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Dean of Students Office Helps Extracurricular Groups Manage ‘Minutiae’ of Virtual Transition

Dean of Students Katherine G. O'Dair, pictured in November 2019, explained in a Wednesday interview that residential community events have become main avenues for student engagement opportunities this semester.
Dean of Students Katherine G. O'Dair, pictured in November 2019, explained in a Wednesday interview that residential community events have become main avenues for student engagement opportunities this semester. By Naomi S. Castellon-Perez
By Sydnie M. Cobb and Declan J. Knieriem, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard College’s Dean of Students Office has focused on helping student groups plan small, virtual gatherings as the COVID-19 pandemic and a scattered student body renders their marquee events impossible.

Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair explained in a Wednesday interview that residential community events have become main avenues for student engagement opportunities this semester.

“These large scale events like Yardfest type events just aren't possible in a remote way, so it's thinking about the smaller events and smaller ways to connect people who want to still meet other people,” O’Dair said.

Associate Dean of Students Lauren E. Brandt ’01 added that house committees have organized events like Zoom trivia nights and “escape the room” challenges. They have also helped to plan a virtual sophomore orientation to welcome new students to their respective houses.

Since former Associate Dean of Student Engagement Alexander R. Miller left the College, Kate T. Colleran, assistant dean of student engagement and leadership, has led the DSO’s student engagement team. She said she is excited about the adjustments the office has made to support student organizations, as well as foster student engagement in remote settings.

“We've pivoted all of our good things virtually, which is exciting and has been some new and different work,” she said.

Colleran added that much of her work this semester has centered upon “being more available to student groups,” as some of these organizations have faced logistical and financial hurdles in their transition to virtual platforms.

“We're still here to help them with their operations and organization, but it is a reality that a lot of them are just not excited about things as they usually are and so we're trying to keep some excitement,” Colleran said.

To help generate “excitement” for student groups, Colleran explained that her team is helping to manage the “minutiae” of student group logistics and shift to hosting remote events.

“Because so many of our student [organizations] just have these big trademark events that they do, a lot of the conversation is talking them through, if they can't do that in person this year, how do they do it virtually?” she said. “The team is really there to not come up with plans to replace theirs, but to help them figure out what they might want their plans to be or how they can be doing things in a different way and what might they be excited about.”

Alta Mauro, the associate dean for inclusion and belonging who began her tenure in the DSO this spring, said the virtual semester has challenged the DSO to address rifts between students at Harvard.

“I think I understand my role to be supporting Harvard in doing what it does: leading and modeling,” she said. “How can Harvard lead and model in this moment, and pull people together and cultivate the kind of community that is already referenced in a lot of our sort of lofty institutional language? How do we pull that rhetoric down and translate that into something that people actually feel?”

—Staff writer Sydnie M. Cobb can be reached at sydnie.cobb@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cobbsydnie.

—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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