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Bringing the Magic Online: Dance Marathon at SDSU’s First Fully Virtual Event!

This was the opening line of an email I received in July. 


“Hi Natalie, 


It has now been decided. You and your team need to plan for a 100% virtual Aztec Night for you event on September 12, 2020.”


Although the resolution to a weeks-long back and forth about how our annual Aztec Night would look, this email left me with more questions and concerns than answers.


Hosting our first fully virtual four-hour-long event?! Although I had full faith in my team, it was very difficult to hear these words. I was introduced to the idea of having a virtual Aztec Night shortly after I was transitioned into my position as DM at SDSU’s VP of Finance back in March. Our Aztec Night being fully virtual was not part of the plan.


I had envisioned Aztec Night being the first time the entire Dance Marathon Leadership Team would be together in our polos. I envisioned Aztec Night being the first time new Leadership Team members would get to spread their passion for Dance Marathon to others for the first time. I envisioned Leadership Team members and other SDSU community members dancing the night away together as we showed just a glimpse of what our movement is about. I envisioned magic to be spread in person and with each other. 


In early April, due to the COVID-19 pandemic's ongoing impact on the world, I realized these dreams and aspirations were going to need to look a little different for our Aztec Night this year. I knew it would look different, but I also knew that together with the Leadership Team, my fellow VPs (Chelsey and Kenya), my Executive Director (Hannah), and with my advisors (Patty and Tierney), that this magic and love for our movement could still be spread, even virtually. It was clearly the time to be innovative and creative. From the get go, I was told that my team had to plan for three different styles of events: 1. In person 2. Hybrid 3. 100% Virtual. Keep in mind, this was early April, so no one had any idea what the world would look like on September 12th, 2020, which was the date of our event.  


I met with DM at SDSU’s Directors of Special Events (Iliana and Cassandra) on a weekly basis in order to start diving into these contingency plans. We quickly realized that just the three of us could not create three different timelines and budgets, and that planning virtual events in any capacity was going to be much harder than we initially thought. I feel lucky to have had my amazing 12-person-strong team to brainstorm with and lean on during this time. Planning Aztec Night three ways wasn’t something that they had anticipated when interviewing for their positions either, but I could not be more proud of them for rising to the challenge. We continued planning for three outcomes until mid-July, when I received the aforementioned email. 


Around the same time, as the sun came out and restrictions eased, San Diego and the United States as a whole experienced a significant spike in COVID-19 cases. As a movement that advocates for sick kids at Rady Children’s Hospital, and with SDSU making the decision to move instruction online for the fall, we made the difficult, but right, decision to move Aztec Night online. 


Oh, if I could go back in time and laugh at myself! I thought hosting a fully virtual event would be much easier than an in-person one. Very quickly, I was proven wrong.


I spent the next two months sending constant emails, calling vendors, requesting volunteers for certain events, being on Zoom meetings, creating spreadsheets, planning our timeline to the second, and so much more. I learned that hosting a virtual event was not only a new thing to me, it was difficult for all of those around me. 


I am so thankful for the amazing team I had in order to put this event on. Each and every single detail in the timeline, vendor, activity, prizies, and more would not have been possible without my amazing team. Iliana, Cassandra, Patty, Tierney, Hannah, Chelsey, Kenya, Tess, Finance Team, and countless others -- I cannot say thank you enough. Not only for your patience and devotion, but also your support throughout this entire process. This wouldn’t have been possible without you!


Fast forward to Saturday September 12th. After a few sleepless weeks booked up to the ears with run-throughs, meetings and phone calls, it was the day we would be hosting our very first fully virtual Aztec Night. Oh yes, there were nerves, but there was also excitement. My team and I were more than ready to see all of our countless hours of work come to life! 


Aztec Night- Finding Your Inner Kid with Dance Marathon was hosted through Zoom Webinar, and all SDSU students were welcomed. Our wonderful media team advertised and posted live updates on our Instagram (@dmatsdsu) so perfectly, and it truly paid off. We had about 130 participants for the full four hours, exceeding everyone’s expectations and proving to me even more than all the blood, sweat and tears were worth it. 


We had various events throughout the night including: a baking contest, kid mini talent show with kids from Rady, cardio dance with Julia Karczewski (a DM at SDSU board alumna), various rounds of opportunity drawings, trivia with all of our past and current executive directors, celebrity guests, a calligraphy tutorial (put on by a fellow board member), a mentalist, performance by the diamonds and even more engaging events. Typing them all out just now makes me even more proud of how flawlessly my team was able to execute the timeline and pull off so many moving parts.


Every aspect of our event went so well, it was honestly even better than anything I could have dreamed for it. Board members still wore polos and took selfies in order to treasure that special moment. We still spread our Dance Marathon magic through a virtual space by sharing personal stories, replying to questions in the chat, responding to direct messages through our Instagram, engaging with new participants and so much more.


Do I wish we had all been able to be together in person for this event? Of course. But in the end, I cannot envision a better Aztec Night than what we made happen. It was our first fully virtual event, so of course there were minor hick-ups, but everyone leaned on each other and we worked through it. 


Every organization, person, and business is moving to this new online space and virtual new world. It is a learning experience for all of us. I am so thankful for the opportunity to lead my team through an 100% virtual Aztec Night that was not only successful, but MAGICAL! I am even more thankful for the entire army of people it took to make every moment of this event happen. 


We are so grateful that we have the opportunity to host a virtual Aztec Night. Thank you to Student Life and Leadership at SDSU for still allowing us to host in this new virtual world. We are the only student organization allowed to host one of these awesome events, and that is a privilege we take very seriously. Thank you to all of our amazing participants and supportive alumni who joined our event. 


When I look back at all the work, time, frustration, and effort put into this event, all I think about is the following quote: 


“Nothing you do for children is ever wasted”


We are Dance Marathon at SDSU. We are a movement that fundraises and advocates for all children treated at Rady CHildren’s Hospital. Our Aztec Night is our first event of the year where we can start spreading this miracle-making movement. I believe we did exactly that. 


Now, even if the only outcome of that event was being able to touch just two new students, that is two more students we have inspired to join the largest philanthropic movement on campus. That is two more students advocating for what we fight for. That is two new students who are For The Kids. 


We will say it all year long, these kids at Rady need us now more than ever. Please join our movement. I promise it will be the best experience of your life. 


- Natalie Gaharan, DM at SDSU VP of Finance 2020-2021


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