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College Greek life priorities change in the face of COVID-19 

Virginia-based student sororities and fraternities are using Zoom to recruit new members. Some of these organizations believe the challenge of social distancing has strengthened bonds amongst each other as well as their philanthropy efforts.

Capital News Service

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By Megan Lee

There are no dodgeball games, cookouts or other rushing events at Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus in Richmond, but fraternities and sororities are still recruiting new brothers and sisters.

The Greek chapters at VCU, and many other Virginia schools, are using Zoom to recruit new members. Some fraternities and sororities believe the challenge of social distancing has strengthened bonds amongst each other as well as their philanthropy efforts.

“Not being able to meet in-person this semester as a whole chapter has been hard, but it has given us more time to focus on our priorities,” said John Rudolph, VCU Pi Kappa Alpha recruitment chair. “Those being our grades, community service and philanthropy.”

VCU’s fraternities and sororities have given around 8,400 hours of time to charities in the last academic year, said LaDarius Thompson, associate director of Civic Engagement and Fraternity and Sorority Life at VCU.

VCU Pi Kappa Alpha is finding alternative methods for their usual events like Bowling Buddy, community clean-ups and food drives, according to Rudolph. Rudolph said the organization is preparing virtual fundraisers using Instagram and Venmo for its annual Fireman’s Challenge, benefitting the Evans-Haynes Burn Center in Richmond.

Bingo donation boards, orders of Campus Cookies, and raffles are just a few of the virtual fundraising challenges Virginia Tech Kappa Alpha sorority are circulating through Instagram and Snapchat stories.

Mojdeh Nourbakhsh, Panhellenic director of risk at Virginia Tech, said that most of its fraternity and sorority causes “are in greater need now more than ever” due to the pandemic.

Kappa Alpha and Kappa Delta at Virginia Tech are raffling Airpods and a TV on social media to fundraise for NRV CARES, a nonprofit advocating for children involved in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court proceedings.

William & Mary Kappa Sigma President Danny Driscoll said the chapter has raised $600 worth of food this semester for the Williamsburg House of Mercy, a local homeless shelter, and plans to raise another $10,000 over this academic year for philanthropy while following COVID-19 guidelines.

These philanthropy efforts are sometimes overshadowed by the notorious social life fraternities and sororities can bring to college campuses. But these social and recruiting events play a large role in establishing the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that is an integral part of the organizations, Driscoll said.

Nourbakhsh said that when recruiting in person, “you get a better feel of their energy and how they would benefit your chapter best.”

Since most of these in-person events cannot happen, many Greek leadership boards decided to decrease semester fees.

“I think it’s so wrong to charge someone $300 when what are they really getting besides to say, ‘I’m in Kappa Sigma?’” Driscoll said.

 Although rectangles of faces on a Zoom call have replaced real life meetings, there is no substitute for the brothers and sisters that live together — a common standard for many fraternities and sororities.

Students have tested positive in Virginia Tech’s Kappa Delta house, said Claudia Wrenn, the sorority’s vice president of membership.

Wrenn said that the organization’s positive students were quarantined off campus until they were well. She said that resident assistants conduct walk-throughs of all on-campus Greek housing, ensuring that masks are worn at all times in common areas and social distancing measures are in place.

Potential issues arise in off-campus housing, where universities do not have much control.

Thompson said that VCU, the Interfraternity Council and VCU Police have met with sororities and fraternities to reiterate state orders and find ways to prevent COVID-19 within Greek-populated houses.

Some of the Greek chapters that ignored college COVID-19 guidelines have suffered the consequences. Radford University suspended the Iota Zeta chapter of its Theta Chi fraternity for not following health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Roanoke Times.

James Madison University also brought Harrisonburg to the top of a USA Today list of college towns with the worst U.S. COVID-19 outbreaks. Twenty percent of JMU students participate in Greek organizations, according to the university’s Fraternity and Sorority Life page.

There are no confirmed links between JMU Greek life and the school’s COVID-19 cases, but Driscoll said that people are connecting the two.

“We don’t want to be the scapegoats that they’re making Greek life into at JMU right now,” Driscoll said.

About 800,000 undergraduate students participated in Greek life across the country in 2018, but VCU Pi Kappa Alpha and William & Mary Kappa Sigma have seen lower recruitment numbers than usual with this year’s freshman class. Virginia Tech Kappa Delta is anticipating even lower numbers for spring recruitment.

Driscoll said Kappa Sigma has not reached half of the number of potential new members he would typically like to have at this point in the semester.

However, he said the unique challenges of this year have created a space for a different bond amongst the incoming class as they “navigate the pandemic together.” Driscoll decided to have a “year-long pledge class” for the 2020-2021 school year to create a longer acclimation period for potential recruits and a greater reach to interested students.

As fraternities and sororities reevaluate chapter goals, they also have time to reflect on Greek life’s impact beyond the college campus, Nourbakhsh said.

