Going to college can be an isolating and alienating experience even under normal circumstances, but in the context of COVID-19, students are struggling more than ever to connect with others and access social support. Whether social distancing on campus or studying remotely from home, getting a college education in 2021 can be a pretty lonely process. Unfortunately, we can’t make this year anything other than what is. That said, students need not resign themselves to a lonely, disconnected school year. While there may not be as many ready-made opportunities to socialize, with a bit of initiative, students can get, and stay, connected with their peers. Here are some things to consider to get you closer to that goal.
What resources are already in place?
Throughout the pandemic, individuals and institutions have made efforts to create spaces (both virtual and physical) where people can safely get together. For the sake of shorthand, let’s call these spaces “connection hubs.” It’s worth looking into what connection hubs are already accessible. This may involve investigating what resources your school has set up. Administrators are aware that students are struggling with isolation, and some campuses have set up programs and activities to help people get together and feel connected. It may also be a good idea to reach out to pre-existing clubs and organizations associated with your college. In a normal school year, clubs are a great way for students to connect with one another. Many clubs are modifying their activities to continue on through quarantine.
Your school isn’t the only potential resource for creating a fulfilling social experience in challenging times. Cultural, religious, or other community organizations may also offer socially distanced or virtual events. There’s also the option of asking your peers how they’re maintaining their social lives throughout all this. This is, after all, a problem we're all working on, and there's no need to work alone. Perhaps one of your classmates has set up a recurring event like a weekly board game or movie night. If not, though...
What work might you have to do?
You may be the one that needs to take initiative in creating connection hubs. A good question to ask yourself is, “What's an interest I share with pre-existing connections in my life?” In other words, what are some things that you and your friends all enjoy doing? This could be a good starting point for coming up with ways to stay connected with people who are already in your life but with whom the pandemic may have created a distance. Conversely, what's an interest you don't share with pre-existing connections? This is a great question to ponder if you're interested in creating new connections in your life during the pandemic. This may seem like an odd time to make friends, but novel circumstances call for unique strategies—which can lead to unusual opportunities for connection. Of course, just as in non-pandemic conditions, there is the fear of rejection, which can stifle social connection. However, there is the unprecedented opportunity to blame any social awkwardness on the oddness of the times. If things don't go well, at least you and the awkward vibes aren’t in the same room together!
Isolation does not always mean total isolation. Sometimes it just means having a much smaller social world than usual. When this happens, rather than too little contact with others, the problem can become too much contact with the same people day-in and day-out. This is a likely scenario for college students who are living on campus. Roommates can be an important lifeline during times of general social isolation, but even people we truly care about and appreciate can feel like an overwhelming presence when we are constantly exposed to them. To preserve your own sense of well-being, as well as to maintain the health of these connections, it's important to set boundaries. The process of setting boundaries can be difficult and uncomfortable but it is essential for a fulfilling social experience. One way to broach this topic is to suggest a designated alone time. This is a good option if you're someone who needs solitude from time to time. It also has the benefit of not singling out the person from whom you need space. However, it's not always so simple. Sometimes, you just need space from a particular person. It's okay to not want to see the same people every day. If you need to set a specific boundary, it's best to be straight with the person in question—to let them know that it's not personal and you just need to switch it up a bit. That’s not always the most comfortable conversation, but it can be an important one.
No matter how you cut it, this isn’t a normal semester. However, the unusual contexts college students find themselves in might actually result in some pretty interesting and unique social experiences. You’re most likely not going on a road trip with your friends this year, but it’ll probably also be a bit easier to appreciate the moments of connection you do make. It’s a weird time for all of us, but we won’t regret doing what we can to make the most of it.
Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor practicing at Resolution Psychotherapy in Poughkeepsie, New York. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. To inquire about therapy with Thomas, send him an email at email@example.com.