Ever since I arrived on campus last year, vetting classmates in discussions, student organization meetings and informal gatherings, in hopes of creating more fulfilling human connections has become second nature to me.
Prior to the new world created by the COVID-19 pandemic, typical student life provided numerous opportunities to spark relationships with those around us. This semester, 78% of undergraduate credits and many student organizations are taking place entirely online — the virtual format undoubtedly proposes a unique, less desirable situation for learning and student interaction than “normal” circumstances. Further, the benefits of the limited number of in-person classes, events and serendipitous moments are thwarted by differing levels of fear of a highly contagious virus, the spread of which is highly related to human proximity. Today, fewer conversations between classmates follow them out the door of their discussion room, no packed dining halls encourage interaction among students sharing a table and no fans in the Big House means no student season ticket holders will harmonize over a chorus of “Mr. Brightside” during the 2020 football season.
LSA sophomore Samuel Levy told me about his entirely remote class schedule over email.
“I’d say the obstacles I’ve faced are due to the very procedural and formal aspect of Zoom,” Levy said. “It just feels way too formal and everyone focuses on the work. Obviously, this is probably the best-case scenario in terms of class, but for making friends, it’s not.”
Regardless of whether a student is a seasoned senior or clueless freshman, on or off campus, following or ignoring public health guidelines, outgoing or introverted, the ability to maintain and make new friends seems to be another aspect of student life that has been radically transformed by this virus.
LSA freshman Makayla Beardsley shared her struggle to make friends after arriving on a campus unrecognizable to the traditional expectations of what college life looks like.
“There was a long period of time when I first got here that I didn’t really try to meet any friends,” Beardsley said. “I (could not) really go to anyone’s dorm room and (could not) even see anyone’s faces unless we were eating due to masks, so I got stuck asking ‘What’s the point?’”
This perspective is understandable, and I cannot imagine how difficult it is for incoming students to be starting their lives at the University of Michigan amid this pandemic. Even in normal times, it is hard enough to adjust to the college experience and make meaningful connections in a new place, but trying to become part of the University’s community virtually is not a challenge most incoming students anticipated or prepared for when picturing and planning their college years.
Asked about the new aspects of life taking place virtually, Levy wrote, “A lot of people believe that making friends, or even dating, online is the last resort. Although I don’t necessarily agree with this, I think that the reason it is perpetuated so often is because there is a lack of ‘serendipitous moments’ when meeting anyone online.”
There is something to be said about the comparative value of in-person connections. Looking back on my freshman year, the night I shared a twin XL bed with three friends in Markley for a “Riverdale” marathon and then sang Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” to the 2 a.m. audience in the communal bathroom is among my most treasured serendipitous moments of college. None of my fondest memories from my first seven months of college were made with Zoom, FaceTime or Snapchat.
Today, these types of moments, marked by gut-wrenching laughter and togetherness, are more difficult to have. The opportunities to even make friends to share these experiences — whether virtually, or with masks — are few and far between. Levy himself has felt this.
“After class is over, everyone just leaves Zoom and goes on with their lives,” he said. “If we were in person, just the physical act of being together when class ends and collectively walking out of class definitely makes it easier to strike up conversations with anybody outside of class.”
LSA freshman Caitlyn Bloomburg told me about making friends in the dorms during the pandemic.
“There are some people who will stop to have a conversation with you in the hallway, but there are also the people who will just look down and walk by, and try to keep their distance.”
On top of the virus severely reducing the number of opportunities to make friends, some students are finding it harder to maintain relationships cemented by in-person interactions from six months ago before the full force of the pandemic hit.
“Most of the friends I have made aren’t on campus this semester, so the only contact that I do have with them is online,” Levy said. “As for the friends I have on campus, I can’t meet up with them because of COVID. I have been interacting with all of them through texting and sometimes FaceTiming, but other than that, nothing else.”
Beardsley experienced a similar struggle.
“Some of the friendships I’ve had have definitely gotten tested due to COVID social distancing guidelines,” she said. “Because my current friends back home are all at different colleges, we only interact through social media and phone calls, but we’ve tried our best to make it work while still trying to keep everyone safe.”
Simply put, friends are important, to our social and academic well-being, our health and thus our quality of life. Friends provide support in all aspects of life, and in college, when family is often hundreds of miles away, friendships are often looked upon to share struggles and provide reassurance and comfort.
Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy investigated the importance of human connection in his book “Together” by exploring loneliness as an epidemic itself, as well as its role in numerous national epidemics — thereby proposing the question of how the loneliness epidemic may be exacerbated by the current pandemic. Even before COVID-19 turned many of our lives upside down, the mental health of college students was particularly concerning to public health experts, with increasing rates of anxiety and depression among our demographic in recent years. Now, during a time of increased isolation and stress about the state and future of our world (and even the continuance of our democracy) brought on by the pandemic, the increased difficulty of making and maintaining friendships makes this time period a great test of our mental resilience.
Notwithstanding the tribulations of life in a pandemic, students have pursued and created new opportunities to make friends and meaningful connections.
Bloomburg told me about her efforts to make friends this semester. “I joined the Class of 2024 Facebook page, and people were posting bios about themselves … so if I had stuff in common with people I would add them on Snapchat or Instagram.” She also shared that her resident adviser has a “speed friending” Zoom call in the works to facilitate connections in her dorm hall.
Needless to say, the role of social media is becoming more integral to the student experience with each passing week that this pandemic keeps study spaces socially distanced and a large number of students off campus altogether. Reaching out to find students with similar interests seems to have become commonplace on Facebook, and Reddit is no stranger to posts plainly asking for new friends.
Regardless of how we manage to find friends and maintain friendships we are particularly grateful to have made before this pandemic, it is hard to find the same joy and make the same connections on FaceTime calls and through Zoom breakout rooms. It is hard to navigate the complex matters of making and maintaining friendships even without a pandemic forcing time spent with our friends and peers into one-dimensional squares on a screen. The most practical and, indeed, the only answer is to make the best of it.
Throughout my interviews for this article, I found reassurance in knowing that I am not the only one struggling to find new friends and maintain my current friendships right now. Over the past month, I have found comfort in being met with unanimous enthusiasm after asking classmates to join a group chat for our shared class. Aside from the placement of French pronouns and the themes of Thomas Paine’s “Agrarian Justice,” the most valuable thing I have learned so far this semester is that people desperately want to connect — it is just a matter of someone making the first attempt.