Nourbakhsh serves on a national committee created by the National Panhellenic Conference to address underlying racism and noninclusive policies within Greek life.

“There is so much work to be done in our country and starting off with organizations like Greek life and fixing systemic issues is a great start to changing the nation’s perceptions and culture,” Nourbakhsh said.

Students said they are eager to return to regular life.

“Coming from a pandemic and going back to normalcy, whatever normalcy will be, is going to benefit participation, loyalty, interest in these fraternities and sororities because people miss it,” Driscoll said.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Graduation plans vary across Virginia universities

College graduations will still look different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but more Virginia universities are returning to in-person ceremony.

Capital News Service

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By Sarah Elson

College graduations will still look different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but more Virginia universities are returning to in-person ceremony.

Graduations will be held online, in person or a hybrid format. Gov. Ralph Northam announced last month preliminary guidance for graduation events, which continues to be updated.

“The acceleration of the vaccine program and the decrease in new COVID-19 cases make it safer to ease restrictions on activities like in-person graduations,” Northam stated in March.

Graduation events for K-12 schools and colleges will operate under two sets of guidelines, depending on the date. Graduation events held outdoors before May 15 will be capped at 5,000 people or 30% of the venue capacity, whichever is less. Graduation events held indoors may have up to 500 people, or 30% of the venue capacity, whichever is less.

More people can attend graduations held on or after May 15. The governor’s orders allow an increase to 50% of venue capacity or 5,000 people at outdoor graduations. Indoor events cannot exceed either 50% venue capacity or 1,000 persons.

Attendees must wear masks and follow other guidelines and safety protocols to ensure social distancing.

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond will hold a university-wide commencement ceremony online on May 15, according to a statement the university released last month. Individual departments can decide whether to hold in-person graduation.

VCU College of Humanities and Sciences will hold three in-person graduation ceremonies outdoors on May 15. The ceremonies will be held rain or shine on an outdoor field used for sports. Guests are not allowed to attend, but the ceremonies will be livestreamed.

 Britney Simmons, a senior VCU mass communications major graduating in May, has concerns about attending an in-person event.

“I’d prefer that graduation is online,” Simmons stated in a text message. “I’m still uncomfortable with large gatherings and wouldn’t feel comfortable with me or any of my family attending and putting their health at risk.”

Federal health agencies called for a pause of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this month due to reports of blood clots in some individuals who received it. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration panel late last week recommended restarting the J&J vaccinations, with an added warning about the risk of rare blood clots.

“The university really put its hope in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and that lots of students would be vaccinated by commencement,” said Tim Bajkiewicz, an associate professor of broadcast journalism at VCU and the communications director for the American Association of University Professors. “Because of the pause that the CDC put on that vaccine, it really kind of blew a huge hole in those plans.”

Students and faculty originally scheduled to receive the one-dose J&J shot had to temporarily shift to a new timetable with the incremental, two-dose shots that could make it harder for everyone to receive a vaccine by graduation.

VCU spokesman Michael Porter did not respond to multiple requests for comment about any possible problems the university might encounter from that pause of the J&J vaccine.

“The ceremonies are already super stripped-down,” Bajkiewicz said. “But still over this whole thing is a pronounced risk of getting COVID-19.”

Virginia Tech in Blacksburg will have 16 in-person commencement ceremonies by college from May 10 to May 16 at Lane Stadium, the university’s football stadium. Graduating students are required to register and students are allowed to invite up to four guests.

Virginia Tech will also hold a virtual commencement ceremony on May 14.

Sarah Hajzus, a senior industrial and systems engineering major at Virginia Tech, said she would prefer to have graduation in person.

“Small, in-person [graduation], if we were to do it by major I feel like that would be ideal,” Hajzus said.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville will hold its commencement outdoors on May 21 to May 23 for the class of 2021. Students will walk the lawn and process to Scott Stadium, where each student can have two guests. The class of 2020 will also get a chance to walk and attend a special ceremony, according to U.Va. President Jim Ryan.

Other Virginia universities will hold spring graduation completely online. George Mason University released a statement that its spring commencement will be held virtually. The ceremony is set for Friday, May 14 at 2 p.m.

 VCU students and employees are not required, but encouraged, to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Over 43% of the state’s population had received at least one-dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

“It is really sad that I won’t be able to have an in-person graduation since I looked forward to having one all four years, but I think everyone’s health is more important than a graduation ceremony,” Simmons stated.

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University of Richmond announces new academic programs

The popular Healthcare Studies program is becoming the Health Studies Department; new programming is available in Africana Studies and Data Science/Analytics.

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The University of Richmond has announced curriculum changes that will provide new academic opportunities for students and faculty. These changes include the healthcare studies program becoming an independent department and establishing two new program areas: Africana Studies and data science/analytics.

“At the University of Richmond, we seek to educate students in an academically challenging, intellectually vibrant, and collaborative community,” said Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences Patrice Rankine. “To achieve this we must meet the needs of our students and fill in gaps in important fields of study that are necessary to educate our future leaders. These changes will continue advancing that mission.”

