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Plan II Honors

2020 Worthington Essay Contest

Grand Prize:  $5000 - Brendan Walsh
First-Year Prize: $3500 (best essay written by a first-year student) - Anna Pate
Second Place Prize:  $2500 - William Hearne

2020 Essay Prompt: Building Community during a Pandemic

You are the incoming vice president of the Texas Oilbirds, a service-oriented student organization at the University of Austin. The TBs (also called “the Birds*”) have been around since the early 1970s, and are best known as hosts of several university-wide social and academic events. In a typical year, the Birds would host several guest lectures, sponsor a campus picnic (typically attended by hundreds of students), organize a career fair, and coordinate various service projects.

This year, in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s clear that many of the traditional activities for your student organization won’t be possible. But the student leadership and their faculty mentors are nevertheless committed to coordinating some enriching, community-building activities.

In a recent Facetime chat with the TB officers, President Bailey Freedman outlined the challenges of the year ahead:

“Of course we could just move everything online. But the problem isn’t just a matter of finding the best app or getting a good webcam or whatever. I don’t want to organize a guest lecture and have only five people log on. Or even if we had a lot of people log on, I don’t want them to feel like they’re just watching a TEDTalk on YouTube. I want people to feel connected—not just to the event, but to each other, and to this organization. I want our 800 members to feel like they were Oilbirds this year. Like it was actually part of their life.

“So we need to figure out how to help them connect with each other (safely, of course, we don’t want to be the epicenter of an outbreak) but we also need to figure out how we, meaning the officers, communicate with them. Obviously we keep the website updated and we post on social media about what the Birds are doing, but what else, specifically? I don’t want to just be sending texts and emails into the void and hoping that somebody’s reading on the other end.

“And besides promoting our events, there’s this whole other layer of informal communication we need to somehow facilitate. There’s all the networking that normally happens when people mingle. I mean—I met my roommate and my thesis advisor just by chatting at the Bird picnic while we were waiting for garden burgers to get cooked. What replaces that kind of social interaction?”

In approximately 1500 words, come up with a plan for building community within your student organization safely, given the constraints of social distancing during a pandemic. In preparation for your essay, consider the meaning and value of community.

*Though the origin of the name “oilbirds” is uncertain, it’s generally believed to reference the industrial pumpjacks commonly seen in rural Texas. The name could also be a reference to Steatornis caripensis, a peculiar Caribbean bird, commonly called an oilbird, that navigates by echolocation.  

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