A Very Different Sort of Blastoff Experience

Kent State University classes start tomorrow.

In some ways, it’s like the beginning of any new school year. The air is thick with sweltering heat and humidity. Students walk around on campus. We all feel a sense of anticipation and anxiety for what the new year will bring.

At the same time, we’ve never seen a school year like this one. A pandemic is forcing the majority of classes online. All of the people on campus wear masks and stay six feet apart from each other. Students openly speculate that it’ll be three weeks before an outbreak of COVID causes everything to shut down like back in March.

I still believe that this could be a great year. The Staff and student-leaders of H2O have been making a lot of meaningful connections with the Class of 2024 over the past couple of weeks. Students are hungry for community. And it seems like there may be even more openness to spiritual things than usual. But we’re all still learning as we go. Things are a lot different from how they usually are.

One of the most obvious points of contrast was this week’s attempt at a “Virtual Blastoff” event, where students get connected to different student organizations on campus. Usually, Kent State’s Blastoff looks like this:

Last year, nearly 800 students filled out the H2O Interest Survey at our “booth” in the veritable “carnival” of Blastoff. We had dozens of returning students running our Goldfish Game, sitting at our Info Table, and offering other students the opportunity to fill out a survey in exchange for a coupon for some free pizza from Guy’s Pizza downtown. All in one three-hour stretch in the heart of campus.

This year, we followed the University’s directives to prepare for two nights of Blastoff activities online. We opened ourselves up to anyone looking for a Service Organization on Monday, and to anyone looking for a Religious Organization on Wednesday. We staffed our church’s Zoom account with ten pairs consisting of one Staff member plus one student-leader, waiting in Zoom Breakout Rooms to interact with visitors.

Total visitors to this year’s Virtual Blastoff: seven. Not seven-hundred (which would have been a slight drop from the previous year). Seven.

My Breakout Room was lucky in getting one of the visitors. But even at that, the student initially joined our conversation with his video and audio disabled. When we registered confusion, he turned on his video to show that he was there. Still, he never enabled his audio, nor did he give any explanation for why he had it turned off. Even though he seemed to be alone his his dorm room, he had a mask tight over his mouth. And even his text communication (through the chat function on Zoom) was halting and awkward. My Breakout Room partner, Meg, was a champ. Together we made it through our awkward, one-sided conversation with the new student. But it was painful. A far cry from the fun of our typical Blastoff experiences.

It’s a weird start to a weird school year at Kent State University. But I’m still hopeful. We empowered our leaders to go out, two-by-two, like Jesus sending the seventy-two — and we managed to get about a hundred responses to our survey, even without much Blastoff engagement. The quantity of our interactions has been diminished, but the quality of our interactions has been significantly improved. We’re praying that God will do His work this year, in spite of the challenges.

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