Students find ways to continue volunteering and supporting community amidst COVID-19

Thursday, Apr 30, 2020
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

“The biggest thing that's been different is trying to figure out how we can stay as safe as possible so we can continue providing this service,” said Ares Alvisatos ’21, speaking about the new safety measures that Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad has had to take since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. Alvisatos, who volunteers with the ambulance service, is just one of many students who have had to make changes in how they operate and serve their communities in this time of crisis.

For the Princeton University community, COVID-19 has had a significant impact. Campus now houses only a small fraction of the normal amount of students, and all courses have now moved online, necessitating that both students and teachers adapt to a new virtual learning routine. As students scattered across the country and the globe rise to meet the challenges of remote learning, they have also had to find ways to continue to participate in student life and community service.

Masha Miura ’21, the president of Students for Prison and Education Reform (SPEAR), said that “Coronavirus has ceased much of our regular programming, which include on-campus events as well as our weekly group meetings.” Miura also noted that SPEAR’s annual conference, “which brings together students, activists, advocates, and academics from across the country,” could not take place this semester and is being shifted to the fall. 

Hanna Reynolds ’22, the president of Letters to Strangers (L2S), a student organization that aims to increase mental health awareness, shared how the group is dealing with similar challenges and disruptions to efforts like their correspondence with youth at Anchor House, which provides shelter, school outreach, transitional and supportive housing, and street outreach to youth ages 12 to 21 years of age in Trenton, NJ.

“We had to cancel an upcoming event with a mental health activist from New York City,” she said. “We also haven't been able to have our usual letter exchanges and discussions about the letters from Anchor House.” 

However, both club leaders said that they are quickly learning to adapt to these new circumstances and provide new programming. “Much of our work focuses on supporting already-existing grassroots organizations and activists, rather than establishing our own ‘new’ initiatives,” Miura said. “Thus it is likely that our remote work will be figuring out how to best support those who are already doing amazing on-the-ground work.” 

She also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has only made SPEAR’s work more relevant, as “many of the social distancing guidelines … are inaccessible to people who are currently incarcerated, who have limited ability to control who they come into contact with and do not always have regular access to hygienic products/soap and water. That is why there are such heightened concerns surrounding what a response to coronavirus would look like in detention centers.”

Princeton Environmental Activism Coalition (PEAC) has also had to move planned protests and Earth Day events online. They recently partnered with another Princeton environmental group, Princeton Student Climate Initiative (PSCI), to organize a panel titled “Climate Change and Coronavirus” featuring various experts on environmental policy. 

Interestingly, PSCI found itself uniquely suited for this kind of remote work because, as their president Claire Wayner ’22 described. “Our group has a large representation of local high school students among our membership..To accommodate them, many of our meetings already took place on Zoom before the University went virtual last month. The transition has thus been very easy for us because we are already familiar with Zoom.”

Some aspects of the coronavirus situation have presented challenges for PSCI though. “The only project that has been having a tough time has been our zero waste team,” Wayner said. “They were working on a plastic bag ban for the town of Princeton, but now that COVID-19 has seen a resurgence of single-use plastic items (out of sanitary concerns for reusable items), the team has had to table that effort. They are largely working on planning for next year, but they are uncertain how quickly the town, or the University campus for that matter, will be to reintroduce reusable items.”

Wayner also spoke about the heightened relevance of PSCI’s goals as coronavirus has wide-ranging effects on the environment “Our members are also hard at work publishing some amazing articles on our website, including one recently written on climate change and coronavirus,” she said. “We are trying to emphasize virtual outreach efforts … This crisis is teaching us valuable lessons about emergency management and response, which we will need to soon apply to the growing climate disaster. We at PSCI always approach our work with a sense of optimism, however, and we hope that coronavirus teaches us to act swiftly on climate change to avert future catastrophe.”

The mental health awareness efforts of L2S have also adjusted to a time of increased awareness of the challenges of isolation and mental illness. “We have done in-chapter and campus-wide letter exchanges,” she said. “We also have started working on remote work, like a research project about mental health initiatives at other colleges and proposing similar initiatives to present to Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) [at Princeton].” 

Reynolds highlighted that in these times of social distancing, L2S’ work may be more important than ever. “We're certainly hoping that some of our projects … can help with loneliness, but we also think it's important to reach out to those you care about, odds are they're going through tough stuff too and might also be lonely. Keep yourself busy and keep a routine,” she said.

Other activities that have evolved to be more suited to people’s needs during a pandemic include a community blood drive at Princeton University, which evolved from student-led blood drives that needed to shift gears as students left campus for the semester. Some of these drives have already taken place, and two more are scheduled for Monday, May 11, and Tuesday, May 12 from 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. at 58 Prospect Avenue. Appointments must be made in advance and can be made through the Red Cross

Additionally, faculty, staff and students are working together to develop a Princeton Online Tutoring Network. This will enable Princeton undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni to contribute tutoring assistance to underrepresented K-12 students in this unprecedented time of disruption and ideally even after this crisis has passed. Folks interested in supporting and learning more should fill out the Princeton Online Tutoring Network interest form.

Student groups, despite their activities now being remote, have continued to provide a sense of belonging, purpose, and well-being to students, as Alvisatos mentioned when discussing how the community of PFARS has been sustaining him in these new circumstances.

“There’s an amazing community of members,” he said. “Community is hard to come by in a time when we’re all isolated.”

Listen to a more in-depth interview with Alvisatos on the Let’s Talk About … podcast. Visit our Get Involved page for more information on ways you can support the Princeton community or your home community at this time.