One of the hardest things these days is the distance between all of us. I am not talking about the 1.5m social distancing rule. I have never been much of a hugger anyway. And I think 1.5m is actually a good distance to keep between people in most cases. What I am referring to is our on-screen existence. I do all my work from home. In fact, I can do everything I need to as long as I have my laptop, tablet (second screen) and phone (for apps) with me. They are my access to the world… as they are yours.
Seven-hour days consisting of one Zoom and Teams meeting after the other are no longer strange to many of us. And on any given day I would have seen and spoken to dozens of people, often in a very detached and factual kind of way. Don’t get me wrong, it works well for crisis meetings, quick fixes, and communication updates. It’s less capable of creating a sense of togetherness, of getting to know people, and of genuine community. Or so I thought.
Last Saturday UCR hosted its first ever, and completely online, Open Day. Yes, an Open Day. Completely online. There were video addresses, detailed explanations of how our program works, video introductions to and by our Student Boards, several meet-the-professor sessions, and even live Q&As for prospective students and their parents to ask all or any of their burning questions. Around 40 members of our community – faculty, staff and students – participated and were there to welcome and inform the over 130 guests from 25 different countries that attended.
It was the live sessions with international parents that I particularly enjoyed. It was here, while I was answering questions with my colleague Denise and our students Taylor, Vedika and Julia, that the whole Open Day experience came alive for me. I sensed the huge power of the Burgerzaal. It was almost as if I could feel the buzz of it filling up with excited students and parents. Denise was as precise and omniscient as she always is and Taylor, Vedika and Julia authentically articulated the true spirit of UCR.
At one point, I referred to an aerial photograph of Middelburg, with the City Hall framed by our shared screen. And in that moment, people in the US, South Africa, Russia, India, and Brazil were all seeing the same thing. It was a moment during which every parent and every prospective student could picture student life in chocolate-box-pretty Middelburg.
The whole experience goes to show that we can go beyond our abstract, atomistic, screen-based existence and still feel the spirit of community. We can still be a community. Enthusiasm — which etymologically stands for “inspiration by the gods” — and imagination did their job. And there we were: bound by ties of our imagined, but no less real, community.
The online Open Day has been my strongest, communal-aesthetical experience in these times of Corona to date. I sincerely hope that future students, and their parents, will have similar experiences. Now and in the future beyond Corona.