Looking Back at the Difficult Times; Remote Socializing in 2020

Now that in-person events have started (with precautions) in the Wharton campus and beyond, it is hard to believe what we survived the dreadful year of 2020. This article is about the year 2020’s most difficult challenge: socializing in times of social distancing …

How do you actively engage with the community in times of social distancing? How do you build those connections, which are meant to have lasting impacts, when you are trapped in a tiny box in a 19-inch screen of several boxes? Even if you feel engaged in a remote setting, how do you ensure that the others in the meeting room are also fully present (and not just doing some other work sitting in front of the camera)?

In 2020, the Zoom / BlueJeans world emerged from its not-so-eminent pre-existence and took charge of our lives when the real world was paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This change in medium of communication, communication being the primary mode of self-expression and thus, a supreme human right, was no less than a step in the evolution of mankind. We were learning about possibilities we never thought of exploring before, and we were learning about the challenges that these opportunities entailed. One notable challenge was socializing in the times of social distancing. 

Aristotle once said, “Man is by nature a social animal … Society is something that precedes the individual”, and his aphorism rings true as we gauge the extent of our emotional wellbeing that is affected by social interactions. Let’s face it, even an introvert needs some regular dose of human interactions to stay sane! We all need to be socially active (to varying levels) to avoid being consumed by the dark sorceries of a mind in isolation.

Wharton is famed for its strong community-focused culture. Engaging actively with this community during the MBA journey is as important as academics and recruiting; these connections will be leverage for life and guarantee the most reliable safety net throughout one’s career. If you have the bandwidth of engaging in the greater UPenn community, you are just making this safety net stronger! So, actively engaging with the Wharton / UPenn community is something you cannot afford to miss if you want a 360-degree experience of the ideal MBA life, and you got to find your way around obstacles to community engagement because embracing challenges is the mark of a true leader! Thankfully, the Wharton student body is composed of such leaders and we have the Office of Student Life to reinforce the values of community and affinity during the MBA program and beyond … 

As Student Life Fellows (SLFs), we were in the frontline of the crisis management team, among the student body, ideating ways to engage current and incoming students in the Wharton community culture during the unprecedented times of global lockdown of 2020. It was hard and frustrating, but there was no dearth of creativity. I remember our first major virtual social event. This event was meant to be a substitute for a retreat to Atlantic City (or so I’ve heard). Was it as fun? The answer is YES! Okay, maybe it was not Atlantic City kind of fun, but we engaged in activities that required days of planning and teamwork. A community acclaimed for its Cluster-Cohort structure and “the” Wharton Olympics, can never get enough of inter-Cluster competition … we are always pumped up for some ‘Battle Royale’ among Clusters, so we created an offseason virtual version that required targeted preparation and coordination! I remember frantically hunting for ‘Bee’ costume online as I was struck by major FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out: a B-school lingo); I was a ‘new bee’ in C3 (after being a C4 Tiger in my first year) and I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to dress up in costume. Behold those lockdown days, when deliveries were often delayed, I ended up improvising with face (and neck) painting … you see, we ooze creativity and on-spot decision making, and times of uncertainties are the best moments to harness these strengths! 

After rounds of group chats, trivia, and eating and drinking game, we acted out our favorite “Mean Girls” movie scenes; recreating the 4-way phone call, changing our real names to character names, seemed to be a perfect fit for the occasion.

Pre-term commenced for the newly admitted … The SLFs were assigned their SLFams and engaging with SLFams was a whole new level of challenge. SLFam is one of the building blocks of the Wharton community, it is meant to be a safe space to vent out and seek motivation. Thus, it is important to ‘get along’ with each other and ‘play well’. How to you use Zoom as a platform to facilitate exclusive team building (and leadership development) activities? Well, you need to watch the video in the link below:

Creating such videos, an activity almost everyone engaged in during the unsettling lockdown period, requires immense amount of coordination and cooperation. Even though it seems to be a super simple task, it is actually incredibly complex because of several reasons: one usually sees her / his mirror image during live Zoom sessions that makes it difficult to imagine the final outcome (well, we could change the setting, but we were not Zoom experts that time), one does not appear in the same spot on everyone’s Gallery view and so she / he must blindly follow the instructions (for action) and line up dictated by the person who is recording, and sometimes the music is added later (which was our case), so one needs to keep one’s eyes peeled for the person before her / him (in the dictated line up) to complete action, which is the cue to start (in the not-so-rhythmic background score of awkward silence). I realized that I’m a natural at the art of creating such videos, considering that the very first attempt took only twenty minutes from announcement to end of recording! We cannot deny that the lonely lockdown spell did provide us with some great opportunities to tryout things we would’ve never tried out under normal circumstances and discover strengths we never knew we had ….  

Lastly, the crux of all remote socializing activities was shooting an entire film (remotely) in December 2020. This was UPenn Theatre Arts Council’s production “Detention: A High School Mystery” by Stimulus Children’s Theatre. The filming equipment were delivered door-to-door by the technical team, with detailed setting up instruction videos. Who would’ve known that I would learn about professional filming during my MBA journey?

Even though I prefer the ‘normal’ way of life, the virtual setting of the grim 2020 was not that bad. It was not exactly what we wanted, but we did learn immensely from it. There were efficiencies too, considering zero commute time. Nonetheless, socializing remotely echoed the connotations of a paradox, and I believe that we are happier in a world where it is not the only medium of social interactions.

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