Higher Learning
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Higher Learning

The Question of Connection

Helping college students get a taste of campus life while learning remotely.

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

As we prepare the flip the calendars to October, sipping on pumpkin spice whatever while contemplating how socially-distant trick-or-treating works, the reality of COVID-19 further solidifies. Working from home for me is no longer odd. In no way am I saying it’s easy, as my situation also includes parenting while working, which, by default, makes me the onsite tech support / redirector / “make sure your child isn’t disappearing or falling asleep during Zoom sessions” person. (As an aside, this is exactly why I teach college students. K-12 educators, thank you for all that you do).

Each morning when I wake up now I no longer envision a commute, or the kind of morning routine built around a commute. Some days I actually catch myself wondering why I went to that other place at all.

While I’ve been settling into a sense of normalcy at the home office, supporting students remotely, checking in with alumni, teaching, and bouncing around from one Zoom meeting to another, I am still stuck on the best — and safest — ways to help students connect with each other.

This catchy little tune immediately comes to mind. Because it’s painfully necessary.

While masks and hand washing and outdoor dining are each appropriate layers of protection to help minimize risk, they don’t make the threat of COVID-19 go away. That ship has sailed for us so now we must make do with the long term restrictions that, sadly, look a lot like the March 2019 shutdown. Many of the things that make college “college” — crowded football games and house parties, large lectures and public forums, performance arts events and self-serve food receptions — are mostly, if not all on hold.

This puts us all in a bad spot.

The word I hear quite often — and absolutely dread — during my student check-ins is isolation. Students are struggling to connect with the new friends and opportunities that they spent their entire high school careers imagining would be waiting for them now. This is impacting them in and outside of the classroom.

There are no simple solutions here, or easy ways to make this all go away. We’ve got to think and do differently, and build connections in ways that we didn’t previously plan. Here are five thoughts toward that end:

  1. Stay connected with high school friends. Set up periodic online or socially distant check-in times to support each other and share stories on life after high school. This will keep people in your life and help to reduce the levels of loneliness that come through learning from home.
  2. Do different things with the people around you. If you’re with your family, but you never got around to Family Fun Nights or the day trips to local outdoor sites, this is your year. Make a scrapbook together, paint a mural or do a home improvement project, launch a small side business, research your family history, do community service, hike some trails, and more. Help your younger siblings with their online schooling, try some new snack recipes with them, and binge watch your favorite childhood series all over again on the sofa with them.
  3. Go retro. Your eyes and brain may need a Zoom break so pick up the phone to talk to people or actually write a letter with pen and paper. Connect with grandparents and other relatives as well as mentors and mentees. Also send that written letter to your local representatives to advocate for the things your family and community value.
  4. Be corny. When you do break through the isolation to make some campus connections, share your favorites lists (music, food, movies, memories), places you want to go, things you want to do, etc. These can spark up numerous other tangents and help everyone feel a bit more like they are sitting around together in the dorm, watching the leaves fall, sipping pumpkin spice whatever.
  5. Play. Lately I’ve stumbled across my kids playing Among Us and it’s often their most animated moments in the day. I remember similar times playing Mafia with student orgs. They say you learn a lot about people through active play (which is why I’ve always been a fan of recess, and when I worked in residential life, would field as many intramural teams as I could. Right now my office is on the verge of figuring out a virtual group workout plan as well, which also fits the bill). Virtual games, old and new, can be a great way to meet new classmates and keep connections going through the year.

There will not be a lot of large events and getting to see more than 49 people at once (though, my laptop’s only ever gotten me a max of 25, and rarely do they all have their video on). This year will be about the few and deeper links you can make, and discovering new ways to value people in your life. Give it some thought and time. You just might get more out of it than you expected.

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Brian Peterson

Brian Peterson

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I am a husband, father, writer, educator, and generator of ideas. Working on my follow through. Latest book, Higher Learning, out now at learnhigher.com.