In early March 2020, Covid-19 was just starting to surge in the United States, and over what would have been their Spring Break, Georgia Tech students were sent home to learn virtually for the rest of the semester. Since then, the following semesters -- with classes and activities largely still online and social distancing protocols in place all over the Institute -- have looked completely different from normal campus life.
As a result, the college experience has become more isolating for many.
This is where the Georgia Tech organization Spreading Messages in Love and Encouragement (SMILE) came in. Formed about the same time as the pandemic’s beginning, SMILE, now with about 94 members, creates initiatives to bring positivity and joy to the Georgia Tech community.
Two students enrolled in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial Systems and Engineering (ISyE) have been active in SMILE since Fall 2020: Second-year Vignesh Sekar is a general member on the community support committee, and third-year Hannah Tracy is co-chair of the community support committee.
In the following interview, Sekar and Tracy share their thoughts on the work of SMILE and how participating in SMILE has shaped both their Georgia Tech experiences and their larger outlooks on life.
Why did you join SMILE?
VS: First of all, the message, the initiative itself, what SMILE stands for -- why wouldn’t you want to join it? It’s spreading positivity on campus. I thought it was a great way for me to meet people at a time where I couldn’t [in person], and I thought I would enjoy organizing events and spreading encouragement.
HT: For me personally, I knew that SMILE had done an initiative called Hearts for Campus over the summer. They hung paper hearts with encouraging messages on trees around campus, and I thought that a club that could put something like that together during a pandemic -- that caught my attention, honestly. When I learned more about SMILE and what they stand for, how could you not want to join?
Every single time I talk to SMILE people or hang out with them, I walk away thinking they’re just such good-vibes people, for lack of a better way to explain it. It’s just so awesome, and I can tell that the things that SMILE’s doing are really making a difference on campus. Even if it’s bringing people a few moments of happiness, that can go a long way, especially in these times.
How has SMILE responded to the pandemic? What has it done to help?
HT: Generally, what SMILE stands for is bringing positivity to campus, and because of Covid-19, it’s especially needed this semester -- this year. So, a lot of our efforts are geared toward making people feel like they’re part of the community, especially since everything is online. We’re also making sure that our first years feel welcomed because they haven’t had a normal experience, so we want to give them a way to meet people, make some friends, and know what’s going on on campus.
What kinds of initiatives does SMILE do?
HT: One of our first big initiatives last semester was quarantine encouragement bags, which was continued this semester. It gives students who are checking into the quarantine hotel a little bag. It has a coloring book, some snacks, and some fun little things just to give them a little bit of encouragement, because when they’re checked into the hotel, it can make them feel a little bit isolated. We’re trying to remind them that we’re all here for them, and that just because they’re physically distanced from campus doesn’t mean they have to be completely separated from everybody.
VS: We gave encouraging notes to all the dining hall workers. We went to North Ave. Dining and gave everyone a little thank-you note, and it was really wholesome. We got pictures with all of them.
HT: Last month, we did March Gladness, a month-long initiative with themed weeks. So, Week of Wellness, Week of Service, Week of Gratitude. One initiative was called “Grow a Goal,” and students could write a challenge that they hope to overcome or a goal that they have for themselves on a piece of seed paper, and we planted it by the Kendeda building.
How have students’ reactions been to the work of SMILE?
VS: It’s pure excitement. One week, when people saw us with the Wreck on Tech Green, everyone came by and wrote encouraging notes to put on the Wreck, and then we tried to break SMILE’s high-five world record, which is something fun that we try to do. Every Friday in March, we asked people on Tech Green to film themselves giving a high five, and we stitched all the video submissions together to see how long of a high-five train we could get. I think SMILE has an amazing reputation across campus. I think it literally brings a smile to everyone’s faces when they see SMILE on Tech Green.
HT: Even scrolling through our Instagram page, you can see in the comments that people are like, “SMILE’s awesome” and “We love SMILE.” We bring a lot of joy to people.
What does being in SMILE mean to you, and how has it helped you personally?
VS: SMILE’s taught me to be a happier person. It’s taught me to expect the best in people, like knowing that everyone around me wants to meet me, and I want to meet everyone around me. It’s taught me to not be afraid to take the initiative and introduce myself to someone completely random -- and that’s so valuable. I’m definitely going to carry that on.
HT: SMILE, for me, has been super rewarding this entire time I’ve been involved because I know that it’s bringing positivity to people, and that’s been super awesome. And now that I’m a committee chair, sharpening my leadership skills, it’s been really cool to be able to run the committee meetings. The people I’ve met in SMILE are all amazing, so it’s been a lot of fun.
SMILE membership is open to all students at Georgia Tech, and applications are considered on a rolling basis. For additional information on SMILE initiatives and ways to get involved, visit the organization’s website. You can also find SMILE on Instagram and on Facebook.
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering