First student forum of 2021 with the administration sees low turnout, open discussion

By Dyana Daniels, News Editor

President Kwang-Wu Kim addressed Columbia’s newest COVID-19 guidelines, Manifest plans and game plans for future student forums. Kaylie Slack

To kick off the semester, President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim and his senior staff hosted the first of two virtual forums to update students on COVID-19 safety measures at the college and present plans for the semester.

But due to low turnout, the forum became less about answering pre-submitted questions and more about creating a dialogue with the four students present.

Three key topics were at the forefront of conversation during the Friday, Jan. 29 Zoom call: COVID-19 updates, 2021 Manifest and Commencement plans and the future of these forums.

COVID-19 Updates

Even though the COVID-19 guidelines change often, Columbia is looking for new opportunities this semester to allow more flexibility and increase the number of activities that allow students to gather and interact more freely on campus, Kim said.

“I think that our college has been very responsible and very willing to think about what it means to be a member of our community and make responsible decisions that impact others,” Kim said. “For those of you who are on this call, I want to thank you for that, because it could have been a lot worse.”

The college is hoping to learn “key lessons” in what has and has not worked during the pandemic. From there, Kim said he hopes to apply what is learned for years to come.

The college sent out multiple emails to inform students, faculty and staff of COVID-19 protocols and where to get tested toward the end of the Fall 2020 semester and prior to the start of this semester, as reported by the Chronicle.

As said in the emails and mentioned in the forums, employees and students must be tested before they come to campus.

“We want to try to start the spring semester as clean as possible,” Chief of Staff Laurent Pernot said during the forum. “We have seen a strong response from the students. We were having about 200 students getting tested a day.”

Manifest and Commencement

Last year, the college had six weeks to plan for a virtual Manifest. This year, the college hopes to create an enhanced experience with a few in-person events by working alongside academic departments and Campus Safety and Security for Manifest’s 20th anniversary.

“[The events] will be very targeted—mostly things that you can observe from the outside and some limited hybrid, live broadcast and in-person events,” said Kari Sommers, associate dean of Student Life.

Similarly, commencement will be a virtual experience that the college hopes will feel as realistic as possible by encouraging students to submit headshots to be displayed when their name is announced.

“We want the feeling that you have truly celebrated and not just with your families, but with us,” said Sheila Carter, assistant dean of Student Life.

The college is in the process of creating a portal on the Engage App for all things commencement, Carter said, but students should look out for a link in their Columbia emails in the next few weeks.

A graduation fee is applied to all students eligible for graduation, regardless of whether or not they choose to participate in the ceremony.

The $175 fee does not cover everything, but it helps to lessen the costs incurred by the college in the graduation process. This year’s fee includes the added cost of shipping diplomas inside of their covers to students’ homes.

Future Forums

Because of the forum’s low turnout, Kim and other administrators discussed how to get more students interested in attending. Kim pointed to cabinet members like Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David, who teaches a Big Chicago class, as people who can help bridge the gap between students and his cabinet to understand what students experience firsthand.

Overall, Kim hopes for more open discussions with students this semester.

“What I want to do this semester, if possible, is more forums that are not about telling you about testing and vaccinations,” Kim said. “I want to talk about [other] stuff. I would like to hear what our students think about what happened at the Capitol building on Jan. 6. I really like to understand what that looks like to students. We are going to try to do that. We are going to try to see if that triggers interest if we use this format.”