Remote Rendez-vous: Remote students experience successes, pitfalls navigating new friendships

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GRAPHIC BY RIEL WHITTLE / THE FLAT HAT

Many know about love in the time of cholera, but what about friendship in the time of COVID-19? Remote freshmen face the challenge of joining the College of William and Mary’s community virtually. Meeting people on Zoom is awkward to say the least, and not being able to meet up with friends to study or hang out is certainly disappointing, as well as a significant barrier to forging relationships. So, the question remains: is it possible to make friends while a remote college student? According to students at the College, the answers are yes and no, respectively.

GroupMe facilitates a platform for conversation and friendship for remote and on-campus students alike, and the process starts during freshman orientation. Freshman orientation aides make group chats with their constituents, allowing for new freshman to meet each other and bond over chat. GroupMe has the potential to help make a remote social life possible, but there is one caveat — how do you message someone you haven’t really met before? There is, after all, that awkward stage when you’ve seen someone in your Zoom but never have been officially introduced.

For remote student Lauren LaFarree ’24, of Dumfries, Va., the idea of making friends remotely was more intimidating than the process of making friends in-person.

“It was a difficult choice at first to be a remote learner,” LaFarree said. “I questioned how I would be able to still get the typical ‘college freshman’ experience … I soon realized that it wasn’t as hard as I imagined. I found out that there were so many people who chose to be remote, and I made a bunch of friends in people who are staying home … GroupMe and the freshman Instagram page were life savers; it was just a matter of me reaching out with that first ‘Hey, I’m Lauren!’ text.”

Methods of reaching out to Zoom acquaintances range from commenting on an awesome Zoom background, inquiring about the origin of someone’s hatred for bananas, explaining that someone looks like the doppelgänger of someone you know, expressing interest in someone’s fascination with mythology and sending a meme about a club’s intellectual debate. These texts can help set the basis for great relationships, not just with other remote freshmen, but with a diverse mix of students.

Likewise, other students have found difficulty in maintaining friends made through online communities at the College, especially when some of their friends are not remote. Val Willham ’24, a remote student from Vienna, Va. explained the frustration that comes with joining the community virtually.

“I made some friends in the WM ’24 Discord server before I even decided to go remote which I think helped me a lot because I don’t feel totally isolated from everyone else, but it can be kind of depressing to see them all meeting up and having fun in person while I’m off-campus,” Willham said. “I’ve been trying to get involved in clubs and such, but it’s kind of difficult to make deep connections when it’s just a Zoom call for an hour a week.”

Starting remote friendships has a few limitations based on the medium, but according to remote students, can have some benefits. Texting on GroupMe can be a low-stakes way of testing compatibility, which can be less stressful than getting to know someone in person. A text conversation gets rid of awkward pauses and formal introductions which can be stilting in person. In-person conversations also take place without the insertion of emojis, GIFs or memes, which are common in digital interactions. Ending a conversation can take place in a more natural fashion, leaving an opportunity for re-initiation in the near future.

However, maintaining digital friendships does require that multiple parties have the ability to text each other back. Adam Barghouti ’24, from Arlington, Va., was originally worried about not being able to connect with other students, but thanks to remote student orientation groups, was able to begin making friends.

“We set up a GroupMe and started messaging and even Zooming sometimes,” Barghouti said. “I’ll admit I’m not the best texter and would much rather talk in person, but you gotta make the best out of a difficult situation … It doesn’t beat meeting people in person, but I can see the appeal of meeting people online, since it gets rid of some of the anxiety and awkwardness of meeting new people face to face.”

Although the social situation under COVID-19 is not ideal, students at the College are adapting to the challenges. Luckily, the pandemic will not last forever, and one day soon we will all be on campus: and digital friendships will transition back to in-person ones.