As UConn adjusted over the past year to strict measures to guard against the spread of COVID-19 on its campuses, it faced another challenge: how to keep students engaged in University life and connected with each other, but in ways that didn’t compromise their health and safety.
With input from groups throughout the University, its Division of Student Affairs last summer launched a central site and initiative, known as uKindness. It allows students from all campuses to check for online activities or events that are outdoors and/or socially distanced, along with providing mental health resources and other helpful information.
And weather permitting, one of its biggest and most visible initiatives yet will be open starting Thursday, Feb. 4: An expansive ice rink, professionally built and coordinated by UConn Student Activities, will open for student skating on the Great Lawn at UConn Storrs.
It comes just a few days after the Feb. 1 launch of Jonathan’s Challenge, in which students can collect points toward rewards and a prize over the next eight weeks by participating in a wide range of recreational, academic and social events.
In addition to providing fun activities and resources, officials say, uKindness and its related initiatives serve a critically important role for the student body and the University as a whole.
Unlike previous generations of undergraduates at UConn, current on-campus students must comply with quarantines, limits on gatherings, frequent COVID testing, and other stresses due to pandemic conditions – all on top of normal life stresses from academics, employment, and family.
All of those factors combined create potential for isolation that could significantly affect students’ mental health, creating feelings of being confined and disengaged at exactly the time when they may be away from family and need the support of peers and a compassionate community, UConn officials say.
“This has been an extremely challenging year for the entire University community, but particularly for our students,” says Joseph Briody, interim assistant vice president for the UConn Division of Student Affairs and director of UConn Student Activities, and creator of the UKindness initiative.
“On the plus side, it has also been a year of significant collaboration across UConn as we re-think how we do what we do and support each other in our work,” Briody says. “We think we’re in an even better position to offer students ways to engage, connect, and stay healthy during the spring.”
The new ice rink is expected to be particularly popular, with skating sessions hosted at particular days and times for which students can pre-register for a time slot. Student Activities will offer a skate rental system and has student volunteers in place who will shovel the rink daily to ensure the ice is fresh, and people will be able to reschedule their time slots if weather conditions cancel their original reservation.
The Daily Campus helped to spread the word with a recent story on the ice rink and other student engagement initiatives, including the Community Connection Ambassadors program in which students engage in virtual one-on-one chats with others who can guide them to activities, student organizations and other resources.
The activities are offered by a range of UConn groups and divisions, including UConn Recreation, the UConn cultural centers, Student Health and Wellness (SHaW) Mental Health, and many others. Activities cover a wide range of interests and have included interests as varied as online yoga, online bingo, knitting groups, trivia nights, leadership programs, documentary screenings, the Benton Museum Challenge, virtual involvement fairs, and many other activities.
The uKindness site also was a resource for pre- and post-election event information last fall with information on how to acquire and cast an absentee ballot, the Dodd Center’s Democracy and Dialogues Initiative, and tips for coping with strong emotions brought about by election season.
“Joe (Briody) and his team have provided such innovative leadership during the pandemic for our students,” says Eleanor JB Daugherty, UConn’s associate vice president and dean of students. “We know this academic year has been far from normal, but these efforts ranging from a new peer ambassador program, to virtual challenges, to literally creating a skating rink in the middle of campus, demonstrate the Husky spirit always perseveres.”