Unlearning Isolation

We can rebuild our fractured communities, even under the lingering pall of Zoom University.

By Tejas Narayan

For a graduating high school senior, one of the most exciting things about college is the promise of community it offers. We look forward to the things we want to study, yes, but the idea of being immersed in a college environment—of making friends in environments that we have full control over—holds universal appeal. For my graduating class, though, the onset of COVID-19 introduced a storm of uncertainty into what we could expect from our social lives going forward. As Wi-Fi rapidly became the designated access point for everyday life, UChicago’s house system offered a solution: With so many of our daily activities being conducted from our dorm rooms, the networks we’d ordinarily establish through our various classes or RSOs would be replaced by a single community to share our experiences with. The University took several new measures to encourage the growth of house culture, but for myself and many others, these attempts were largely unsuccessful. Despite their—and our—desperate struggle over the past two years to preserve some semblance of normalcy, the effects of COVID-19 continue to affect how we connect with the people around us. These effects aren’t irreversible, though; we can still take an active hand in reframing our approach to socialization.

One of the main steps UChicago took in preparation for a year of online classes was to tie our housing assignments to our humanities sequences. In an attempt to give us something in common with the people we knew from class, housing was determined on the basis of students’ respective humanities courses. Intuitively, this seemed like a smart move, accounting for the difficulty of forming relationships online or through cursory weekly meetings by allowing us more time to build familiarity with our peers. But as the year progressed, it became apparent that no amount of recognition over Zoom could substitute for the kinds of bonds that we might have made in person. Filtered through our webcams, all of the minute interactions, mannerisms, and whispered jokes that made classes a common experience evaporated into smoke.

More generally, conducting our lives online made it nearly impossible to get to know our peers on a personal level. With lounges closed, house meetings online, and events canceled, many students—especially first-years—lacked a forum to routinely engage with the same group of people in order to build up a stable dynamic. As these opportunities have gradually reopened over the course of this year, we’ve all seen how much easier it is to feel like part of a larger community. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that spaces in which we can build familiarity are an essential component of the robust support networks we need in a high-pressure environment. But when those spaces are taken away at a critical point in our lives, it leaves an impact that lasts beyond just restoring them. After a year of being made to feel disconnected from the people around us, we’ve returned to in-person interaction with a lingering apprehension of approaching them.

Unplugged life isn’t rigidly divided into forums for responsibility and for socialization. Many of the seeds for meaningful long-term friendships are found in the gray area between them. Organized study sessions and conversations outside the classroom are a completely normal and reasonable way to bridge the gap between the academic context in which we already know people with the social context in which we hope to get to know them better. Confined to the tightly rule-bound world of the Internet, we were forced to accept that these liminal spaces could no longer exist. So, when the opportunity for these minor in-person interactions began to return this year, many were quick to seize it. Many more, though, continued to find it difficult to effectively reintegrate their academics and their personal lives. Remote learning served to put distance between our classes and everything else, and we still haven’t fully succeeded at bringing them closer again.

This highly compartmentalized way of defining the various aspects of our lives also has had an impact on our sense of belonging in our various communities. By its very nature, online interactions separate us from the rest of the group. From our perspective, we are the outsiders engaging with the “actual” community, which is made up of the videos clustered together on the other side of the screen. This framing makes it much more difficult to cultivate a sense of shared identity, and when we carry it into our in-person experiences, we continue to find it harder to feel like a part of the groups we’re with.

It makes complete sense that these feelings of separation would continue to make some of us averse to charting out new social territory. But even if the people around us aren’t going to become our lifelong friends, the experiences we share with them can nevertheless serve to make us feel a little less alone. We don’t need to be openly socializing to become fixtures in a community—we just need to commit some time in that community, enough to be recognized. Even if we aren’t looking to spend our free time exclusively with our housemates, there’s still value in abandoning the mindset that we are or should be entirely separate from them. Just being present is enough—staying at study breaks a little longer than it takes to grab food and go, attending an event or two every quarter, or spending more time in community spaces is enough to make us feel included in the larger group. While it helps to have specific friends along with a general sense of belonging, it’s much easier to build up relationships in a purely social environment filled with people we see on a daily basis.

A year of college under the shadow of COVID-19 has denied us these key building blocks of meaningful social contact, and our collective mental and emotional well-being has suffered as a result. Even now that they’re once again available to us, though, we remain trapped by inertia in the mentality that we can’t or shouldn’t get to know one another because of the defined roles we occupy in each other’s lives. But that artificial rigidity is finally beginning to crumble. Whether we continue to let ourselves be bound by it is up to us.

Tejas Narayan is a second-year in the College.