No conference? No way! Club’s annual Southeast Asian studies student conference goes virtual

As the COVID-19 emergency unfolded this spring, universities across the globe had to act quickly to salvage a semester’s worth of classes and activities. As NIU prepared to close campus March 21, the NIU Southeast Asia Club (SEA Club) and Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) were faced with cancelling its annual student conference—or find another way. The answer? Hold a virtual conference on YouTube, a first for the club.

“While we were saddened, we knew that it was absolutely necessary, and we embraced the opportunity to try something new,” said CSEAS graduate assistant and outreach coordinator Rachael Skog.

A team of graduate students, who had been working diligently since fall on the event set for April 18 in the Holmes Student Center, scrambled to notify presenters and move the event online in less than a month’s time. In the end, 16 CSEAS presenters from NIU joined 10 other students from as far away as Seoul University submitting video presentations, which club conference organizers then pulled together for a worldwide audience to watch on the appointed day and thereafter.

As with all academic conferences, participants had submitted abstracts first, followed by complete research papers, all on Southeast Asia topics in this case. Among the 26 papers submitted, research topics ranged from political involvement in Laos under colonialism and a news analysis of the Philippine drug war under President Rodrigo Duterte to a legal analysis of the South China Sea debate and the risk perception of child smoking in Indonesia.

After promoting the new format through email and social media, the virtual conference went live April 18, beginning with a welcome video from Acting CSEAS Director Eric Jones and SEA Club President Thomas Phetmeungmay. Individual papers were listed on the YouTube page allowing viewers to watch presentations in any order and revisit later. Presenters welcomed comments and many included their email addresses to address follow-up questions. 

Music graduate student Matthew Werstler organizes video presentations for the Southeast Asia Club’s first-ever virtual student conference.

So far the virtual conference has garnered 800 views, a good sign people were interested, reports conference video master Matthew Werstler (MM candidate, NIU), who said he initially thought the club should cancel. But he was inspired by the College of Visual and Performing Arts slogan, NIU. Artists. Never. Quit.  “This was an opportunity for students to get a line on their CV, but I think it also was an opportunity for students to demonstrate academic perseverance,” Werstler said, noting that the virtual format allowed students from universities overseas to participate, an added bonus.

By all accounts conference participants were happy for the chance to participate. “Thank you for putting together a fantastic virtual conference,” San Francisco State University history graduate student Scott Pribble, who won the conference award for Best Graduate Student Paper, said in an email to Werstler. “I know it would it would have been easier to cancel the event, so I personally appreciate all your hard work and dedication to SEA scholarship.”

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