By Katharine Webster
Ariel Shramko and Nilaish Sen met each other and nearly 60 other students online during the COVID-19 pandemic through the Office of Multicultural Affairs
’ virtual Student Success Summit, held just before classes began in fall 2020.
They wanted to stay in touch with the friends they’d made at the weeklong program that introduces new students to university resources – and each other. But with the campus mostly shut down, they didn’t know when they’d bump into each other again.
So Shramko and Sen, both Honors College
students, and another friend from the summit, Adil Faisal, decided to start a server on Discord, a popular group chat app that lets people communicate via voice, video or text. Then they invited the other students from the summit to meet up virtually and talk about their classes and challenges.
Almost everyone joined. Soon, Shramko and Sen invited students in their online classes, and their original group of friends did, too. Participation on the server, dubbed Riverhawk Rendezvous
, grew quickly.
“We became an online hangout space for people to make friends,” Shramko says. “Everyone on the Discord server has always been really kind and welcoming.”
The two quickly expanded their reach and provided resources they’d learned about at the Student Success Summit, including information about how to apply for fee waivers, add and drop classes, and find tutoring
“We decided to expand it when we realized that this was a wonderful resource for us,” Sen says. “We were enjoying meeting a lot of new people, as you do in college, so we wanted to share it with as many people as possible.”
They also posted links to Discord servers run by faculty and students in biology, chemistry, math, engineering and computer science. And they searched out UML student clubs and organizations with Discord servers that wanted to share links and posts about events, so students could connect to others who shared their interests.
“During the pandemic, students struggled with virtual events,” Sen says. “Discord servers opened that avenue to connect informally” and on their own schedules.
Shramko, an environmental engineering
major, and Sen, a biology
major with a bioinformatics option, also noticed that some of their classmates were struggling in their chemistry labs. They offered to hop on Discord and help them for an hour each Friday.
Soon, Riverhawk Rendezvous was hosting study groups in several science, math and engineering classes, including one started by Shramko for her section of Honors Physics I.
Things snowballed from there. Shramko and Sen say that about 3,500 students connected in fall 2020 – some just once or twice, to check out a club or get an answer to a question – while full-time membership grew from 500 in the fall to 1,200 in the spring.
Shramko and Sen enlisted trusted friends as moderators; they have clear rules against posting racist, sexist and other discriminatory or offensive comments and content. When they noticed members of the virtual community getting stressed, they promoted university mental health resources.
Dean of Equity and Inclusion Leslie Wong
, who also directs the Office of Multicultural Affairs, says the staff provide support and advice to the hosts of Riverhawk Rendezvous when they ask for it – but the server is entirely student-driven. She’s proud of Shramko and Sen and the other students who continue to offer help to new and continuing students, even as the campus fully reopened this fall.
Has that reopening diminished students’ interest in Riverhawk Rendezvous? Not at all, Shramko and Sen say. Their membership is up to 1,475, and they’re aiming to serve 2,000 students by the end of the school year.
“People are using it to make up for lost time and to set up meet-ups,” Sen says. “Now you can just set up a meet-up and you’ll meet 20 new people in a day.”
Riverhawk Rendezvous members can post their class schedules, making it easier to find study partners and form instant or ongoing study groups, Sen says. And Shramko and Sen have also deployed a Discord feature that provides a hub where members can see all the other UML-related Discord servers.
This fall, sophomores as well as first-year students were invited to attend the Engagement Fair in person, and Shramko and Sen took advantage of the opportunity to set up Discord partnerships with more student organizations.
They also got to meet each other and many of their Riverhawk Rendezvous friends in person for the first time – and put names to faces, Shramko says.
“When the professor first said my name in Calculus III, every single head turned because they knew my name from the server,” she says, laughing.