Fred Wittmann has been planning events at UND for decades.
Events like Wake Up to UND and commencement are a staple at the university. They are typically filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of people coming together to celebrate achievements. They require meticulous planning every step of the way.
But the pandemic has changed that planning, forcing yearly events like Founders Day, commencement and the Feast of Nations to move to a virtual format. Although these events are, for now, being held online, Wittmann said there’s still a lot of time and effort being put into them.
“The fact that the live events have gone away in the pandemic does not mean that nothing's happened,” he said.
The university is still holding events over Zoom in an effort to bring together students and other members of the campus, Wittmann said.
UND Founders Day, which has been celebrated since 1904, honors members of the campus community. It’s typically a night of food and applause for faculty and staff. This year, it will be held over Zoom. UND President Andrew Armacost will host the event and a slide will feature each award winner and honoree. There’s also special music planned.
In March, the university will host its annual Feast of Nations online. The event typically sells out 1,000 tickets and features international dishes, promoting culture and diversity on campus. This year, it will feature a combination of recently recorded performances along with footage from previous years’ feasts.
While people may not be able to gather for a meal full of international cuisine, they’ll still be able to get a taste of international food this year through a drive-thru pick-up station on campus. Those who sign up before March 1 will be able to order food and pick it up at the university’s drive-thru window at the old Stomping Grounds, which hasn’t been used for several years. The food will be ready on March 6, said Monica Evavold, events and projects coordinator.
“We're offering it for anyone to participate and we're kind of looking forward to that,” she said.
The university also held all of its 2020 commencement ceremonies virtually. And Wittmann and Evavold say they’re still figuring out how to make the experience as engaging as possible for students and families.
During the upcoming spring commencement, already slated to be virtual, UND will be allowing students to sign up to walk across the commencement stage in a COVID-safe manner. Planners are seeking ways to potentially allow students to get a photo with the president, and other festivities typically associated with graduation.
It’s all a part of the learning experience, Wittmann said. He, and others, have been learning from those who have had experience planning virtual events for years to best understand how to make an online event engaging for individuals.
“It is challenging and it is fun,” he said. “Those two things are not mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination.”
Planning these virtual events has given Wittmann, and everyone involved, a chance to think about what the goals of commencement and other events are, he said.
“Instead of focusing on what typically happens, we’re going back to that more basic, primary level. What are we trying to have the participants get out of this?” Wittmann said. “What is the experience we want them to have? And then we’re working toward that. It's been a challenge to come up with different ways to do that, and there are some things you can't replicate. But there are many things that you can at least come close to.”
Meloney Linder, UND's vice president of marketing and communications, said the university also is looking at how to keep up engagement during events, while discussing how to keep some virtual aspects even after events return to in-person.