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Socials committees grapple with loss of institutional knowledge


Photo courtesy Kathryn Gonzalez

By Molly Kyles     1/25/22 11:01pm

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches the end of its second year, residential colleges across campus are facing a discouraging reality: soon, there will be almost no students who experienced a full year of normal life on campus left at Rice.

College external socials committees are particularly affected by this problem, as they are responsible for planning public parties and similar events. In the absence of these large cross-college parties, socials committees have had to find ways to preserve college culture and bring students together amid public health restrictions. 

Cooper Bouton, head of the Will Rice College Socials Committee, attended public parties before the pandemic. He said his positive experiences at Risky Business, the Will Rice public, are part of what motivated him to lead the socials committee.

“I really enjoyed publics as a freshman,” Bouton, a senior, said. “Being a part of Will Rice and having a lot of fun at Risky Business my freshman year, I thought it’d be cool if I could contribute to that. From my experience as an underclassmen pre-COVID, I got to know a lot of people from other colleges by going to these intercollege events that are intentionally hosted with the idea of being open to everyone.”

Eliot Solomon, head of the McMurtry College External Socials Committee, was also influenced by his experiences at pre-COVID-19 publics.

“I did get to go to Y2K [in 2020]. It is usually in February, so it was sort of before the apocalypse,” Solomon, a junior, said. “My experiences – not just going to publics, but also the sort of culture around them that emerges when they’re happening regularly every week or two – was a big thing that made me interested in being on [the] external socials [committee].”

After the current senior class graduates, the number of Rice students who have planned – or even attended – a public will drastically decrease. According to sophomore Peter Townley, many socials committees have concerns about losing crucial knowledge about how to plan and execute a public. 

“If there isn’t [a public] this semester, I have no idea how it’s going to work, or how it’s going to come back, or if it’s going to come back at all,” Townley, a member of the socials committee at Jones College, said. “The culture of publics – I think that’s very important. It’s a defining factor of the college experience that I just haven’t had.”

To combat this loss of knowledge, the McMurtry External Socials Committee is trying to improve the documentation of their planning processes in order to preserve institutional knowledge, Solomon said.

“One thing that I’ve been trying to do while working to plan Y2K is to be organized as we’re going – to sort of build something that could be used as a guidebook to planning future publics,” Solomon said. “We put in a lot of effort combing through all the records and budgets and scraps of things and trying to condense [them] into a more synthesized place where you can see everything.”

According to Solomon, it may be difficult for the culture of publics to survive unless the newer classes get involved – sooner rather than later.

“Working on bringing these things back is definitely a process,” Solomon said. “It’s not just, snap your fingers, plan the event and then it’s back to its former glory. People need to be reminded what the traditions are, and lots of people need to be introduced to the traditions for the first time.”

The importance of publics

Socials committees also face the task of preserving the social culture of Rice, as publics have made up an integral part of student social life, according to Bouton. He said the pandemic can negatively affect cross-college interaction and encounters with new people, which provide an important break from academics.

“Publics are a really good space for meeting new people and reconnecting with acquaintances you have from other colleges,” Bouton said. “It remains to be seen if they’ll be able to come back and be like that again. Changeover documents are going to be really important in terms of having a process written down for people who haven’t done it before.”

According to Townley, lack of cross-college interaction is already the reality for many students.

“That’s one of the things that has defined my college experience: there hasn’t been much going to other colleges,” Townley said. “I haven’t stepped foot in Hanszen [College]. There [are] a bunch of colleges and people at these colleges I’ve just never met, because I’ve had no reason to.”

Solomon said publics’ accessibility to the undergraduate population fostered relationships across campus. He said public parties significantly helped promote inclusivity in Rice’s social culture.

“[When we have publics] you don’t get the diffused, scattered gatherings that have happened during [the pandemic and] that are a lot more dependent on who you know, what your friends are doing and what they have access to,” Solomon said. “The public parties at Rice play a bigger role than we might even realize in terms of cascading effects on other parts of Rice social culture.”

College socials in a slightly normal year

As socials committees grapple with this new reality, many are planning events as best they can given the current circumstances. According to Solomon, McMurtry has begun planning for Y2K, McMurtry’s public.

“Our strategy – and lots of other colleges are doing this too – is to start planning it as if it’s going to be a full big public as if in a normal year, and then if we have to cut it down from there based on restrictions or directives, we can do that,” Solomon said.

