Image Credit: Enactus York
'Life in Lockdown' is an interview series focusing on people, organisations or student societies who are adapting to isolation in interesting and innovative ways. If you’d like to talk about your experiences in lockdown or share how your student group has adjusted during the pandemic, email@example.com; we’d love to hear from you.
Enactus is a student-run non-profit organisation that has branches in several universities across the globe, including York. Projects delivered by its students focus on instigating positive change within communities, with planned outcomes centred around the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Students involved with Enactus work directly with the communities which the projects are designed to benefit, adopting a hands-on approach that aims to involve the beneficiaries of the project directly.
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown have forced all York societies online for the indefinite future. Student societies are preparing to head into a very different year from any before, with their members taking on challenges that they could not have foreseen when they joined. Earlier this month, I spoke with Alex, President of Enactus York, and Salomé, their Vice-President about their activities and aims, and the effects that social distancing restrictions may have on their future running as a society.
I began by asking them how the lockdown has affected their running as a group. The functioning of societies inevitably had to alter during the full lockdown, and whilst most students will return to campuses this autumn, notable challenges lie ahead for committees and members. However, it soon became clear that Enactus has avoided the fate potentially awaiting societies who fail to engage with their members online. Their internal organising and online communication have been consistent, keeping member activity and involvement going. Salomé explained to me that Enactus was already in a good position to transition to working fully online during the pandemic, as members come from all over the world – they are very used to meeting online to complete projects during the holidays. Their members continue working when university is out; Enactus’ Summer Action Programme pre-existed COVID-19, with all events and work taking place online.
One area where the jury is out for the time being regards the recruiting of new members. This, and the uncertainty surrounding what will be allowed in terms of social gatherings presents an existential threat to some societies. The immediate future may involve trialling new social experiences, with activities likely to be hosted both online and in-person. Salomé is keen to emphasise that at Enactus, they “don’t take anything as a failure, but rather as a learning experience.” Being adaptable to new situations is a key skill Enactus instils in its members, and the team is ready to find new ways of engaging with the student community.
An offhand remark from Salomé about the team’s usage of RACI charts to organise the workload prompted a swift Googling from me after the meeting concluded, as I was totally unfamiliar with the method. This is a minor but significant example of the high level of diligence that the team has; Enactus appears to encourage a level of professionalism amongst its members that demonstrates the best that a student society can achieve.
Their swift adaptation to the current situation is indicative of the global trend shift to online working that is happening in numerous workplaces. Yet, from talking to Alex and Salomé, it feels apparent that the pandemic only sped up a process that was already in motion. They emphasise that whilst the pandemic presents challenges for all organisations, it can also be used as an opportunity for growth and the uptake of new skills.
Indeed, although the pandemic has brought challenges to all aspects of communication, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. For Alex and Salomé, it is clear that many societies only need to be willing to adapt in order to continue. Social media is now more important than ever. Alex told me that societies will survive where “adjustments” can be made to their ordinary proceedings, and where the society can build a social media following and contacts. With a multitude of tools and resources available for students to learn how to do this, students are ironically better equipped than ever to begin on this journey as publicity officers, secretaries and other spokespeople for their societies.
Moving on from discussing member engagement, our interview turned to the nitty-gritty of the work that Enactus does. At the heart of their organisation is the creation of projects with the goal of improved sustainability at the forefront. In light of this, I asked Alex and Salomé for their thoughts about how people would engage with concepts of sustainability when COVID-19 has caused a shift in priorities for many due to economic hardship. Firstly, they explained that Enactus functions as a “three-sided coin”: (student) members, beneficiaries and sponsors. In-person engagement between the three has previously been paramount to a successful project. As social distancing prevents many physical gatherings, Alex acknowledged that this aspect of their working had become more difficult as a result of the pandemic; their standard practise of going to the beneficiary rather than having them come to them was based on informal, in-person contact with the local community. However, they are looking to expand the impact of internet-only projects, with an online tutoring project already underway. They appear unfazed by the challenges ahead, seeing the potential promised by such online schemes, as Salomé explains: “this is the year that we take risks.”
Furthermore, Alex indicates that inactivity and the vast changes brought on by the pandemic have alerted many people to the issues regarding sustainability. He asserts that even if some consumers turn away from sustainability, big companies are beginning to make the shift in response to other habits that are changing: “Sustainability is becoming more mainstream and COVID has helped that.” The example he gives is that of “flight fear” – the slow uptake on commercial flights due to a fear of being stranded abroad due to tightening of lockdown restrictions. Recognising sustainability for how it can function as a market concept, as well as for its actual purpose, is important to the Enactus team, and how they function as an entrepreneurial non-profit. By encouraging this understanding, Enactus hopes to create empathy between members and sponsors of the organisation, the likes of whom include Amazon, HSBC and Unilever.
Being a key outcome of their work, Alex and Salomé were keen to highlight the transferable skills that Enactus can provide for students who get involved. They explained that Enactus encourages its members to develop leadership skills through undertaking the projects, to build confidence in preparation for the world of CV-writing, interviewing and working that can loom large for a number of students. They mentioned LinkedIn as a great way for their members – and students more widely – to get ahead. Nouse's recent interview with FirstGens founder Alaya Holloway demonstrated how LinkedIn as a resource is underused by current university students. Certainly, in my experience, most of my friends are only aware of LinkedIn as a site for graduates or experienced professionals currently in employment; personally, I associated the networking site with a sense of intimidation. However, since I joined LinkedIn just over a month ago, I have found several opportunities that I am interested in and have built confidence in navigating these opportunities. Alex calls LinkedIn a “great resource for employability”, and stresses that all students should feel free to message individuals on the platform, as it is a place to make connections as well as acknowledge your existing contacts.
To conclude the interview, Alex and Salomé offered some advice to those interested in getting involved with Enactus. Both encourage prospective members and those keen to find out more to get in touch over Facebook or LinkedIn. Salomé added that they are looking for enthusiasm, above all else; if you have burning ideas for social change, and are looking for somewhere to share these, Enactus will welcome you with open arms. With COVID-19 restrictions limiting the varieties of activities that students can get involved with, it seems particularly relevant to our times that Alex describes Enactus as “the crowd of the do-ers”. If the past six months stuck at home have felt at all lethargic, then Enactus York is the society for you.