Starting her college career from home, Rita Alan (SFS ’24) began doing Zoom baking sessions with friends as a new way to connect with fellow freshmen.
“Two weeks ago, I did Zoom baking with my friend that I met online, her name is Nikki. So basically, we were baking together and we were making the same recipe but virtually, and I felt like that was a good way to connect. And I’m doing that again with one of my other friends, so that’s really great,” Alan said in an interview with The Hoya.
Unable to partake in normal first-year experiences such as move-in day, orientation and in-person classes, first-year students have turned to online communities and student groups to meet one another, using creative new ways to build community.
Though online platforms put networks of potential friends at every student’s fingertips, these connections can often feel superficial, according to Dominic Gordon (SFS ’24).
“You get a lot more friends online, but you get them only at really the surface, which I think is kind of problematic,” Gordon said in an interview with The Hoya. “If you are having conversations online, people are not going to share personal things.”
First-years had originally planned to be on campus when Georgetown University first announced its fall plans July 6. The university then quickly reversed this decision in a July 29 email, less than a month before students would have moved in. This decision left many first-years scrambling to adjust their plans and come to terms with the fact that they would not be able to spend their first semester of college surrounded by their fellow Hoyas.
The virtual environment that has made it harder for students like Gordon to establish deeper friendships is a challenge faced by first-year students who are struggling to form their college social lives online this semester.
Socializing During Social Distancing
While social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and GroupMe can make it easier to connect with peers, it can be difficult to know where and how to start reaching out. Making friends this semester requires more effort since casual interactions are less likely to come by, even for students who are already more outgoing, according to Alan.
“I’ve had to be a lot more intentional with how I go about making friends,” Alan said. “I’ve had to do a little bit of reaching out of my comfort zone just to get to know people.”
Without the casual interactions typically found on first-year floors, in Lauinger Library during a late-night study session or during in-person classes, first-years now have to set aside time specifically for socializing and meeting new people, which can be much more difficult, according to Ashley Nguyen (NHS ’24).
“It takes a lot more to start a Zoom meeting with everyone, rather than just meeting people naturally in like the dorm buildings or the library,” Nguyen said in an interview with The Hoya.
Despite these difficulties, students have found innovative ways of interacting online. While Alan has taken to Zoom baking sessions, Arjun Badami (COL ’24) has focused many of his social events around collaborative, multiplayer online games like Skribbl.io and Spyfall that involve drawing or solving mysteries.
“There’s a lot of games that I have found online, like Skribbl.io, Spyfall. Sometimes we will do crosswords with each other, just games where there is that communal feeling,” Badami said in an interview with The Hoya.
International students in different time zones have their own struggles. Sanchi Rohira (SFS ’24) is completing the virtual semester from Mumbai.
“Some clubs and events seem so awesome, and I really wish I’d be able to participate, but I guess this is an area that’s just harder, if not impossible, for students who live overseas,” Rohira wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Forming Online Communities
In attempts to form some sense of community, the university has also facilitated virtual social events and moved traditionally in-person events online.
New Student Orientation, an annual event specifically for first-years in August, took place entirely online this year. This year NSO included small group meetings, information panels and various evening activities, all held on Zoom. Virtual NSO provided a structured setting for first-years to meet people they would not have otherwise spoken to, according to Alan.
“NSO was kind of interesting because I was very excited because it was the first time I was really able to talk to people from Georgetown in this formal setting,” Alan said. “I was able to meet so many people that I wouldn’t have talked to otherwise just because I didn’t follow them or they weren’t going to be in my classes or in my major.”
On top of typical virtual learning issues like Zoom fatigue, struggling to stay engaged while staring at a computer and technology issues, new college students are concerned with the social atmosphere of virtual classrooms. Different types of classes, such as lecture style or discussion-based, pose challenges such as a feeling of disconnect or lack of engagement between students, according to Alan.
“I think, definitely within your lecture classes, there is no expectation of a community being formed. But I definitely think in discussion classes, I think there is a little bit of a disconnect, but on the other hand, there’s an attempt to form a community,” Alan said. “I definitely think there is less of a community feel just because we are online.”
The short minutes before and after each in-person class, which provided a time to connect with other students, are not easily replicated in the virtual environment, according to Rohira.
“I have realized that I would potentially be a lot closer with some of the students I share classes with, or would at least talk to them more, if I would spend 5 minutes with them a few times a week waiting for class to start, or would discuss homework assignments for a few minutes after it ended.” Rohira wrote.
Classes can provide a common topic of interest for students to spark more meaningful relationships, and while this effect is not completely absent in online classes, most first-years agree screens hinder this process. However, platforms outside of class can help bridge the disconnect.
GroupMe seems to be the most common online platform for class-related communication among students, but forming study groups in a more casual way has become difficult, Nguyen said.
“I have been in classes where they organize study groups through GroupMe, but it is still pretty hard to organize those because if we were on campus, stuff like study groups would happen more naturally in a campus setting,” Nguyen said.
Previewing Post-Pandemic Life
A semester of online socialization will no doubt change how students interact in the future once face-to-face relationships return, according to Rohira.
“I think one dynamic that we’re going to see is that people who are better at making friends online, and have therefore managed to be more socially connected during this time, will already have groups of friends, while others will feel like they need to start from scratch. This has the potential to be discouraging for the latter group of people, which does concern me,” Rohira wrote.
Though many first-years are living at home, some live on campus or have temporarily moved to Washington, D.C., and have their own new ways of interaction. Other students at home have also scheduled in-person meet-ups with students nearby. Tyler Clough (MSB ’24) raised similar concerns for the future disparities for first-years who are able to meet classmates in-person and those who are not.
“My main concern is I’m wondering if people will already have their social groups when we get onto campus, because some people could have been living in D.C., and then they have these groups of friends,” Clough said in an interview with The Hoya.
With the accessibility of online communication, some benefits have come from a fully virtual environment.
“I’d rather meet people in person, though personally in a lot of ways it’s been a lot more convenient for me. I’ve made a lot more friends than I normally would,” Gordon said.
After this new, online social life, students could be more likely to participate in events across the city when they come to D.C., according to Alan.
“I think that I will be able to see things, I’ll be more inclined to go out and experience things just because of literally almost a year of being at home and being in a very small town,” Alan said. “But on the other hand, I can definitely see where just talking to people may be impacted, because I get a lot of energy from talking to people, and that’s not really something I get to do online.”
While remote learning presents new challenges, some students have found some silver linings.
“Most years, freshmen leave home, get to campus, and instantly feel pressure to make tons of friends, settle in academically, and get involved with clubs, etc. When we (hopefully soon) get to campus, we will have already talked to some of our fellow freshmen, if not already have few friends,” Rohira wrote.