How advisers can help student organizations adjust for pandemic

The return of in-person learning this fall isn't limited to the classroom. Activities such as joining or leading one of Iowa State's hundreds of student organizations are essential opportunities.

Adviser with questions?

If you're a student organization adviser with questions about how to help your students navigate the fall, student activities center staff are happy to help. For general inquiries, contact Kevin Merrill at or 294-4055. For questions about events, contact Tim Reuter at 294-0404 or

"The student experience is important, and part of that is student organizations. We definitely want to encourage it as part of the in-person experience," said Kevin Merrill, assistant director for student organizations, leadership and service for the student activities center. "But we need to accomplish that in different ways now."

COVID-19 guidelines for student organizations call for promoting health and safety while still accomplishing group goals. They mirror the university's approach to academics and events, with 50% capacity limits in rooms, requirements to wear face coverings and maintain physical distance, and a preference for virtual interactions when feasible. Rules on food handling prohibit self-service meals (no table of pizzas at the club meeting). Overnight travel and visiting speakers are discouraged. Contact points such as handouts, giveaways and shared supplies should be limited as much as possible. ISU departments or national organizations that sponsor student groups may have more stringent protocols.

Faculty and staff who advise student groups should consider meeting with their student leaders to talk through the guidelines. The goal should be to balance an organization's priorities and COVID-19 exposure risks, emphasizing activities that are safe and those most important to the group's purpose.

"There is no one-size-fits-all solution. It's more of a step-by-step thought process," Merrill said.  

That could mean minor adjustments such as reducing meeting frequencies, replacing an awareness event with an email campaign, or shifting events online or outside. The pandemic also presents an opportunity to zero in on the essential aspects of an organization and design an innovative solution for achieving what's most critical.

"I think we can slow down a little bit and think about the most impactful version of a student organization instead of the busiest. Quality is the most important thing right now," Merrill said.

For events still being held, advisers should talk with students about how their plans will adapt to new realities on campus, Merrill said. Organizations may miss out on reaching many students if they don't offer virtual accessibility, and longer events make sense because there are fewer students on campus on any given day. That's the tack the student activities center will take with ClubFest this year, extending from one day to three and adding a weeklong virtual version.

The role of the faculty or staff adviser required for student organizations can be hands-on depending on the nature of the group, and advisers sign off on purchases and uses of university resources. But the organizations are run by students. If an adviser has concerns about the choices a group's leaders are making, referring to the guidelines and asking about how they apply may help nudge students to change course, Merrill said.

"I'd ask that question of those student leaders: Is this going to be a decision that's best for the health and safety of the members?" he said.

While health and safety precautions will limit some of what student organizations usually do, plotting a response and figuring out how to connect virtually is a chance for student leaders to tackle a timely piece of problem-solving, Merrill said. 

"That's the way the workforce is looking now anyway. It's good practice," he said.