The University of Michigan’s countless Facebook student pages are full of people selling football tickets, advertising for jobs or looking for someone to take over their leases. Being a commuter with a part-time job and no real interest in football, a majority of these notifications only served to clog up my feed until, one day, I came across a message that read, “Anyone here tryna make a friend group to hang out and chill if people are up to it? Drop y’all snap – gonna create a group chat!” I was intrigued.
I’m a transfer student, and this is my first semester at the University. My freshman year, I faced such bad anxiety that I never left my residence hall except for class and meals (go green!), and my sophomore year was spent living at home, completely online. The University of Michigan was always my dream school, the perfect balance between being on a big campus and having the choice to go home whenever I needed to, so I reapplied during the pandemic and was accepted. I’m very grateful to be here, but one of the biggest things I have missed out on in my college experience so far is finding a strong friend group like the one I had in high school. This semester, making friends here on campus was my top priority, so I took the plunge and joined the group chat.
There are over 30 people in the group, but only a few do the majority of the talking — I myself am more of a silent observer. Topics of conversation range from restaurant recommendations to homework help, from complaining about classes to late-night conversations about what brings us happiness. Earlier this week, I met up with the group’s creator and a few other members to hear how the chat has influenced their social lives on campus.
“I transferred here last winter and didn’t know anybody,” said LSA junior Fatimah Mohammed-Ali, the creator, in an interview with The Daily. “I just went to classes and that’s it. I really wanted a group of people that I can hang out with, talk to, study with, and actually be able to see multiple times. I’m pretty sure other people are feeling the same way as me, so I was like, would it harm me to put a post on Facebook? And a lot of people gave me their snaps!”
“I’m a transfer student as well,” said LSA senior Griffin Mellendorf. “I had a hard time making friends and meeting people on campus my first year, and my second year was all online, so when I saw the post I wanted to do that.”
“I just joined Snapchat,” said Engineering graduate student Sagar Singhal. “I’m not really up to date on social media platforms and wanted to learn (how to use it).”
I found it hilarious and comforting to know I wasn’t the only transfer student having a hard time adjusting. Of course, you hear about it happening, but it’s different to actually meet people in the same boat as you.
One of the things Mohammed-Ali liked about the group chat’s popularity was the amount of diversity. “It was really interesting seeing all kinds of majors, all kinds of years in the group,” she said.
At the beginning of the year, people talked in the chat all the time. “I was at work and saw a ton of messages come in,” said Mellendorf. “I remember thinking, this might have been a mistake, but I got through it and now I’m a mainstay.”
“I’ve definitely been more active recently,” Singhal agreed. I also have tried to participate more. Usually, my contributions go toward events that don’t end up working out, but it’s still fun to plan them.”
Now that everyone has settled into a routine, things are quieter; in fact, many people left the group for no apparent reason. Some people who had previously been very active suddenly ditched the rest of us, causing a bit of a mass exodus. Perhaps the constant string of messages at the beginning of the year scared them off, or they made friends on their own and no longer needed assistance. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I stayed, myself, but I’m glad I did.
Everyone agreed that Mohammed-Ali is still the most active, usually trying to start conversations or invite people to study with her. “We try to plan stuff to hang out, but it doesn’t work out because everyone has different schedules,” she said. But that doesn’t stop people from meeting. Whether it’s a quick study session or a pit stop at the dining hall, we are interacting with each other outside of our screens. “I’ve met five people from the group now,” Mellendorf said.
After being stuck inside and glued to our computers for the last year and a half, everyone noted similar struggles with making and maintaining friendships. Humans are naturally social beings, so it was inevitable that isolation took a toll on all of us. I’m lucky because my friends from high school and I are all still very close (hello, merry men!). We kept in touch just about every day during quarantine, and we still talk often. But once we all went back to school last fall, everyone else lived on campus and made new friends, while I didn’t even have a campus to meet new people at. I felt left behind.
Mellendorf agreed. “Online learning sucked. It was nearly impossible to make new friends,” he said. “I have social anxiety, and for me, the hardest part is taking that step to talk to other people. If (they) make the move first I’m fine … it’s breaking the seal (that’s hard).”
“I tried to make friends in my classes, but a lot of them were terrified because of COVID and wouldn’t want to hang out outside of class until things calmed down,” said Mohammed-Ali. “But as time goes by and it never happens, you kinda forget about them.”
Singhal had a different perspective. “I don’t have trouble talking to people or making friends in general, I just have trouble keeping them around,” he said.
The biggest issue we discussed was how those struggles affected our own personalities. “Because of COVID, we lost connections with so many people,” Mohammed-Ali said. “Especially after I transferred, I realized I lost so many people I used to be good friends with, and that made me think, I’m gonna stop being outgoing. What’s the point of meeting people if they’re gonna leave? But then I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t being myself.”
During COVID-19, I came to realize just how much control my anxiety had over me. Even as lockdowns were lifted, I still obsessed over the idea that I would never have the upper hand again, that I would live in this constant state of fear for the rest of my life. I knew that I had to take some of that control back, but it’s easier said than done.
But then Mohammed-Ali gave some advice that both struck me and terrified me: “If you don’t put yourself out there, you won’t be happy, and even if you do put yourself out there, you may not be happy, but at least you’re giving it a chance.”
The thought of putting myself out there and knowing there’s a chance things won’t work out the way I want them to go almost defies my very nature. But at the same time, I’m tired of hiding. While it may be easier at times to talk to someone when they can’t see your face, it’s a lot harder to really get to know people just by talking from behind a screen, even if you text every day. We all have a lot of healing to do in the months ahead, and as much as I may hate the idea, I know that putting myself out there has the potential to lead to more of those strong connections that we all have been missing. Besides, I can already see myself making positive strides — putting down my phone and meeting this trio in person was the first step in achieving my goals of making friends and refusing to let my anxiety keep controlling me.
“You can have a ‘group’ of people, but you can’t (always) genuinely call them ‘friends,’” said Mohammed-Ali. “You need those people that you can actually connect with. That’s why even now if I meet people I just say, ‘Hey, if you wanna be friends or hang out, I’m down!’ You’d be surprised how many people are too.”
Daily Arts Contributor Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at email@example.com.