Lately, it might seem like lights coming from our laptops and phones are all we have to keep us company. But for the undergraduates in the Student Astronomical Society, looking at the stars is the best way to feel connected.

“It’s beautiful that humans exist, that the universe exists,” says Lauren Austin, a third-year LSA undergraduate majoring in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology with a minor in interdisciplinary astronomy. Austin is also a member of the Student Astronomical Society (SAS). “I know it might sound like a stretch from just studying astronomy in a planetarium, but doing that makes me feel very appreciative to be here. And honestly, that’s really helpful right now.” 

SAS is a student organization housed in LSA’s Department of Astronomy; Shannon Murphy, laboratory and classroom services technician, and Jean McKee, student administration manager, are SAS’s co-advisors. The club holds regular meetings and events designed to support anyone, and they mean anyone, interested in learning about space and the stars. “We have political science majors, engineers, humanities students. We have everyone under the sun,” says Austin. “We don’t care whether you’ve taken calculus or if you’re a STEM major. That’s not our concern. Our big thing is who you are as a person. Do you like astro? Awesome, let’s learn about it together.”

This kind of inclusivity and openness defines SAS, and extends beyond LSA. Before the campus restrictions caused by COVID-19, SAS hosted biweekly open houses at the Angell Hall Observatory, where both students and community members could look through telescopes, watch a planetarium show, and learn about topics like cosmology and dark matter from members of SAS.

“There’s a certain wonder in looking at the night sky,” says Josiah Sherk, SAS president and a fourth-year undergraduate majoring in economics and interdisciplinary astronomy. “You don’t have to be a scientist to have that. SAS is for anyone with any amount of wonder.”

Before COVID-19, SAS regularly visited nursing homes and classrooms, and hosted special field trips for nonprofits like Girl Scouts. For external outreach chair Christopher Liu, offering these kinds of resources to the community is about more than teaching. “We’re so fixated on what’s happening on earth, but there’s so much outside of earth,” says Liu, a second-year LSA student studying physics and astronomy. “Once you step back and realize how small we are, it definitely shapes your perspective. And that’s really valuable for everyone.”

One Planet, One People

While external outreach allows these SAS students to educate and share their passion with people outside of the club, they say it’s their ability to connect with each other that grounds them. “Connecting with the public is one of the cornerstones of SAS, but before we can do that effectively, we need to have a strong community within the club,” says Sherk.

SAS does this through events and resources that aim to support members’ well-being beyond just their interest in astronomy. Before the pandemic, SAS held “advocacy hours” in West Hall where members chatted about their day or a specific problem they faced socially or in class and unwound with crafts and yoga. SAS wants astronomy to be equitable and inclusive for everyone, so they also host an annual information panel and mentorship program with astronomy graduate students and offer tutoring services for introductory astronomy courses. They even formalized their commitment to these types of support by adding an advocacy chair to the board, a position which Austin now holds.

“STEM is really, really hard, and the toll it takes on your mental health isn’t talked about very often,” she says. “SAS wanted to make advocacy an official part of the club to make space to talk about those things. I’m a first-generation college student, and hearing from graduate students is really the only way I can learn about what graduate school even is. We like to see each member as a whole person. Humanity is the overarching theme of SAS, not just astronomy.”

This attitude toward care has sustained the students as they navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic, and given them purpose and hope in dark times. “Advocacy and outreach shouldn’t stop just because we’re going through a hard time,” says Austin. “It actually makes it more important because people are looking for things to help them adjust, to distract them from everything else that’s happening. We didn’t want to give up.”

This year, SAS looks a bit different. They made their open houses virtual using a platform called Stellarium that lets people see the night sky anywhere in the world. SAS members give presentations on topics like galaxies and black holes via Zoom. The annual graduate panel was held virtually, and tutoring services have continued online. Liu even virtually visited a first-grade classroom. “We made a kid-friendly presentation about space and planets,” he says. “The kids were very engaged, and I was really surprised by how much some of them already knew about space. It was very cute. The whole thing worked surprisingly well over Zoom.”

Sherk, who has been an SAS member since his very first semester at LSA, says that the fall of 2020 was one of SAS’s best semesters because of the connection between members and the club’s willingness to try new things. “We’re really focusing on the positive side of things and what makes our organization unique.”

By prioritizing community during a crisis, SAS has supported its members’ well-being and offered space to celebrate their love of astronomy. Appreciating the complexity of the universe motivates them to stay connected. “Humans are excellent at fighting each other over differences,” says Liu. “But at the end of the day, compared to the vast universe, we’re all human. We’re all here on earth together.”

Illustrations by Becky Sehenuk Waite, animation by Liz DeCamp.