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Forging Friendships in a Virtual World

First years, I have so much sympathy for you.

You missed out on your graduation, your debs, your Leaving Cert holiday and your whole summer was ruined because you were played by the Irish government. You spent your final months of secondary school at home, and now it seems like you’ll be starting this new chapter at home too. Life can be so cruel. Most of us spend our teenhoods overdosing on the bad American TV that depicts college as this red-solo-cup-filled adventure, free of parental supervision. College on TV was absolutely chock full of library romances and countless intellectual conversations with friends. I, for one, started packing for college the minute the Leaving Cert ended, romanticising my big move to the city and the newfound independence it would bring. The sad reality is that for many of our freshers this year, the only big move they’ll be making is from their beds to their desks each morning as UCC trials delivering many of its courses online.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Things are looking pretty bleak.

The not-so-smooth pivot to “online learning” began in March as Covid-19 landed on our shores, ending our social lives as we once knew them. Gone are the days of chats over a sausage bean and chip in main rest or sitting next to your friend in the library and deciding you both deserve an hour-long break, 15 minutes into your shared study sesh. The new Covid measures have disastrous consequences for the socialising and life-long-friend-making opportunities that college typically brings. Online classes strip us of our relationship-building (and maintaining) tools like those casual conversations in between classes and the ability to employ facial expressions, body language and non robotic voices to convey thoughts and emotion. It’s certainly harder to gauge whether you’d get on well with someone when your entire perception of their existence is based on a tiny rectangular shaped picture of them floating about on your laptop screen. With very little face-to-face teaching going ahead next academic year, many students have also opted to commute from home for the one or two days that they do have in-person lectures rather than forking out for on-campus accommodation. The in-person lectures that do take place will have to ensure masks are worn and social distancing is enforced, completely eliminating the chances of you meeting the love of your life in the Boole by tapping them on the shoulder and asking them for a pencil. I don’t know about you, but my sweaty mask and fogged up glasses combo is a far cry from the fantasies of the film screen.

Insights from the primary and secondary schools opening within the last few weeks have shown us that even one Covid scare could easily topple the very fragile microcosm of college life. Single Covid cases in primary schools across Dublin, Kerry and Meath have seen whole classes being sent home. With our numbers peaking at above 300 cases in recent weeks, it’s no doubt that the worst is yet to come as students begin to board planes, trains and buses to return to their third-level institutions at the end of the month. Even those of us that do move closer to college for the year could be back home or locked down before we know it.

I think it’s fair to say that the virus has made us all suddenly more wary of our health and safety, perhaps allowing our other needs, the ones further down Maslow’s pyramid, to take a backseat. Whether we like it or not, though, interaction with other human beings is a necessity. We are social animals after all. One 1988 study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking or high blood pressure. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. This is because we rely on others for that all-important sense of belonging or for support when we are going through tough times and these are certainly tough times for everyone. For this year’s freshers, the new measures mean that it’s going to be especially difficult to make friends and for those of us more battle-hardened UCC students, our trouble is going to be keeping them. I do wonder how we’ll all cope once the formal lecture hall experience is taken out of the equation. One thing that separates us from the poor sods that suffered through plagues past, though, is the ever-growing suite of communication technologies we now have at our disposal. The youth of 1346 knew nothing of TikTok dances, Instagram “challenges”, or online banana bread recipes. These are what connected us during the darkest days of lockdown, and it’s these methods we’ll have to employ again if we want our relationships to survive next academic year, or god forbid if we want to forge new ones. Pre-Corona, the virtual space was a largely separate and imaginary field, but in recent months it’s become an indispensable part of our reality. The Internet is our answer to how to replicate the pleasures of socialising in the absence of actually meeting up with anyone. If you’re taking mostly online classes and afraid of how you’re going to connect with people, this one’s for you!

Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter were already the four cornerstones of interaction between students pre-Corona. Now in the age of online learning, we can use these platforms to connect with our classmates even if we haven’t had the chance to meet them in person yet. Adding at least a couple of your classmates on social media is a good idea anyways as it can be handy to have someone to ask questions about textbooks, exam papers or the assignment that’s due in 45 minutes. Remember, these are faces you see every day, and you’re in the same class so you know you have at least that in common. All that’s left is to take that leap of faith. It’s definitely nerve-wracking but sending a quick message introducing yourself could be the start of a beautiful friendship…
Another way to seamlessly pick up new friends without ever needing to trek to campus is by engaging with clubs and societies online. I know the vast majority of my own extracurriculars will be held online this year through Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts. If you’re unsure of how to sign up to a club or soc you can simply email them to be added to the mailing list. This way you’ll be kept informed of any digital events that are going on like virtual coffee mornings or book clubs! In all likelihood, a lot of your lectures will be in a seminar format, far more lecture driven than participation focused. This can make it difficult to suss out your fellow classmates around you, especially in a virtual setting. Attending an online club or society meeting is a convenient and sure fire way to forge bonds with other people in the college community.

When your primary means of contacting the outside world is through your phone, distance means less. If you’re stuck taking college from your bedroom in Laois it’s just as easy to keep in touch with someone in America or the UK as it is with someone who lives just a kilometre down the road from you. If you’re reliant on your phone and laptop for those all-important heart-to-hearts this academic year, use it as an excuse to catch up with friends and family across the world. One of my favourite parts of early lockdown was not the Chloe Ting workouts or family movies but all the Zoom conversations I got to have with my friends from Croatia to Canada and everywhere in between, nobody felt too far away. You can gather your friends, new and old, near and far for a digital happy hour or online group workout, the (virtual) world is your oyster!

If you’re ready, you can also take the connections you’ve built up in your virtual space into the real world. Planning shared experiences away from the academic setting is the ultimate way of evolving classmate relationships into strong friendships and it’s also something to look forward to! You’ll be able to bond over how technologically inept some of your lecturers are or the way your voice glitched that one time. So long as you’re following the Covid guidelines, you’re not going to be arrested for meeting up with one or two pals!

Just because you mightn’t be on campus this year doesn’t take away from the huge achievement that is making it to college and under the most difficult circumstances too! Class of 2020, you deserve a pat on the back for your patience, perseverance, and bravery in these the strangest of times. Remember that being on your own doesn’t mean that you have to be lonely. As college begins again, keep in mind to ask for help when you need it and let others know that you’re there for them too. As a wise basketball player once said, we’re all in this together.