Student organizations foster community and connections on campus
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nicolas Dunsworth found himself with more time on his hands to explore new interests.
The move to online instruction left many University of Missouri–St. Louis students like Dunsworth isolated at home with time to kill. Coincidentally, the hit Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit,” which details the life of fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon, premiered in October 2020, resulting in a boom of chess writing and YouTube content.
Dunsworth, a graduate mathematics student, was drawn in by that boom and spent a year playing casually online at chess.com.
Once in-person classes resumed, Dunsworth – also an avid soccer fan – eagerly joined the Tritons Football Club during the fall 2022 semester. The group of soccer enthusiasts gathers for friendly pickup games on Fridays after classes, and Dunsworth quickly recognized he was also in the company of fellow chess players.
“When we were waiting to start a pickup game because somebody had the field, we’d all pull out our phones and start playing online chess,” Dunsworth recalls.
After that realization, the group went to the Office of Student Involvement to start a chess club, only to find that another student beat them to the punch. Corey Hancock, an ardent chess player since his youth and counseling doctoral student, started the UMSL Chess Club after being shocked to learn there wasn’t one.
“I was pleasantly surprised that there were already 10 students who were playing together as a group,” Han- cock says. “They had intended to start a chess club, so it was going to happen one way or another. Since then, we’re at 40 in our group.”
The two clubs have now formed a symbiosis, sharing several members and meeting on the same days. They are just two of 61 student organizations recognized by the Office of Student Involvement, ranging from academic clubs to cultural associations to service fraternities. Yet no matter their focus, they have become a beacon for students seeking connection and enrichment on campus after the isolating experience of the early pandemic.
ALPHA PHI OMEGA
Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed fraternity, focuses specifically on service activities. Elexis Hubbard, a social work major, served two terms as president of the organization. Hubbard was drawn to Alpha Phi Omega’s volunteer work, something she’s been immersed in since childhood when her family would feed unhoused people with various church groups.
Today, she’s bonded with other members of the organization over a shared desire to aid others.
“Everybody comes for different reasons, from a different background,” Hubbard says. “Some people, this is what they’ve done for most of their life, and they really enjoy it. They really want to continue that in college. Some people want to get more involved and want to be more active within the community. So, something like this is a great way to start.”
Alpha Phi Omega’s mission is to be of service to others, with particular focus in four areas: serving the fraternity, serving the campus, serving the community and serving the nation.
In pursuit of those goals, the organization has led various activities, including a campus food drive and events contributing to Project Linus – a national nonprofit that provides handmade blankets for needy children.
However, the project that stands out most in Hubbard’s mind is a cleanup effort in Kinloch, Missouri, just northwest of the UMSL campus. The project started at the beginning of last school year, and UMSL partnered with APO chapters at other universities as well as several other campus organizations to pick up trash and trim back overgrown grass and shrubs.
“I felt accomplished, even though it was just a small part of the community,” Hubbard says.
This semester, Alpha Phi Omega also teamed up with the Pierre Laclede Honors College on a campus-wide Project Linus effort as part of UMSL Serves, the university’s initiative to complete 60,000 hours of community service by May.
Community is the mission of Triton Vets, which aims to support those transitioning from military life to university life. Irina Biedenstein – U.S. Army veteran, president of the organization and a business administration major – says there are many moving parts to that kind of transition, and it can often be overwhelming without help.
“We can always help them get connected on campus just as much as the Veterans Center helps them with their benefits when they get out,” she says. “We’re there to support the other parts of it. We have a community here. You’re not losing the camaraderie that you had when you were in service. It’s still here in a different form.”
Triton Vets was a natural fit for Biedenstein, who already works at the Veterans Center and enjoys helping people. Last school year, when the group was looking for a treasurer, she readily accepted the position. By the end of the spring semester, she took the opportunity to move into her current role.
Joseph Kalter, a U.S. Army veteran and social work student, had a similar experience. He began studying at UMSL right before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and when students returned to campus, he naturally found a second home, as well as a position, at the Veterans Center. For Kalter, joining Triton Vets seemed like an easy way to get more involved on campus and advocate for veterans.
He adds that there is a well-documented sense of loss of purpose for many veterans as they move back to civilian life. Triton Vets fills that need and provides “immediate kinship” through regular group meetings, service projects and community outreach. One particularly meaningful outreach event was a 9/11 remembrance, in which the organization invited members of the UMSL community to plant flags on the South Lawn outside the Millennium Student Center.
“It didn’t end up feeling somber,” Kalter says. “It felt important; it felt good. It felt nice to talk to people about that, having people come up being inspired to talk to us about people in their family and why it was important to them, having that chance to just talk to people and really connect over something so important.”
This semester, Triton Vets increased its outreach effort, which has garnered a lot of interest in the organization. Biedenstein has worked to understand what fellow veterans want, specifically focusing on two areas: more meet-and-greet events and more information sessions on resources available to veterans. In the future, she also hopes to plan recreational outings, such as laser tag and paintball.
“A lot of us struggle with taking a break, and that’s what I want us to have sometimes,” she says.
UMSL CHESS CLUB
Junior Alexander Orywall, a member of the UMSL Chess Club, founder of the Tritons Football Club and president of the Student Government Association, says the chess club, which meets weekly, is only partially about members improving their game. When it comes down to it, Orywall says the club is really about community.
“Meeting new people, feeling connected to people and having a community, that was really big for me,” he explains. “I enjoy this because there’s so many people here that are from all different backgrounds.”
The club plans to increase its event programming throughout the year. Hancock, who founded the club last semester, anticipates attending at least one competitive chess tournament at the St. Louis Chess Club, something most of the members have yet to experience.
“Most of the players that I’ve talked to, they started playing chess during the pandemic, so they started playing online,” Hancock says. “A lot of us don’t have a lot of in-person experience. There might be one or two, including myself, that’ve played in tournaments. It’s a very profound experience. There’s some anxiety to it, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Although there can be anxiety inherent in joining a new organization, there’s no need to worry on UMSL’s tight- knit campus.
“I know that first time going it’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know anybody,’” Orywall says. “But you will meet people. You will get to know people, and I think that’s the great thing. If you’re on the fence, don’t worry about not knowing anybody. Once you’re here, all those worries will be gone. It’s something really great.”
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