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USF Homecoming transitions to virtual events amid COVID-19

Events like the Homecoming Concert, which attracts thousands of students each year, will be held virtually this year. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

Symbolically, homecoming week is meant to welcome alumni back on campus to celebrate, alongside current students, USF’s traditions and accomplishments during a weeklong schedule of festivities. This year, as a result of COVID-19, USF will be welcoming former and current Bulls “back to campus” virtually.

USF’s Center for Student Involvement (CSI) and the Alumni Association have maneuvered around amassing the thousands of students and alumni that come together for homecoming each year by creating a week of virtual events — and for only 31 percent of the cost. 

The virtual events will include online competitions through Microsoft Teams, the Homecoming Kickoff, Homecoming Ball, Homecoming Carnival and the possibility of the Homecoming Concert from CSI, as well as a virtual trivia night and prizes for alumni. While CSI’s homecoming budget for this year is $221,252, Assistant Director of CSI Joshua Wilson said the department anticipates spending $70,000 or less.

“We’re not spending anywhere near the max of our budget due to this style of virtual programming,” said Wilson. “Take for example the concert. We’re not paying for a venue, we’re not paying for a stage, we’re not paying for the speakers like the sound and all of those aspects. So our budget, although it hasn’t necessarily changed for this year, will look a lot different and will not be maxed out.” 

The cost for this year’s homecoming activities for alumni will also not be nearly as much as they were last year, according to the chairman of the Homecoming Steering Committee and Executive Director of the Alumni Center Bill McCausland. 

The Homecoming Steering Committee is in charge of the festivities that become the tradition of homecoming week, including the Homecoming Ball and Carnival. The committee, made up of partners from all three of USF’s campuses — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee — have devised a week of virtual events that will still maintain the tradition of USF Homecoming, according to Wilson.

“Both on the student and the alumni side are getting very creative and very innovative to find ways to engage our students and alumni with the university during homecoming,” said McCausland.

The week will begin with the Homecoming Kick-Off live on Microsoft Teams on Oct. 5, followed by the annual Stampede Comedy Show, an event that both students and alumni will share.

“Teams Tuesday” on Oct. 6 will consist of a series of competitions through Microsoft Teams where students can compete in different “eSports-style activities.”

“Students will be able to compete with each other — it’s just a great way for students to have some fun competition throughout homecoming week and we usually try and recognize the winners,” said Wilson. “Our student event planners were very adamant about bringing back our team competitions.”

USF’s alumni will have its own event through Microsoft Teams on Oct. 6 — a trivia night on all things USF, Athletics and the Tampa Bay area — and it anticipates around 300 participants.

“It’s a great way for alumni to connect,” said McCausland. “We anticipate alumni that were maybe roommates from way back when will get together and form a team and they will be on the call even though they’ll be virtual, you know, one alumni might be in Tampa and one might be in Atlanta, but they can be a team together for this trivia contest. It’s a great way to reconnect.”

Although some of the finer details are still being figured out, the Homecoming Ball, where the USF Homecoming royalty will be crowned, is scheduled for Oct. 7. 

“How do you do a Homecoming Ball virtually, right? That’s the biggest question,” said Campus Activities Board Coordinator Alexis Fuentes. “For this Homecoming Ball, what we’re looking to do is still have the formal aspect in the beginning of the event, so still invite the president to come and speak, still do the homecoming royalty unveiling, but then afterward, we’re looking to host some type of interactive, whether it’s like a dance event or music event.”

There will also be a new homecoming event for later in the week on Oct. 8 — a digital exhibition hosted by the library planned for both students and alumni. It’s being called “Home Sweet Homecoming.”

“‘Home Sweet Homecoming is a tribute to our students past and present, the university we’ve built together, and a heartfelt reminder that there is no place like our home away from home,” according to the USF Homecoming website.

However, it might not be the only thing in the works for that day — CSI is looking into the possibility of a virtual concert, but first, it’s doing research on if the USF community will be interested in participating

“We want students to be on the lookout for the annual homecoming concert survey — this survey will be really important this year because we asked the question to students, ‘Do you want to attend a virtual homecoming show?,’” said Wilson. “It’s important for us to know that, with the funding that it would take to put on a virtual show, that we will have the student interest.”

The survey also asks students to pick the genres of music they would be most interested in hearing at the concert, as well as specific artists like Aminé, Charli XCX, Coin, Jason Derulo, Lil Nas X and Kehlani. 

“We like to use that feedback to drive the direction that we go with the concert,” said Wilson.

While CSI will be trying to convert one of the most anticipated events of homecoming for students to a virtual setting, the Homecoming Steering Committee has opted to postpone its traditional Distinguished Alumni Awards.

“On the alumni side, we’ve had to change some of our plans — we usually have the Distinguished Alumni Awards, which is the university’s highest award for its alumni,” said McCausland. “We usually have those on the Thursday night of homecoming week, but we are not going to have those this year even though we have a class of recipients.”

The event is being postponed until next year so that the award recipients can be honored and celebrated in person.

“So many people want to attend and see [the recipients] get their awards, hear from them and interact with them, so this year’s class will be postponed for a year,” said McCausland. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s the right thing to do and all of the recipients are certainly understanding of it.”

Other alumni recognition will happen though, even through different means. Alumni who now work at USF are usually recognized at a luncheon during homecoming week, but this year they will instead be provided free coffee at the UFS Bookstore on behalf of the USF Alumni Association. 

The Homecoming Carnival will be hosted virtually on Oct. 9, the final day before the football game, on Degy World, “an immersive virtual event platform,” according to its website. 

Degy World allows users to access a customized virtual world that can feature anything from music stages, auditoriums, classrooms or other meeting spaces. There are also features that allow you to chat with other users who attend. 

“Obviously, we’ll never be able to replicate certain activities or the rides, that stuff like an in-person vibe, but definitely the activities and having students being able to participate is what we’re trying to create in a virtual platform,” said Fuentes.

There will also be a virtual pep rally on Oct. 9 as a part of homecoming week as a preface to the Homecoming Game on Saturday against East Carolina University at Raymond James Stadium.

“The football game is planned and is scheduled, and we hope and anticipate that there will be fans allowed at Raymond James Stadium for that game,” said McCausland. “That’s an in-person event, it’s just a matter of how many fans can go out and celebrate our student-athletes.”

With almost every event having to be adapted to abide by public health guidelines and USF’s safety protocols, McCausland is still hopeful for when the USF community is able to gather together safely again.

“I look forward to the day that we do have people back in [the front yard of the Alumni Center] because nothing replaces the eye-to-eye interaction and people sharing their USF pride being together at an event,” said McCausland. “These virtual events are good, but it’s not a replacement for the face-to-face activities that we have on the student side and the alumni side.”