Wolverine Voices: Despite pandemic, U-M students find ways to connect on and off campus

This story is part of a new series called Wolverine Voices, in which University of Michigan (U-M) student writers will report on campus issues. The writers of this series are currently enrolled in U-M's Community Engaged Writing course, in which first-year students examine and produce non-academic writing genres in the service of a community in order to understand and develop different ways of knowing, and develop strong analytical and writing skills.


Instead of cheering on the Wolverines at the Big House, attending weekly tailgates, and freely socializing with peers on campus, University of Michigan (U-M) students, like other college students across the country, have had to adapt to a completely new social normal this fall.


Even before Washtenaw County issued a stay-home order for U-M students on Oct. 20 and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered college campuses to close for three weeks on Nov. 15, an alarming sense of isolation was wearing on students.


When entering college, students expect to meet myriad people through sports, clubs, in-person classes, common interests, and more. COVID-19 and resulting health guidelines implemented by U-M have caused students to become more creative in attempting to create and foster connections with their peers.


Since many students have decided to either live at home or off-campus this year, this process looks strikingly different for everybody.


“I was expecting to make a ton of friends, network with people, apply to certain internships, et cetera,” says Dennis Hitaj, a freshman living at home in Sterling Heights. “What I got instead was a year shrouded by monotony, struggling to stay motivated due to virtual classes, and no substantial in-person activities.”


Hitaj is not alone.


Justin Wietfeldt, a freshman on the lacrosse team living on campus, says “being an athlete on campus during the pandemic has made me feel more restricted than usual, as we don’t want to jeopardize our season if there are COVID-19 cases on our team.”


He notes that all students “have been more restricted on who [they] can hang out with and see on campus.” This has caused challenges for students as many want to connect with their peers, but do not want to risk spreading the virus to their friends or teammates.


Not only are on-campus freshmen struggling socially, but students living at home are also experiencing a heightened level of isolation.


“I haven’t really made any new friends since college started," Hitaj says. "I have met people in my classes and we have light conversations together, but that’s pretty much the extent of my social interaction.”


He adds, “I do believe I am at a disadvantage compared to students who are living on campus. There is something so inherently valuable about intrinsic human connection, and you can’t really get that via virtual conversations.”


Washtenaw County's two-week order limited students' social interaction even further, requiring all undergraduate U-M students to remain in their current residence except for essential activities. Under this order, Michigan housing implemented a no-guest policy. (Prior to the order, students were allowed one to two guests in their dorms.)


“I wanted to socialize with others to take my mind off of schoolwork and the stress of the pandemic during the order, but I was not able to do this, which made me feel isolated," Wietfeldt says.


As a result of the order, many students decided to return to their permanent homes since they no longer felt staying on campus was worth the restrictions. A large group of students left their belongings and said goodbye to their friends.


In some cases, however, the county order motivated students to find unsafe gatherings off campus. During the weekend of the Michigan State University vs. U-M football game, some students traveled to East Lansing or rented local Airbnbs to socialize.


Earlier in the semester, although campus regulations restricted student socialization, students were still able to see each other face-to-face, socially distanced. Students who chose to stay at home completely relied on virtual resources to connect with other students. Hitaj notes that it's especially difficult for freshmen to make friends in an online class.


"In a normal scenario, it’s hard to bond and break the ice, and that is just amplified in the socially-distant setting," he says.


Students consistently highlight the difficulty of making friends this semester as the guidelines and worries surrounding the pandemic create obstacles for everyone, whether on campus or not. However, they have found different ways to continue making connections, often online. For their generation, social media has always been a primary method of communication, and those platforms have recently been repurposed to meet students' changing needs.


Grace Griemsman, a freshman living in an off-campus apartment, says she has utilized Tinder, a dating app, to make new connections.


“I was looking for friends on Tinder and met a girl," she says. "We later made plans and went to the farmer’s market and picked out pumpkins together."


Other students have turned to school-sanctioned activities, which are now conducted remotely in Zoom meetings. Greg Klsiba, a freshman living on campus, joined a consulting club and is getting to know its members better through club meetings and virtual coffee chats.


"These coffee chats help me make friends, especially the upperclassmen that I probably wouldn't meet otherwise," Klsiba says.


Even with online communication, students still highly value in-person interactions. Because of this, students have been relying on simple, day-to-day activities that can be done face-to-face while adhering to safety guidelines.


Traditionally, the dining hall is a hub for student interaction. However, with limitations on indoor eating, many students have utilized outdoor spaces to meet people through shared meals, especially during warmer weather.


“I try and meet someone new every meal and either sit down at a picnic table with a group, or if I see someone sitting alone I’ll go and start a conversation," Klsiba says.


Within socially-distanced protocols, students are also able to meet indoors with those living in the same building as them.


“I have been able to meet friends in my dorm hall and they are a lot of fun to hang out with,” Wietfeldt says.


On Nov. 6th, U-M announced students’ housing contracts for the winter term would be terminated, leaving students to forego the meaningful connections they had just started to build unless they opt to live in off-campus housing in the spring.


Lauren Hughes, a freshman living in an off-campus apartment with her current roommate next semester, says, “It’s sad to leave the dorm life with all the friends I’ve made there, but I’m excited to grow my friendship with my roommate next semester.”


Still, during these challenging times, Michigan students show their resilience as they try to creatively meet new people and build meaningful relationships while also staying safe.


Hannah Dienstag, a junior who lives in an off-campus apartment, shared advice for freshmen based on her experience making friends in previous years.


While fear regarding new living situations, physical health, and personal wellbeing has been the primary focus of every student’s life, Dienstag encourages a focus on positive energy regarding the pandemic.


“You’re only freshmen," Dienstag says. "You have three more years to have all the experiences that the University of Michigan has to offer, and even more opportunities now.”


Click here to read the previous installment of the Wolverine Voices series.


Kashika Chhabra, Corinne Hinson, Paige Leistra, Madeline Simmon, Mason Steere, and Rachel Tair are U-M students.


Photo by Madeline Simmon.

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