Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Kalos Chu

It's hard, I think, to pinpoint what exactly the Chinese Students Association does. There is no clear goal (no newspaper we have to publish or conference we have to put on) nor is there any tangible benefit that we offer to our members (no marketable skills or resume boosters or industry connections). The closest thing we have to a mission is our goal of "creating a community." This is an ill-defined objective in the best of conditions, with no real measurable results. In a normal given semester, if we execute our socials and guest speaker events and cultural study breaks well, if we promote them properly and ensure that the Chinese and Chinese American students on campus feel supported, seen, and comfortable—it could be said that we've begun to do our job. 

If, however, the physical community dissolves, like it did this semester with the COVID-19 outbreak, our already indistinct mission is pushed further out of grasp. Suddenly, the tried-and-true events—the study breaks in Grays Common Room or the guest speaker presentations in Fong Auditorium—are made impossible. The community that we've begun to foster, the familiar faces we've begun to recognize at these events, is suddenly scattered across the globe, and our only hope of reconnecting with them is through a grainy and unreliable Zoom video. 

Upon leaving campus, after a week or so passed, the dust settled, and the gravity of the situation that unfolded outside our self-quarantine suites began to set in, me and my co-president sat down (or, rather, laid down; I was still in my bed) to discuss the future of CSA. We wanted to do something. We felt like, in this uncertain and isolating time, CSA could be a comforting force, a catalyst to reestablish human contact. The question that faced us was how? Zoom is awkward. You can't mingle in Zoom, you can't walk around or socialize or have multiple conversations going at once. We figured that if we tried to do, say, an online social or study break, it would be painfully awkward for everyone involved. What we did end up doing, however, was create a Quarantine Buddy Catalog. It's a spreadsheet where people can input their name, contact information, and things that they enjoy doing in quarantine (e.g. playing X video game, watching Y Netflix show, learning Z new skill, etc.). Then, people can browse the catalog for other people who share their interests and reach out to schedule their own Zoom dates/calls. We provide the platform, and people provide the connections.

And beyond this, we haven't really done much else for that goal of "building community." It's hard, I think, to say whether or not this is the right decision. One could argue that we should be doing more, that if we don't keep trying to provide opportunities to connect people, who will? Who else has the activation energy to do so? Yet, to that you could also say that there is no effective way to do so, that our niche is inherently physical, and that to continue to bombard people with emails and invitations to events that no one will show up to is a waste of our Board members' time and our general members' inbox space. For better or for worse, we have settled into this latter camp.

That is not to say, however, that we have gone dormant. Our Board has, instead, chosen to focus inward. We've completely restructured our organizational structure, disbanding the boards and reshuffling them into different temporary committees: one on coronavirus outreach and advocacy, one on alumni outreach, one on internal organization, and one on Visitas planning. We've pinpointed alternative goals—some in response to the time we find ourselves in and others that have sat on the idea shelf for semesters—and are channeling our time and energy toward addressing those, toward goals that we feel we can actually accomplish. 

It's hard, I think, to put aside our most central mission, to build a Chinese and Chinese American community at Harvard. I think, however, that we're not necessarily abandoning that mission. We're instead taking alternative routes, focusing on goals that we can actually make tangible progress on and that will, ultimately, make our community-building efforts easier when we eventually return to campus. 

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