Essay: Leading a student organization during the COVID-19 pandemic

Sunday, January 26, 2020, was a mildly cold winter day, but most people would’ve described 2020 thus far as anything but mild. Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani was assassinated, sparking World War III memes. Wildfires were raging, killing several people and decimating Australian wildlife. Impeachment hearings continued to roil D.C. The Korean Cultural Organization Executive Board was holding its once-a-term dinner that Sunday, only to be struck by the news of Kobe Bryant’s tragic death. All of these harsh realities were reflected on the drained faces of my fellow KCO e-board members.

The Korean barbecue was our way of bonding and unwinding amid the chaos. On this Sunday, the warm smoky air of soy sauce ribeye and the spicy garlic chicken kept the chills of winter and the pernicious politics far away. The camaraderie between us allowed for all of our nerves to calm. We laughed and talked about our ambitions for KCO’s upcoming spring term. But COVID-19 had yet to wreck every single event and idea we had originally envisioned, forcing the entire organization and me to rethink how we fundamentally exist and operate within the GW community.

KCO’s initial reaction to the pandemic was utter shock. Our largest event of the entire academic year – Korean Culture Night – joined the endless list of canceled events and lost networking opportunities. Because the event is KCO’s largest of the year, complete with Korean food, performances and cultural traditions, we use it as a means to compel more people to join the organization. But there was no KCN, so we had no new members or fresh applicants for the 2020-2021 e-board cycle. My roommate and I became the only upperclassmen on KCO’s leadership to keep the institutional knowledge of the organization alive, as we were the only members left that had served an entire term.

I wasn’t expecting much after a turbulent semester and not-so-stellar academics so vying for the KCO presidency felt like a reach. My internet repeatedly cut out during my interview and the committee couldn’t hear me articulate some of my points. After that, I presumed it was a done deal in someone else’s favor. But I was astonished at the decision email offering me the president position in big, bold black lettering at 9 p.m. that night. I had been selected to lead KCO through the pandemic, and I couldn’t be happier to accept this great honor.

I accepted the offer minutes after receiving the email, then the reality of this pandemic hit me. While I managed to get the strength to lead the finance division of KCO the past year, I still had the safety net of my president and now realized that was me. My previous president made the new group chat for the following year’s e-board, then left us to our own devices. I felt a deep pit in my stomach. I was finally on my own to make all these decisions and didn’t know where to start. This entire crusade was going to be a daunting task compounded by the uncharted pandemic. But I wasn’t going to back down from this fight or make the easy decision to quit as so many other veterans decided to do.

As for programming, we had to say goodbye to the normal, pre-COVID games of shoe toss and grab the “Kakao stuffed animal friend” potato sack races in the classrooms of Tompkins Hall or nearby on the National Mall. Instead, we implemented more virtual-friendly games, like Korean Culture Jeopardy, “Spykiller” and Korean Culture Kahoot. We’ve had to suspend mentorship outings in D.C. and substitute it with Zoom coffee hours. No more baked Korean Snack Sales in District House or potlucks with DMV organizations. We’re alternatively shipping Korean care packages with sealed Korean snacks.

For outreach during the pandemic, I knew we had to ramp up our social media presence. While we usually wait until fall to post anything, the police killing of George Floyd and ensuring social unrest prompted me to call an e-board meeting and take action. We kept the momentum early on from there as we planned how we wanted to present ourselves in such a radically different time. We aimed to become more personable on social media, with e-board members and I posting lengthier introductions and profile pictures on our Engage accounts. I had to publicly explain to my e-board the inner workings of GW Engage, Google Forms, the KCO Facebook page and Google Calendars while I fumbled through all the different features by myself. Confidence became a facade until I fully knew what I was doing, and I learned to be comfortable with being very uncomfortable.

Zooming together despite the echoing feedback and spotty connections, we still manage to create jokes and camaraderie during meetings I thought would never be possible over video chat. Through the fuzzy pixels and spotty audio, we’ve gotten to know each other through the little quirks of our homes that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Several strong candidates have applied to fill all of the e-board positions we feared we’d struggle to fill in fall. While this pandemic still hasn’t shown an end in sight, neither will the passion and commitment I still hold with others for KCO.

Liam Rho Studer, a junior majoring in political science and sociology, is an opinions writer.

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