Duncan College junior Kathryn Gonzalez is one of the three heads of her college’s socials committee. Though COVID-19 limited the committee’s plans, she said they were still able to hold several successful party-like events last semester.

“We were really concerned about losing Duncan traditions, but I think we’ve done a good job of keeping those traditions alive and introducing them to underclassmen,” Gonzalez said. “By the time we hosted those events [College Night and DuncStep], most of the COVID restrictions had relaxed, so both events looked pretty similar to what they would have been before.”

Sophomore Wafa Mohamed, another head of the Duncan socials committee, said she has been working with her fellow committee members to adjust to constantly shifting plans.

“Before Omicron we were really looking forward to publics coming back this semester,” Mohamed said. “With the recent restrictions, we’ve had to reevaluate and figure out what we want to do – maybe shift towards a Duncan-only event, or limit the size, and maybe even have to do it outdoors.”

Gonzalez said DuncStep, Duncan’s public party normally held in the fall semester, was one of the Duncan-exclusive events the socials committee hosted last semester in lieu of a public party.

“It was just a fun time to have a whole lot of Texas decor, cowboy decor, everyone dressed up and their cowboy hats and boots, and flannel,” Gonzalez said. “We [had] a bunch of Duncaroos who’ve taken Country Western Dance classes teach everyone else the different dances to different songs.”

Though it may seem counterintuitive, making DuncStep exclusive to Duncan College may have actually boosted attendance to the event, according to Gonzalez.

“DuncStep kind of has a bad rap in the university,” Gonzalez said. “Pre-COVID, it was a completely dry public [and] was two-stepping-western themed. It’s known for not having a lot of attendees, but this year, we actually had a really good turnout, probably more than [in] my freshman year when it was still public.”

Gonzalez said she thinks that DuncStep as a college-exclusive event was much more fun because attendees were with familiar faces.

“People can get a little bit nervous dancing in front of others, so having that close community just having fun and goofing around made it a little less awkward,” Gonzalez said.

The Will Rice College Socials Committee has also considered transforming their public party to a private party, according to Bouton. 

“We’ve talked about having Risky Business just for Will Ricers if we’re not allowed to have intercollege publics, just so the underclassmen can get an idea of what it’s supposed to be like,” Bouton said. “I think it’s important to experience that to keep the culture going.”

Townley has also worked to coordinate events amid the pandemic.

“We’ve essentially tried to get as close as possible to a normal semester. The main difference is less cross-college interaction,” Townley said. “Usually we would’ve hosted a public by October, but we couldn’t do that. We’re still uncertain if we can do one at all this year.”

Jones freshman Walsh Klineberg competed in the college’s Floor Olympics, a yearlong competition between floors at Jones, and Freshman Hunger Games, a multi-round game between pairs from each floor. The events cultivated a sense of community, Klineberg said, and allowed him to meet new people within his residential college.

“[Freshman Hunger Games] definitely brought my floor [closer] together,” Klineberg said. “There were some people I hadn’t ever spoken to until that point. In terms of community building, it was really fun.”

The opportunity to promote community is what makes being part of the socials committee worthwhile, according to Townley. 

“When you’re working on an event and really helped plan it, seeing all the people brought together is very rewarding,” Townley said.

Despite the fears that COVID will have enduring effects on the social culture at Rice, change might not be entirely bad, according to Gonzalez. She said freshmen and sophomores, who aren’t attached to previous ways of doing things, have been offering new ideas.

“Because [Duncan is] such a young college, our traditions aren’t as set in place as the older colleges, and we really emphasize embracing new traditions and bringing new ideas to the table,” Gonzalez said. “It’s interesting to hear what [freshmen and sophomores] have to say and have to offer.”

Gonzalez said she thinks COVID-19 won’t affect social culture long-term if people who attended large cross-college events before the pandemic organize them this school year.

“If we’re not able to host these events for the next couple years, then I think that the student body will change their traditions, make new ones, and maybe lose some of what we’ve had previously,” Gonzalez said.

According to Mohamed, socials committees still have hope for normalcy this semester.

“I know it’s very difficult, and I know that there are so many bigger issues than just not being able to host social events,” Mohamed said. “But I do hope that there is a time where people can.”

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