strings Attached, one of WMU's acapella groups. They'll be holding virtual rehearsals this year and creating video performances over social media. "(Majors) in the group range from engineering to psychology to music education and even political science. It's the best way to unwind after a long day of classes."
While offering a chance to expand horizons and find new friends, Registered Student Organizations also provide opportunities for students to hone their craft and focus on their future.
"We have a community of future educators who can study together, take classes together, hang out together and, lastly, build lifelong friendships with one another," says William Wright, president of Future Teachers of Color. "We have a lot of authentic conversations that allow our members to engage in open and honest dialogue with individuals who can relate in various ways."
"The people you meet will empower and push you to grow and do the unimaginable," adds West, who admits she was a bit intimidated to get involved at first but found a welcoming and encouraging environment when she attended her first Western Student Association meeting with a friend.
"I cannot stress enough how getting involved at Western has opened my eyes to the world, (through things like) resume building, job opportunities, internship opportunities, recommendation letters, event planning, connections to graduate schools, etc."
A searchable database of all active RSOs on WMU's campus is available online.
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.