Creative community-building during a pandemic school year

June 15, 2021

a collection of illustrations including a coffee cup and donut, people hiking, a halloween costume, a zoom screenshot, and cartoon creatures walking
All illustrations by Robert Brinkerhoff

By Karen Shih

From virtual walking challenges to Halloween trivia and socially-distanced hikes, Heller students have found ways to stay connected during a challenging pandemic school year. Since students have been unable to share the same physical classroom, they’ve relied on fun events created by the Heller Student Association (HSA) and other students and staff members to bond.

“When I discovered Heller would be moved online for my first year, I knew it would require adaptation and intentionality on my part to feel connected. An HSA email caught my eye, and I ran for the position as events co-coordinator knowing that this would be a great way to foster continued connections while virtual,” says HSA Event Coordinator Hannah Lougheed, MA SID/MS GHPM'22. “Now, a year later and many successful events past (huge shoutout to events co-coordinator Heidi Mizenko, MBA’21!), I am excited to step up to become HSA co-chair to continue growing these relationships in the year to come.”

Here are five great events that brought the Heller community together this year:

Heller Walking Challenge

cartoon illustration of a unicorn, a chili pepper and a foot exercising

The HSA Great Walking Challenge was a friendly competition to see who could get the most steps from October 11 to December 5. With fun names like the Prancing Unicorns, Red Hot Chili Steppers and Happy Feet, teams competed for Heller swag and bragging rights.

  • Teams: 12
  • Students: 72
  • Steps taken by winning team, “Walk It Out”: 3,850,040 (roughly the distance from Boston to Colorado)

“Many used the opportunity to walk their ballots or vote in person,” says Lougheed. “We set the bar high for those looking to participate in our 2nd Annual HSA Great Walking Challenge to take place in Fall 2021!”

Abigail Werner, MBA’22, says, “As a first-year student at Heller, the first virtual semester was hard, especially making friends… I also found myself spending too much time sitting in one place. We had a group of eight people, and it gave us a sense of accountability outside of our school work. Being a full-time grad student, you have a lot of pressure to meet requirements and deadlines, so this was a totally different way to have fun. Even though we all came from different backgrounds and had different levels of fitness and hobbies, we all got what we wanted out of it, and everyone was accepting of each other’s personal goals. I’m now excited for the next walking challenge, which includes students from the other graduate schools!”

All Heller Halloween Trivia Night

cartoon of a dog wearing a scooby-doo mask, sitting on a 'trivia' book and flanked by a jack-o-lantern and a cartoon ghost

Held during Halloween weekend, this spooky game drew teams of 4-6 people, and the night ended with gift card prizes for the winning team, which dressed up as the gang from Scooby-Doo.  

Akshita Sankepally, MBA’21, says, “I love trivia, so I thought this would be a great way to get to know other Heller students while doing something I enjoyed. It was really fun choosing our costumes together! We really wanted to have a group costume, and after a couple of conversations, we settled on dressing up as Scooby-Doo characters. My puppy also got in on the fun—he dressed up as Scooby. My team members and I all worked together in various classes throughout the semester, so it was really nice to be able to get to know them outside of class.”

Coffee/Cocktails with the Dean

illustration of a donut and a coffee cup with Dean Weil's face on it

Since joining Heller in 2017, Dean David Weil has hosted monthly “Coffee with the Dean” sessions, with tea, coffee, and doughnut holes for everyone. When the pandemic moved all activities online, the monthly gathering shifted at times to an evening event, and even included competitions for community members to submit their favorite coffee or cocktail recipes.

Noah Mark ’19, MS’21, who won best recipe during the first Coffee with the Dean of the school year, says “It tastes like coffee ice cream!”

  • 2 shots of espresso
  • 2 shots of decaf
  • almond milk
  • cinnamon

Mark says, “I went to Brandeis for undergrad and it was such a welcoming and warm community. Since everything was online this year, it was tougher to get that sense of community. The Coffees with the Dean helped provide an opportunity to meet informally and build a sense of community outside of class, where you’re doing work and can’t socialize. It was great to meet people outside of my program and learn what they’re doing.”

Hallway Chat: Alumni Edition

illustration of a zoom screenshot of five people arranged in a 3-dimensional hallway

In collaboration with the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, HSA hosted a panel of five alumni doing work across various sectors. The event drew 57 attendees, who had the chance to attend breakout sessions with each alum.

Udit Kumar, MA SID’21, says, “The thing that attracted me to this event was the ability to make connections ahead of time for what’s to come in my career. I’m graduating in August so I’m planning ahead. Each of the alumni had a lot to offer, but since I know I want to work for USAID or another agency in the government sector, I sought out Colin Holmes, MA SID’07, who works in the Office of Land and Urban Development for USAID. Hearing his story about how his path led him to USAID was encouraging and gave me a sense of hope while we’re all isolated and not able to connect as much as we usually can.”

Hiking and Coffee in the D.C. area

illustration of three people hiking while socially-distanced and wearing face masks

Though there were few opportunities to connect in person this year, students like Lougheed and Kumar safely gathered about a dozen students in the Washington, D.C., area for a few socially-distanced, outdoor meet ups in the fall and spring.

“We met for a chilly Sunday afternoon hike at a local public park then enjoyed a nice hot drink afterwards outside of a Starbucks. It was a great chance to enjoy being outside, get active, and enjoy the company of our typically virtual classmates,” says Lougheed.