Tea-ing, the process organized to acquaint students with societies they might apply to join, looks different this semester. The tea season, which started the first week of March, is now entirely virtual because of COVID; students interested in Agora, Tau Zeta Epsilon (TZE), Alpha Phi Sigma (Phi Sig), Zeta Alpha (ZA), Alpha Kappa Chi (AKX) and the Shakespeare Society (Shakes) have been exploring their prospective social and academic groups over Zoom. Apart from the format changes, societies have also modified the time, number, content and dates of their teas to accommodate students who may be joining from across the globe on their computers.
In a normal spring semester, tea season would have started earlier. The societies’ open houses, which are the first events for potential tea-ers to attend, did not take place until Feb. 21, much later than in previous years. Most societies had their first teas in the last two weeks.
According to Katie Twiss ’21, the president of Shakes, her society did not start its teas until Mar. 10. Shakes, like AKX and Phi Sig, did not have a tea season last semester.
“We definitely want to get it right, so we’re trying not to rush it,” Twiss said. “I think that that was probably my first instinct this semester was just like, ‘Oh, we’re feeling up to taking newbies again, let’s get some newbies in here’ … and just offer that support that Shakes has offered me. I think that it would be a mistake to rush into it without being really mindful of the application process and the changes that we have to make to it.”
Shakes is still deciding on the details for their modified semester. One of the decisions they are facing is whether to put on a virtual production of a Shakespeare play. In contrast to the other societies, which host events corresponding to their separate themes, Shakes is a performance society and normally puts on a play each semester.
This spring, Shakes is considering other options for smaller events open to the whole campus. One option brought up during a meeting was creating an open lobby of the online game Among Us for all students.
“[We’re] just trying to get us to talk to people from other communities on campus and just offer everybody a little bit of levity,” Twiss said.
Due to Zoom fatigue and time zone difference concerns, Shakes is having teas last one hour instead of the normal two-hour chunks. They have also added another tea, for a total of four. ZA, the literary society, hosted two teas on each tea day this year, as opposed to the usual one. Their teas started Feb. 23 and continued through last week. Agora also added another tea this year and hosted its teas at different times instead of solely in the evening, which is when they normally are.
Sophia Angus ’23, who is a membership coordinator for Agora and responsible for co-planning the society’s tea season, received feedback last semester that tea-ers had a harder time getting to know people in the virtual format. Agora, which is the political society, usually incorporates a political game into its teas; however, this did not translate well to Zoom. Angus has learned from that experience and tried to get past the lack of natural connection Zoom creates this semester.
“It’s hard for people to have the same kind of connection they have in person because you can’t really read body language the same way,” Angus said. “I think we tried to have … different types of questions when we’re getting to know people so people still feel like they’re getting to know each other.”
Though ZA is still planning its events for the semester, co-tea chair Meiya Sparks Lin ’22 thinks fewer events open to the entire campus will be hosted this semester due to the pandemic. Still, Sparks Lin, who plans ZA’s teas, maintains that the society is mostly functioning as usual.
“Really, what’s different now is that it’s just online,” Sparks Lin said.
They predicted ZA’s tea attendance numbers would drop due to the pandemic but have found that the numbers have been about the same, a sentiment Angus echoed about Agora. Some tea-ers have been encouraged by the increased desire for community that COVID isolation has created.
“I think it probably made me want to tea more,” Julia Leslie ’24, who is applying to AKX, said. “I heard society members talk about how it was a really great community and it really felt like a family … I think it’s a great way to make more connections with COVID keeping us all distanced.”
On the other hand, some potential tea-ers felt deterred by the added stress of a Zoom tea season. One Phi Sig applicant, who preferred to remain anonymous, also attended some teas last year but was less sure about the decision to tea this spring.
“If anything it would’ve made me a bit too nervous to tea, but I ended up still doing it,” she said. “You have to be more deliberate about it when you want to get someone’s attention … That is a bit more awkward and difficult, but I think all the societies have done a great job.”
The anonymous student, apart from attending teas, has made an effort to ask Phi Sig members to meet over Zoom and in-person, albeit socially-distanced. Some societies that previously banned members and tea-ers from connecting over social media have changed that rule this year, noting that it is already hard enough to connect without face-to-face contact. Even Angus, who has been a part of Agora since last spring, does not feel as connected to her fellow members because they were forced to leave campus in the middle of their bonding time after initiation.
For first-years, who have never experienced a normal semester, it can be even harder to judge the societies.
“I found that everyone was so nice at most of the societies, so I kept going to … a bunch of the teas for a bunch of them to kind of just figure out which one seems like my coolest fit, so that was just a little bit tough,” Leslie said. “I mean, maybe it’s easier in-person versus virtual to get the feel of the members and the vibe of the society.”
Eventually, though, Leslie settled on AKX, the history society. She is an intended history major, and she also clicked the most with AKX members.
“I think it was really affected by how the societies structured their teas,” she said. “For some teas I would go to … they would just leave it as a big group on the Zoom … whereas in the last couple teas for AKX … we were put into really small breakout rooms where we were able to talk more intimately.”
Leslie and other tea-ers cited reasons such as the desire for community, alum networks and social and academic events as reasons why they want to join societies. This semester much is uncertain, but the societies are looking ahead to a return to normal campus life. The societies that have their own houses on campus — ZA, TZE and Shakes — are trying to regain access to them, since they have been barred from entering since March 2020.
“What I miss the most is being able to have tea-ers come into the house and smell fresh-baked cookies in the kitchen, have a hot cup of tea waiting in the meeting room, and just like [see] a bunch of smiling faces and to physically have those interactions and those conversations with people who are just really excited about our community,” Twiss said.
Although the teas lack physical connection this year, members say there have been some benefits to the Zoom format. Angus finds attending meetings less taxing because she can be in her bed, and she has noticed that tea-ers are more relaxed about the dress code this year. The new schedules have also been beneficial.
“It’s really nice to have this support system,” Sparks Lin said. “I think everyone is cognizant of the fact that a lot of people are having a hard time, people are in different time zones, so a lot of people can’t make it to certain events, and … we’re coordinating around people’s schedules more, which is actually really nice.”
The societies hope for a future without the pandemic, but they have all focused their tea seasons this semester to adapting to the current situation. Twiss’ goals for the rest of the year are cohesion and outreach, a sentiment echoed by the other societies.
“No one wants tea season to be a burden. And I think with everything going on right now, social interaction for some people is just really taxing, or social interaction can be really rejuvenating,” Angus said. “So I think … everyone just wants you to be comfortable … We just want you to know who we are, and if it fits, then it fits.”