Many of us have well-worn holiday traditions: unboxing and hanging ornaments against the backdrop of A Charlie Brown Christmas, burning your fingertips making latkes with your best friends or untangling miles of lights into the trees of the front yard. The Peer Collective (TPC) welcomed the holiday season by orchestrating a gingerbread house decorating party on Dec. 15. TPC is a “by the students, for the students” initiative whose mission is to connect students across years and programs and to foster the well-being of the student community through shared experiences. In years past, TPC has put together holiday cookie decorating parties in December, with hot chocolate, mulled wine and holiday treats punctuating the hubbub of a packed room. The idea of shared icing knives and community Crock-Pots of wine induces anxiety this holiday season, so TPC had to think outside the box — or, rather, inside it.

TPC purchased boxed gingerbread house kits and invited graduate students to pick them up at their convenience. Then, on the evening of Dec. 15, students got together virtually to show off their architecture skills and add their tasty artistic flourishes. For some of us, it was obvious why we pursued biology instead of engineering. The struggle to pipe fine lines of icing and escape the inevitable stickiness that comes with producing candy-based art cannot be overstated. But everyone had a blast exploring the creativity of our peers, and the gingerbread houses were mostly a front to catch up with old friends and meet new, interesting people.

Although difficult, socializing virtually during COVID-19 is critical to maintaining a sense of connection among graduate students. Although many of the attendees decorated houses, those who had already assembled their houses or who could not make a house due to dietary restrictions pulled out coloring books to keep their hands busy while others worked. Although conversation kept looping back to the elephant in the room — when we expected to get the vaccine, how we’ve been holding up under work-from-home and how COVID-19 has been affecting our families — the group always brought it back to a lighter note by showing off new silly masks or counting our blessings (all of us were still employed, insured and healthy). Some of us were able to see our families for the holidays; some of us were not. Some people were celebrating the holidays with a smaller group or different people than they normally would. But the diverse, positive crowd that joined TPC’s event made it difficult to fall into the spiral of negativity that so often happens when you dwell on hardships by yourself. TPC lured us in with gingerbread kits and connivingly bolstered our well-being when our guards were down.

One enjoyable component that the video-based medium brought to the evening event was a glimpse into everyone’s homes. There was the requisite pet beauty pageant (it was a five-way tie) and tours of holiday decorations that I got to vicariously enjoy from my sparse living area. This, of course, led to the sighting and admiration of DIY home projects and an outflowing of stories about shared DIY experiences and debacles.

The cherry on top: TPC ended the evening with a raffle awarding gift cards to local Baltimore businesses. Although it has been far from a normal year, TPC has been working hard to make the holidays brighter for graduate students. I joined the gingerbread house decorating event on a whim, but the evening underscored for me the importance of remaining connected as we remain physically distanced.


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