Virtual Gatherings: Zoom coffee hours help MHS students and faculty stay connected, consider current events

Multiple Zoom screens showing dancing and laughing faculty and students in their homes.
Medicine, Health and Society students and faculty take a mental health break with a dance-off during a virtual coffee hour hosted by Dominique Behague and Jonathan Metzl.

When COVID-19 caused Medicine, Health and Society (MHS) students to return home and shift their educations online, it was only natural to have the center’s periodic coffee hours to go virtual as well. Not only did the switch help promote a continuing sense of connection and community during this period of displacement, it also leveraged the center’s academic focus on the social aspects of illness and health to help students process what the world was going through.

“I wanted to be mindful of the stress the students must be experiencing due to the pandemic, so I asked them if they wanted to talk about COVID-19 during these gatherings or take the opportunity to shift their attention toward something else for a while,” said Dominique Behague, associate professor of Medicine, Health and Society and a co-host of the weekly coffee hour. “But what we heard overwhelmingly from students was an incredible eagerness to discuss the pandemic through an MHS lens.”

Working with MHS director Jonathan Metzl, Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Psychiatry, they developed an informal agenda to structure these virtual coffee hours that includes a discussion topic and suggested readings about the pandemic and related social changes. There are also guest speakers, including a World Health Organization scientist dialing in from Geneva who explained current research efforts surrounding COVID-19. And, perhaps most important, these gatherings include a much-needed mental health break—in the form of a virtual dance party accompanied by music from DJ Ashu Rai. “We’re in the middle of a crisis and we have serious things to discuss, of course, but it’s really important to keep your sense of humor and creativity alive, too,” Metzl said.

Junior MHS major Maya Taylor said the coffee hours have been an important touchstone for her since having to return home to Chicago from a study-abroad program in India. With no regularly scheduled classes to tune in to—she is currently in the process of shifting the fieldwork component of her capstone project online instead—she’s grateful for the opportunity to stay connected with her fellow students and faculty. “I think it provides a sense of normalcy throughout all this,” she said. “It was a good platform for everyone to discuss how they were feeling, but also to give us ideas about what this could mean for the future.”