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How to safely connect with other students and make friends during a virtual semester

(Photo Courtesy of LA Times) As the pandemic continues, students struggle to make meaningful personal connections

Brigid Archibald
Connector Editor

“If you don’t have any questions, you are free to go,” a professor says. You click the red button and there is silence: no shuffling of papers, no bags zipping, no scraping as students vacate desks and no students resuming some conversation from before class started. Just you and the quiet of your room.

For upperclassmen who have already spent time on campus and have developed a community and space at UMass Lowell, it might be easier to connect with one another during this new virtual semester, but how do River Hawks new to campus connect when classes end in silence and separate rooms?

Sarah Rine, the director of UMass Lowell’s Office of Student Activities and Leadership, said it something she and her coworkers think about often. Rine and other campus leaders have some advice on how students can make the best of the current situation and connect with others in the UMass Lowell community.

First, Rine recommends that students attend virtual events. As is, a lot of students are unsure about virtual events and many believe them to be a cheap imitation of their in-person counterparts where, much like in zoom classes, they will struggle to connect with peers who they know only as a name in a black box.

“We’re trying to get that barrier down, like ‘no, you can make friends here,’” said Jessie

Santer, the assistant director for promotions and media at the Office of Student Activities. Santer runs the Office of Student Activities’ social media accounts and works with other departments to inform students about all events on the UMass Lowell campus.

Rine said that student leaders and university groups have been working to develop engaging events for students that take full advantage of the online platform. They found success with events where students are encouraged to play online group games like “Among Us”,

“Kahoot” and “Jackbox games.”

Senior Silvana Davaiga, a resident assistant (RA) in Leitch Hall and the president of UMass Lowell’s Residence Hall Association (RHA), said she and the other RAs work hard to create events that encourage interaction. For RAs, this has meant completely rethinking how they do plan floor and building events.

Santer and Rine also stressed the importance of using chat functions to interact with students, utilizing them to ask questions and to start conversations with introductions and basic icebreakers.

Rine points to a program hosted by the Association for Campus Events (ACE) from the first week of the spring semester, where they played virtual bingo, as an example of a successful event. Rine said they heard from multiple students who stayed for the entire event because they “liked the vibe.”

“That’s important that students are being able to recreate and find the vibe. I think it comes from a little courage on their part and a little bit of putting themselves out there,” said Rine.

To get the most out of these events students still need to give a little. Small things like engaging in chats and turning on cameras often make the difference between someone enjoying the event or feeling like they have wasted their time.

“I would also say just being like, open when they step into it,” said Devaiga. Having hosted multiple events in the fall for students, Davaiga said that she and the other RAs put a lot of effort into planning virtual events that excite and engage students. However, if a student shows up and does not participate or just watches, there is not much they can do.

Turning on cameras also extends to the classroom, including those dreaded break-out rooms. Santer and her team have started a new social media campaign, “Same pandemic, New Semester”, which encourages students to turn on their cameras in class. The campaign claims that turning on the camera helps build connections and makes group projects and discussions easier.

In addition to attending events and turning on cameras, students should use social media to connect with the campus community and to find out information about clubs and events.

“It seems like a shameless plug, but following our social media, @umlactivities [on Instagram and Twitter], is really where you are going to get all the information on what’s happening on campus,” said Santer. These accounts act as a central hub to distribute information from all departments at the university from the Office of Multicultural Affairs to the Career and Co-op Center.

In addition to following these accounts, students should also consider following those of individual clubs at the university and should reach out about joining.

“If you are able to, follow the social media to any club,” said Davaiga. “Even if it’s not something you are necessary looking for, there is always something that is happening virtually on some random Zoom code.”

Davaiga points to the Black Student Union as an example, which hosted Zumba classes over Zoom last semester.

In addition to following official university accounts, Rine and Santer recommend that students seek out and create their own groups online. They say that they have heard from multiple students who use online platforms such as Discord to create groups to talk about certain classes and to study together. Even a group chat with a few other students in a class could be helpful.

It can be difficult, or even awkward, for students to reach out to other students and make these connections themselves. Fortunately, UMass Lowell already has multiple online groups and places for students to connect and build relationships, including a subreddit, called R/UML, and multiple Facebook groups dedicated to specific graduating classes and clubs. One Facebook group, called UMeme Lowell, is dedicated to jokes made by UMass Lowell students about UMass Lowell.

Rine also recommends that students advocate for themselves and reach out to professors, asking that they create time in class for interaction, or even allow students to enter a Zoom call early to get to know and talk to one another.

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