The start of my second year at the College could not have been more different than my first. Last year I was adrift in a series of never-ending introductions and new experiences; this year I spend most of my time with the same social bubble or holed up in my apartment. The pandemic has made it hard to maintain personal connections and even harder to create new ones. The fact that I am in Hyde Park, surrounded by so many in my exact position with whom I will never cross paths, makes this even more frustrating. I am just a Divvy bike ride away from the people and campus that I love, yet I feel immeasurably more distant from the UChicago community than ever before. Though the opportunities to connect are out there, social interaction online often feels forced, requiring an active effort on our part. As the default becomes silence, as being seen in class becomes a choice, we must choose to make that effort to “opt in” in order to feel less isolated from our personal and college communities.
The feeling of isolation is a shared one. The nature of pandemic restrictions means that it is easier than ever to feel faceless—lost and overlooked among a sea of strangers, rather than a valued member of the College community. At the same time, the virtual setting makes forming interpersonal bonds so much harder. Looking back, my social circles at the College simply formed without my noticing, and I think that is common with a lot of first-year experiences. Those chance quad encounters are a thing of the past now—physical separation means that friendships no longer fall into place, and casual conversations and encounters no longer spring out of thin air. Instead, we must make an active effort to uncover similarities and forge connections with each other, and for many of us, this does not come naturally.
It goes beyond individual connections. Zoom has made attending any event, from class to meetings to social gatherings, all the more convenient and comfortable. But it has also changed the nature of what it means to be present. The obligation to actively engage, to even be seen, has vanished as we have the option to hide behind our screens. Such anonymity can be liberating to some—it removes the fear of judgment and can make it easier for many to speak up, whether it be in class or beyond on platforms like UChicago Speaks Out and UChicago Secrets.
However, as the black square becomes more and more the norm, I cannot help but feel somewhat demoralized. Removing one’s identity removes accountability and one’s ties to the University community. Taken to extremes, this has led to incidents like the Zoombombing which I’ve been told occurred during the Odyssey Scholars 2024 Kickoff and Summer Internships event. In this particular instance, trolls spammed the event’s Zoom chat with racist slurs while also private messaging and harassing meeting attendees. Such behavior would be unlikely to occur in a regular classroom as the perpetrators' faces would be linked to their actions, increasing their sense of responsibility and the likelihood that consequences could be imposed.
More commonly, the lack of accountability that comes with online learning makes it easy to disengage. Why risk being caught zoning out when you can just turn off your camera and scroll through Instagram instead? We don’t realize it, but in doing so we move from being in the virtual, shared space of the classroom to the seclusion of our rooms. And as it becomes the norm to be distantly disengaged, the path of least resistance tends towards sitting and observing rather than interacting with our professors and peers. Only two small buttons stand between us being seen and being heard, but together they create a monumental barrier between oneself and the wider college community.
So here we are, nothing more than a pair of eyes above a mask, a name over a black square. How can we still feel like we are a part of a community when we are alone in our rooms most of the day? How can we connect with others when there are so many barriers separating us, both physically and psychologically?
We may not be able to cross continents and time zones, but we can create community for ourselves simply by opting in. There is no choice now but to take initiative when forming interpersonal relationships and support networks. We must choose to start a conversation by privately messaging someone. We must choose to unmute ourselves in class to contribute. Choose to turn your cameras on, to keep your professors company, to be seen.
These may seem like small steps, but it’s a start. Losing touch with others makes it so much harder to stay in touch with ourselves, and it is important that we do what little we can to keep ourselves accountable, to feel fulfilled, and to be part of a community. In actively seeking new connections, we not only feel less isolated, but we make others in the same position feel less isolated in turn. This is by no means a perfect substitute for an in-person experience, but at the very least we will feel as though we are going through these isolating times together, as part of a whole. The pandemic may force us to socially distance, but let’s not allow it to keep us socially distant.
Emma Weber is a second year in the College.