Health Studies Department

Healthcare studies was established as a minor in 2007 and quickly grew in popularity with at least 25 students graduating with the minor within five years. Healthcare studies was established as a major in 2012, and by 2015 became the fifth largest A&S major. This fall the program will become the Department of Health Studies to support additional options for faculty and students, specifically related to global health and epidemiology.

“Health-related fields play a central role in the global economy,” said Rankine. “We are uniquely positioned at UR to provide students with a foundation in all areas that comprise the health industry and allied fields, including the ethics and anthropology of healthcare, historical and philosophical analysis, and the humanistic sensibility about health and well-being that comes with the study of literature, philosophy, and other disciplines taught at UR.”

The Department of Health Studies, which will continue to provide students with options to study business, economics, and the health industry, will be chaired by Rick Mayes, an expert in healthcare policy and longtime co-coordinator of the healthcare studies program.

Africana Studies

A new Africana Studies program, a focus that reflects initial petitioning from students, has been approved. The program will officially launch in the fall of 2022 with a suite of required courses currently under development, but students wishing to major or minor in Africana Studies can begin taking elective courses in the fall.

“The Africana Studies program offers the depth of humanistic thought, including

philosophical, interpretive, creative, and fine arts, alongside training in the skill sets of the social and natural sciences,” Rankine said.

The home school for the Africana Studies program will be A&S, but students will be able to take elective courses across disciplines, including in the Robins School of Business and the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

Data Analytics and Data Science

We live in a world increasingly reliant upon data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment in data-related fields will grow by 30% in the next 10 years. UR is now offering students new opportunities related to data analytics and data science, including a data science concentration for computer science and mathematics students, a business analytics concentration for business majors, and a Bachelor of Science in Professional Studies (BSPS) major in data analytics offered through SPCS.

“We are training our students for future careers that, in many cases, have not yet been invented, but we do know that data, and the quantitative, computational analysis of that data will be critically important,” said chemistry professor Carol Parish, the associate provost for academic innovation who is overseeing the data science initiative.

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HCPS will hold traditional in-person graduations at Richmond Raceway for the Class of 2021

Henrico County Public Schools seniors will gather in person with their classmates at traditional graduation ceremonies to be held in June. Ceremonies for HCPS’ nine comprehensive high schools and two Advanced Career Education centers will be held June 14-17 at Richmond Raceway, while the graduating class at the Academy at Virginia Randolph will hold its ceremony June 9 at the Virginia Randolph Recreation Area.

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Henrico County Public Schools seniors will gather in person with their classmates at traditional graduation ceremonies to be held in June. Ceremonies for HCPS’ nine comprehensive high schools and two Advanced Career Education centers will be held June 14-17 at Richmond Raceway, while the graduating class at the Academy at Virginia Randolph will hold its ceremony June 9 at the Virginia Randolph Recreation Area. The events will conform to all public health requirements for in-person graduations outlined by Gov. Northam in association with an April 1 update to Northam’s Executive Order 72.

Richmond Raceway’s size will enable each school’s graduating seniors to gather as a group and take part in a traditional ceremony, accepting their diplomas in person. The students will process as a class from beneath the grandstands, walk past friends and family in the grandstands and descend to a grassy seating area just across the track. Students will remain 6 feet apart and seats will be spaced accordingly. As is traditional, students will ascend a stage and accept their diplomas.

Each graduating student will receive four tickets for family and friends to attend the ceremony, and each student’s group will sit together as a pod in the raceway’s grandstands, separated from other groups by 6 feet. Professional-quality sound systems and video boards will also be in place to amplify the students’ processional, songs, speeches, and the recognition of each graduate by name as they walk across the stage. Graduations will also be live-streamed at www.henricoschools.us, ensuring that relatives and loved ones can also watch from their computers and mobile devices.

Specific information about each school’s graduation will come from the school’s principals or senior administrators. Information will also be added in coming weeks to HCPS’ Graduations Hub, which is at https://henricoschools.us/graduations/.

HCPS graduation schedule            

Virginia Randolph Recreation Area

2175 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, Va. 23060 

Wednesday, June 9

  • The Academy at Virginia Randolph (7 p.m.)

Richmond Raceway Complex

600 E. Laburnum Ave., Henrico, Va. 23222

Monday, June 14

  • Advanced Career Education Centers at Hermitage and Highland Springs (6 p.m.)

Tuesday, June 15

  • Henrico High School (10 a.m.)
  • Highland Springs High School (2 p.m.)
  • Varina High School (6 p.m.)

Wednesday, June 16

  • Douglas S. Freeman High School (10 a.m.)
  • Deep Run High School (2 p.m.)
  • Mills E. Godwin High School (6 p.m.)

Thursday, June 17

  • J.R. Tucker High School (10 a.m.)
  • Glen Allen High School (2 p.m.)
  • Hermitage High School 6 p.m.)

Friday, June 18

  • Rain date

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