The picture of a student crumpling under the normal pressures of higher education is a worn cliché. Yes, being a college student is difficult in the best of circumstances, but couple the confusion of the freshman experience plus a global lockdown caused by a deadly pandemic and no one would blame a student for caving under the strain. But not Elijah Mendez, a first year history major at Sierra College and an aspiring teacher. He isn’t letting the pressures of COVID-19 overtake him.
It’s a test if anything, to make us stronger, to build connections through all this, to pass our first two semesters of college online.
Mendez has a surprisingly upbeat attitude for a student dealing with all of life’s challenges, and thankfully he is not alone. He has found a great Sierra family to guide him through the strange early stages of higher education by joining one of the once many, now few, Sierra College student clubs. This is where I met him and the rest of his Sierra family.
Stronger Together in the Sierra Puente Club
Sierra College has a long history with successful and active clubs, not only on campus but also in the general community. Unfortunately, COVID-19 and the forced isolation of students has stripped much from these organizations, which now suffer in the pandemic alongside everyone else.
For Mendez, these effects arose in his own club, the Sierra College Puente (Spanish for bridge) club. An organization geared around guidance, fostering student leadership, and educational success, especially in communities underserved by the education system.
During one of their twice weekly meetings Mendez, the rest of his club, and co-advisors addressed the worst of their Sierra family’s adversities under lockdown. “Generally we have significantly more [students]. We have, you know, the whole lounge area full at the Student Engagement Center (SEC) when we have our Puente club meetings,” noted Darlene Preciado, one of the clubs co-advisors. “But that’s been the biggest challenge, attracting and drawing those Puente students in from the Puente classes, the Puente cohort, into the club now that it’s virtual.”
The many students described by Preciado that would gather in the SEC has dwindled to seven, with six arriving for this weekly meeting to share their perspectives. Alexander Garcia, the club’s vice president, highlighted the face to face nature that the Puente club is used to, with roundtable discussions and leadership workshops being a core part of their club’s communication.
Marixia Beber Piceno, the club’s past publicist, discussed how students’ course loads and the transition into online schooling could have driven some away from the club, denouncing the myth that online schooling is less effort. Piceno said, “It’s more work you have to do, more dedication that you have to input.”
Though most of them shared this feeling, everyone always came back around to how they’re staying positive together with their smaller, but closer than ever, familia. There was nothing in the zoom call but smiles and support for one another, as they discussed their passion for the organization they are keeping alive.
“It’s difficult to find the positive to everything when everything seems to be falling apart,” said Mendez. “But in reality, everything is sort of just building its way back up again … Like, the Puente Club is a great example of that. Still sticking together through what seems to be the worst thing possible.”
Overcoming Challenges for Members
The Puente Club’s plight is not wholly unique; other clubs have been facing similar challenges. Women in Tech Club CEO Heather Moore directly cited how her club would be much larger if students were rubbing elbows on campus.
“That’s mostly been the thing is getting the word out,” lamented Moore. “It’s difficult in a pandemic, even though email is all around you, it’s not the same thing as in person to advertise it.”
Still, a global pandemic didn’t slow her or her club down one bit and the Women in Tech Club was established right in the middle of student isolation.
Moore talked about how she wound up joining the startup, describing her response to Professor Malena Prizing offering her a position in the fall of 2020 as a resounding, “yes, please sign me up!” With the message of the club drawing her attention first, empowering women in a field that has historically not supported their involvement, she ultimately discovered more than that. She found others with her vision and a community to share the important message and goal.
“I’ve never been in a club before I joined this one,” Moore said. She explained:
I didn’t understand what the big draw and the big deal was, and now I get it. The sense of community, that sense of belonging, is absolutely wonderful: especially in a time of a pandemic.
She continued, “And I mean, what’s not to like? You get to hang out with your friends, you get to meet new people and you get to learn about opportunities and support one another in something that’s traditionally not considered a woman’s field.”
While the Women in Tech and Puente clubs discussed struggles with COVID-19 and its dampening of social interactions, another club has forged a unique mindset around its opportunities in the pandemic.
New Outlooks through Isolation
Christian Kenjee Koh surprised me with not only his enthusiasm for the completely online setting, but his opportunistic story on starting the Sierra College Young Investors Club. Koh said, “I really wanted to create a community for people with interest in investing and economics and business.
I saw the whole going online thing as the perfect opportunity, I don’t think I could have started at any better time.
Clubs like the Women in Tech and Puente Club have utilized the lockdown as well, with discussion programs like Discord and Zoom becoming their new highway for interaction, but Koh has taken the idea of isolation to another level, adding enthusiasm to the distancing.
Koh credits this unique intersection of interaction and isolation as the catalyst for his club’s quick success, even with how fresh the Young Investors are, and centered online interaction at the core of his club. Koh explained how his members are often active 24/7 and fostering a “different kind of discussion” through use of the constant contact between members, not limited by strict meeting times and places.
Like the clubs previously, Koh and his Young Investors realize the importance of in person interaction. Once he has students involved, keeping the engagement going is the easy part, though Koh does lament, “It’s very hard to get students involved with the club. Getting the word out there, it’s a bit difficult.”
Even though Koh concedes that getting everyone into a physical space is the “kind of interaction missing” for his club, he still rejoices that his club is, “blessed to be able to have it [club discussions] through Discord.”
Clubs and Community, even through COVID
These clubs, and many others, have taken the opportunity to build community despite of Covid-19’s challenges. They’ve built friendships, fostered discussions, and even formed second families all while being isolated away from one another. But, many clubs are still struggling. In March of 2021 the Sierra College website was updated to have an accurate list of all active student clubs, dropping from 36 actively listed student clubs to only nine. Though that number has been rising, back to 17 in total as of April 14, this is still only half of the pre-pandemic total.
The beauty of these Sierra clubs is that any student can join one. Any student can create one. Any student can reestablish one. When asked about what students hesitating about joining a club should do, Koh laughed and encouraged students to:
Just jump into it. It doesn’t really have risks, so to say.
Heather Moore described the process of building a club as like, “Climbing a mountain. You don’t have to climb the mountain all in one go.”
Adriana Lopez, a Puente Club co-advisor, described the Puente Club as, “A welcoming environment for students, one that they enjoy coming to and one that they feel safe coming to.”
For more information about all of the Sierra College clubs, like where to join one, students can visit the Sierra College Campus Clubs page or through the Sierra College app under Student Services.
Written by Johnathan Rutz
Written by Johnathan Rutz