After a year at university, I realised: I literally had no friends.
Don’t get me wrong, I had acquaintances and casual connections. But friends? People I’d hang out with for fun outside of university? None.
My classmates from junior college, who also matriculated in the height of the pandemic and thus mostly had online classes, similarly found themselves isolated in school.
It seemed like many NTU students also blamed the pandemic for friendships and possible connections lost. I found that I wasn’t the only one who struggled with making friends in “Zoom University”, the term often used to describe our university experience which was confined to cyberspace due to the pandemic.
One third-year Electrical Engineering student, who only wanted to be known as John, told U-Insight that before the pandemic, he had had a “small handful of acquaintances”, but once COVID-19 hit, things changed.
“It was hard to make new friends and [even my old friends] drifted away,” he lamented.
Across the world, a national survey on university students in Australia in 2020 found that students had a lower sense of belonging to their universities, since they had not had opportunities to forge social and study relationships due to the pandemic’s distancing restrictions.
From researchers to student reports, I observed that many blamed the pandemic for the commonplace struggle to form meaningful personal relationships in Zoom University – but is it due to the pandemic that we find ourselves without friends?
U-Insight spoke to a few professors to understand exactly why technology seemingly could not live up to the expectations of an in-person university experience.
We lost the summer.
With online classes and virtual orientations being the norm for the past two years, it cannot be denied that there have been lost opportunities for in-person connections, said Professor Andrew Yee from the Singapore University of Technology & Design.
Speaking to U-Insight, Prof Yee said: “This spontaneous kind of relationship-building is lost, especially for cases like [in-person] freshman orientation.”
Students who matriculated in 2020 and 2021 may be familiar with the challenges of virtual orientation like Zoom rooms filled with awkward pauses waiting for someone to speak.
Even when people have their cameras on, creating the semblance of a physical presence around us, the video-conferencing platform may not be the optimal place to forge friendships, said Prof Yee.
“Since we can see ourselves onscreen, there’s this thing called mirror anxiety, where we are checking ourselves [on screen]. Especially if we are a bit more insecure about our own physical appearance, the anxiety […] could affect the way we communicate.”
He added that being able to see yourself on screen not only makes us more self-conscious, but also distracts us from listening to the person speaking, thus dividing our attention.
Since Zoom is now also widely adapted for schoolwork, Prof Yee agreed that it is possible that the fatigue we feel from the platform itself would also affect students’ social communication patterns since we associate it with academics, although conclusive data is yet to be available.
As online communication emerged as the norm during the pandemic, there were less opportunities for students to meet others and make friends.
As a result, students must work doubly hard to connect with people in Zoom University, said Professor Nilanjan Raghunath, who teaches Sociology at the Singapore University of Technology & Design.
“You have to make more effort to connect with your classmates,” she added.
Think of every challenge as an opportunity.
It’s not all bad news, though, since technology has presented its pluses on the friendship –making front. For example, international students who might not be on campus yet, or those who don’t live on campus can still have the chance to meet others regardless of where they may be located physically.
“[Technology] creates the opportunity for you to sort of transcend time and place,” explained Prof Raghunath.
Capitalising on the power of technology, NTU students have turned to online means of forming friendships. From friendship-building applications such as Bumble BFF to virtual friendship blind dates such as Squish Squad by Her Campus NTU, or even just meeting through online forum site Reddit, there are many ways to find your perfect (platonic) match online.
Since I live two hours away from school, I’ve made the most out of virtual connections. During my second year, in a bid to make up for lost opportunities, I tried a friendship blind date session and left the Zoom room with new friends –– people that I would not have met in school if not for such virtual meetings.
“If you’re generally a quiet person, technology might help you,” said Prof Raghunath. “Some people may be shy in speaking, but they aren’t shy in writing. There are many ways you can express yourself [online] and the network is not limited.”
Still, Prof Raghunath emphasised that nothing beats the physical interactions between people, and how those meetings are the optimal way to create deep and meaningful relationships with others.
At the end of the day, opportunities to develop relationships created in cyberspace are still only complementary to speaking in-person.
“It’s good to have the option,” she said. “[But] that’s something you still need as a human being––you need to [physically] and socially connect with others.”
In theory, it works. In practice…
So maybe, you’ve tried all that, and still, nothing.
Putting yourself out there feels nerve-wracking every time, and it’s a risk. I remember speaking to every person I had the chance to sit next to in classes and feeling defeated every time the interactions ended at a casual greeting in the hallways, building up the dread of getting rejected again.
But during a transitional period such as the first year of university, it is important to have a social support system in the institution who can relate to and understand what you’re going through.
While it might be tempting to give up on the search altogether, Prof Yee stressed that everyone will eventually “find their tribe” in university.
“We humans are so different that you will be able to find someone that you relate to, that you can call your tribe. Those friends can offer really good social support, I think, for the rest of your life.”
But where to even begin?
While it may seem cliché, Prof Raghunath still believes that being yourself is the key to forming friendships.
“People like people who are themselves. They like people who are natural, because then they’ll find something good in you.”
Nevertheless, even if you haven’t found your tribe, it is possible to get through your university journey in solitude. Take it from someone who’s spent the first half of university life without hanging out with university classmates –– I’d already done it for two years, what’s two more?
But even if you could, why would you?
Prof Raghunath said with a laugh: “It’s like no fun, right?”
That, I can definitely agree with. Bonding with like-minded people who can relate to the joys and woes of moving into adulthood makes life more vibrant and brings comfort in times of insecurity, which are commonplace in university life.
University presents four years full of endless opportunities to create social connections, and there’s no better time to try than now.
So, take a chance on people –– whether it’s in the Zoom chat or someone with whom you often cross paths. It’s time to find your tribe, and it all begins with a hi.