Camp Life with Covid-19: How GSA created community via virtual spaces
By Annie Whaley | Arts Bureau Edge Reporter
duPont Manual High School, Class of 2021
“We would play games like Mafia or some online games to connect with one another and just have fun at the end of a long day,” said Sachi Dixit, a rising senior at duPont Manual High School and part of this summer’s Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. “I had some great laughs in those meetings and really loved every moment spent with my RA.”
Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts Director Nick Covault with his Dolly Parton Rubik’s Cube, which became the subject of an inside joke called the Daily Dolly in this year’s GSA. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.
This might sound like just another night in the dorms during GSA when students like Dixit usually stay in the University of Kentucky facilities for three weeks straight (weekends included). Most evenings they participate in activities with the residential advisers (RAs). It’s the general summer camp experience — but one rooted in all things art.
But Dixit didn’t have that experience this year.
During the weekdays between June 29 through July 17, Dixit and other students had sessions to delve into their particular art forms and then met with RAs in the early evenings — all via Zoom meetings instead of in person as originally planned. In May, the spread of Covid-19 compelled Kentucky Performing Arts and its partners, the Commonwealth of Kentucky and UK, to make this year’s GSA completely virtual.
And organizers wanted to cultivate the social aspects.
More from Arts Bureau Edge
“We wanted to keep RA groups as part of the virtual program because the mentorships, informal connection and community of the RA groups are essential to the core of any student’s GSA experience,” said GSA Director Nick Covault.
GSA is notable for its once-in-a-lifetime creative opportunities — and equally for the connections it nurtures. GSA students, surrounded by like-minded people their own age who have the same passion for art and need to create, develop lifelong friendships.
This year, they formed connections very quickly. Out of the gate, administrators and RAs created a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. Administrators and RAs developed mini traditions and inside jokes. Covault made himself a king of inside jokes by creating fun routines like “phrase of the day” and Daily Dolly.
The Daily Dolly sprung from a Rubik’s Cube decorated with different images of Dolly Parton that Covault keeps on his desk.
Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts students, including Reese DeHaven and Sachi Dixit, meeting with their resident advisor. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.
“There’s a running joke that you can tell which mood I’m in based on which Dolly is facing my office door,” he said.
Once students saw the Dolly Rubik's Cube during a Zoom tour of Covault’s office, they ran wild with it, asking Covault during every morning announcement which Dolly he was feeling that day. One student even took the Dolly theme into his own hands and creatively submitted an image of his face on top of a picture of Dolly Parton.
“It may seem trivial, but I think those little shared moments are especially impactful when the entire school is spread out across the state,” Covault said.
Even online, the GSA team was able to cultivate vivid running jokes. And if GSA weren’t virtual this year, there never would have been a Zoom tour of Covault’s office, and the Daily Dolly never would have existed.
More from Arts Bureau Edge
Meetings with RA groups differed from past years, where students would have three to four meetings with their groups. This year, the meetings were every day, Monday through Friday, so RAs really had to work together to find ways to keep students engaged after a long day in front of their screens.
“Our RA group-chat was always full of new ideas for games that worked with our students and things that didn’t,” said Joseph Garcia, an RA and GSA alumnus. “I have to thank the other RAs and our amazing admin team. Without their constant support, it would have been a much harder summer.”
RAs also used specific exercises through virtual spaces to foster new bonds between participants, such as one called the “Circle of Love.”
DuPont Manual High School rising senior Anna Berry, who studied theater, said in this exercise “everybody had a Google slide with their name on it, and we’d all write something nice about the person.”
Like many students at Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts, dance student Sachi Dixit communicated with others via social media which worked to create stronger social bonds during the program. Image courtesy Sachi Dixit/Annie Whaley from Instagram.
Since creativity is such a vital part of GSA, the RA meetings had some clever twists. Some RAs dedicated themes for their meetings. One day one of them was “camping,” and another day the theme was “PJ day.”
“Everyone would dress up, and we would get on the call and just goof around,” Dixit said. “Everyone in GSA is the most genuine person ever, and they radiate the best positivity. It’s a community you really want to be a part of.”
Some RAs found that positive attitude contagious (pun intended).
“As an alum who went through a similar experience during my time at GSA, it makes me so proud and happy for them to see that growth,” Garcia said. “I feel confident they will go into the world, even during times of uncertainty, ready to change it for the better with their art.”
Evening RA meetings cultivated friendships between students who were in different programs, and who could be living on completely opposite sides of the state. They also helped students relax and have fun. Some said these meetings were their favorite parts of the day.
More from Arts Bureau Edge
Those relationships include ones that span the state, like the one between Dixit and Reese DeHaven, a rising junior at Breckinridge County High School in Hardinsburg. They met through the dance program and immediately hit it off.
Social media — Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat — played a huge role in connecting the students. The hashtags “heyGSA” and “GSA2020” peppered platforms with posts of students gushing about their experiences and their fond memories of the participants, teachers, guest speakers and administrators. But social media also became a way for participants in the same program to get to know each other, create other inside jokes and foster a greater feeling of community.
“By the third day, the girls all had each other’s Snap and Insta, and we had created a group-chat on Snap and Group Me,” Dixit said.
They still communicate with each other almost every day.
Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts Artist-in-Residence Harry Pickens gave students advice daily and boosted the energy of the program. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.
“I felt like I was part of a family, an amazingly talented family,” said DeHaven. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls to dance with. Even over Zoom, we all really clicked. You could feel the love and happiness radiating from the screen.”
Memories like these are what participants will likely take with them for years to come. The lessons they learned through GSA will shape who they are as an artist and as a person. And even through virtual spaces, they said they still felt valued, appreciated and part of the GSA family.
Covault said when it is safe to do so, the administration would love to have a reunion for this year’s participants so they will be able to meet face-to-face with their friends, teachers and RAs.
“Something our outstanding artist-in-residence, Harry Pickens, tells the students at the end of the program, is to remember that GSA isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind,” Garcia said. “This year the GSA experience came alive in their homes.”
Annie Whaley, a rising senior in duPont Manual High School’s communications/journalism program, has written for the Manual RedEye newspaper and On The Record newsmagazine. Whaley has participated in two other Arts Bureau Edge workshops.