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Five ways to stay connected with your college classmates in the era of social distancing

Prospective students walk past a building with tall archways at UCLA.
As schools such as UCLA move many classes online, staying engaged with your college community will be harder than usual next semester.
(Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

Universities’ strategies to help new students form connections usually consist of packed in-person events and fairs where representatives from student groups stand at tables, talking to hundreds of prospective members in a matter of hours.

It doesn’t take long to realize how impossible that is now, as coronavirus cases continue to rise in many states.

Whether you’re starting your last semester or about to begin your college career, the old playbook for staying involved on campus has been thrown out the window. Here are some tips for connecting with your school community while social distancing.

Start on social media

Returning students, remember the summer before your freshman year when you scoured the #(school name)(graduating year) hashtag, looking for new friends and roommates?

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Rediscover that energy, because you won’t have the opportunity to meet as many people in person as you previously would have. Even if you’re not looking to find a new friend group, following and interacting with more people from your school could help fill the void left by the absence of constant on-campus events.

Make sure to follow all the school meme accounts you can — you could even start your own. Everyone can use a laugh, and inside jokes are a great way to bond.

Last school year, you might have spent weeknights in a study room with poor circulation, surrounded by friends as you crammed for exams.

Follow your school’s student media outlets

Very few people are more tuned in to what’s happening at your school than the student journalists whose job it is to cover the campus.

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Liz Ketcham, digital managing editor at UCLA’s student newspaper, the Daily Bruin, said the publication has seen increased website traffic since the start of the pandemic. It has been, and will continue to be, a resource for students to stay connected, she said. The paper plans to print three days a week in the fall, down from its usual five, and the staff is looking at how to make sure its coverage is beneficial to students when many are spread out across the globe.

“Even if your school newspaper feels to you like it isn’t a big deal or you can get better news from elsewhere, there isn’t going to be a paper that is going to care as much about students like you as your fellow peers themselves,” Ketcham said. “These are the people who care about what is happening to you. You aren’t going to find better information about that than your student newspaper.”

If you haven’t been an avid reader, listener or viewer, now is a great time to look for your school’s newspaper, radio station or TV broadcast. Depending on where you study, there are probably literary and art publications too. If you aren’t on campus, or the publications are online-only, you can still follow them on social media and make a habit of checking their websites.

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Join a new student group

It might get harder to stay in touch with some of your friend groups when you don’t see each other every day. Not only will joining a student group keep you involved and in-the-know, it’ll give you a reason to talk with your peers regularly.

Tamia Grady, vice president of the Black Student Union at Sacramento State, said it took a little while for the organization to adjust to a remote format. But the group is focused on hosting discussions and providing resources based on what the community asks for, which she says is a good way for student organizations to stay in touch with their peers next semester.

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“It’s a good outlet to still be able to connect with other people and still have community resources,” Grady said. “We like to provide things that the people want, our community. We ask them what they want and we provide them with it.”

Grady advises students looking to get involved to stay organized and practice time management. Online classes, homework and the stress of living in a pandemic will take its toll, but finding an outlet outside of schoolwork is worth the scheduling it’ll necessitate.

“Engaging with your community is going to motivate you to want to engage with everything, even schoolwork,” Grady said.

As you get more involved, it’s likely you’ll discover some issues you’re passionate about. Take this time to put energy into advocating for changes you’d like to see.

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College students are making fall housing decisions, including whether to sign and break leases, based on limited details of what campus life will look like.

Start group chats with classmates

Having a group chat with people in your classes to coordinate study groups and ask questions is pretty common, but this is a great strategy to employ on a socially distanced campus. If your classes are online, it’ll be harder to have that grade-saving conversation with a classmate about the requirements for an essay. Creating a group chat will make it easier for that to happen in a digital space. Plus, it’s a lot more comfortable and casual than email.

If your university is reducing class sizes, this fall will be a great time to foster some community with a group text, since it’s easier to bond with a smaller group of people.

If you’re part of a student group that usually communicates over email or reserves conversations for meetings, you might want to consider using a messaging app instead. Depending on the restrictions on in-person meetings at your school, it might be a lot more difficult — or plain unsafe if it’s a big group — to get everyone in a room together.

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GroupMe should work fine if it’s a smaller organization. If you’re a large group, try Slack. The free plan has some limitations but it’s perfect for most larger student groups.

Zoom — in moderation

Most of you have probably had a taste of Zoom learning — and Zoom bingo, and Zoom happy hours and Zoom PowerPoint parties by now. And it gets old quick. Constant Zoom classes and meetings are draining but, when reserved for once or twice a week, it can be a welcome change.

The age of social distancing is surprisingly social. Party ideas, pointers and more to make your next Zoom your best yet.

If you’re unable to see your friends because of social distancing or because you’re not on campus, set up a weekly video call to catch up. It can be helpful to save topics or tidbits from your week for those calls instead of narrating your life to your friends via text or Snapchat all day. That way, you’ll have more to talk about, which is ideal for video calls because you can’t exactly zone out and check Instagram.

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For those using Zoom, if your device allows it, the customizable background feature can be quite the conversation starter. Just don’t forget to remove anything that would be hard to explain to your professor during class the next day.


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