Guildfest 2020

'Virtual Vybz', but still a nice time

By Vishani Ragoobeer

At the beginning of the new academic year, tents decorate the JFK quadrangle. There is a cacophony of voices, inquisitive yet excited, coupled with the buzz of activity associated with a week-long introduction to how the UWI St Augustine campus will make any academic journey worthwhile. That is Guild Fest, normally.

However, Guild Fest 2020, like innumerable events in 2020, was anything but normal. Instead, the 2020/2021 academic year started, and two weeks later, an intriguing virtual Guild Fest followed.

Kareem Charles, the Vice-President of the Guild of Students, was the person with the responsibility of planning and executing this year’s Guild Fest. Charles and his team had to contend with drastic, uncontrollable changes. First, it was anticipated that by the time the new academic year began, the student population would be back on campus. Then, the COVID-19 situation worsened, resulting in schools remaining closed for the rest of the calendar year.

“I had to quickly accept the fact that we were now operating in a 'new normal' and so the mode of delivery of our events had to change, and so the process of planning ensued,” Charles reflects.

As per normal, the virtual Guild Fest was centred on connecting students with the various clubs and national associations on campus, which might pique their interests, while delivering entertainment. Realistically, Charles contends, students would quickly become saturated if this was done over the usual one-week period, Moreover, maintaining their attention would be difficult. Cognisant of this, Kareem and the Guild team had to reconcile those challenges with the need to orient new students and give older students the opportunity to explore more.

And so, the increasingly popular “Sip and Chat” event, via Microsoft Teams, was tapped as the mechanism through which a virtual, condensed Guild Fest would be done. It was held in two parts, on September 29 and 30. The organisation of Sip and Chat allowed for clubs and associations to make presentations at a general, relaxed forum – where students in distant locations would have their beverage-filled glasses to sip on during the conversation. Then, there were “breakout rooms” managed by the clubs which allowed interested students to interact with the members and sign up for the clubs.

On the first day, all of UWI’s clubs and associations, save for the national associations, showcased their activities online. These included the religious societies, academic societies and just about every club you can imagine. On the second day, the national associations had their individual rooms where they represented their countries just as they would under their tents at JFK Quadrangle – with their flags out and their food on showcase, while blasting the island tunes.

Charles explained that these events allowed for the objectives of Guild Fest to be achieved, despite the campus lockdown: raising awareness of the clubs, associations, and activities on campus; providing the opportunity for extra-curricular engagement; and of course, having a good time.

“Though I missed the ability to physically go from tent to tent to visit the clubs with my friends, I truly enjoyed the virtual experience. Some clubs truly put a lot of effort into marketing themselves and making the Sip and Chat experience enjoyable,” says Chrisette Benjamin, a third year International Relations student.

Chrisette, like many other, did not know what to expect from a highlight event going virtual, and, going virtual in a space that had more than 30 different, simultaneous activities at that.

As expected, the seamless execution required meticulous planning. Aaron Payne, the Co-Deputy Chairperson of the Guild Publications Committee, was one Computer Science student who spearheaded the technical organisation required.

“The approach I took was one that was meant to inspire and equip them to produce their own virtual events beyond Guild Fest 2020,” he says, happily relating that he was proud to see the “innovative” styles various groups took in their breakout rooms.

“At first, the thought of it being virtual, with everything that was going on, was exciting,” says Arnel Edwards, a third-year Grenadian student in the Faculty of Science and Technology. “However, plans kept changing, and with every plan change, the date was pushed back. With that, all the excitement vanished and it was like 'if it happens it happens'.”

Though she was taken aback by the postponement of Guild Fest a few times, she was happy that this staple event still took place. In the Grenadian students’ breakout room, they had the opportunity to win an Amazon gift card if they could guess the weight of a breadfruit. True to their “Island of Spice” title, the Grenadian association also walked students through the spices you could find in their homeland.

The Saint Lucians brought out “Lucian Jeopardy” to engage any person stopping by their room, while the “Vincey” students took you on a journey through Caribbean music. In each of the rooms, it was easy to feel as though you were being transported to another country.

But Guild Fest was not just the two-day Sip and Chat sessions. In the weeks leading up to the event, the associations found ways to connect with students through social media. Wellecia Mullings, a second-year medical student and the Events Coordinator for the Guild’s Internal Affairs Committee spearheaded the “Get to Know your Associations” virtual trivia game.

“This was an opportunity to inform students about our neighbouring Caribbean countries and to bring awareness to Guild Fest,” she explains, relating also that the enthusiasm of students trying to show that they know more about their regional and international friends (and to win prizes) was infectious.

Though this year’s Guild Fest was certainly different, different clearly did not mean not as good.

“I must say that I am indeed pleased with the outcome of the event as the UWI Guild 2020 created history by planning and executing this event,” Chrisette says.

Vishani Ragobeer is a journalist from Guyana and a first year student of Leadership and Management. She is the winner of the 2018/2019 Young Journalist of the Year award.