Embracing the New Awkward

Hanging out with friends and taking college classes online are the new norm. While online social interactions can be unfamiliar and weird, we can still find connection, even in the most awkward of Zoom lectures and seminars.

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Never have we seen in recent decades such a large-scale threat to the usual functioning of human life as the coronavirus pandemic. Vast numbers of people around the world are recommended, or even obliged, to stay in their homes. As a college student navigating this strange, unprecedented moment, I honestly feel so lost. My sense of community and education are transforming drastically as my life goes online, from my interactions with friends to office hours with professors and even meeting my lecturer’s two pet cockatoos!

College students have a knack for maintaining (or, rather, grasping for) a sense of normalcy and optimism in their lives, particularly through humor — a time-tested defense mechanism of the youth (or maybe it’s just me…?). My own personal experience only offers one case study, but an illuminating and highly #relatable one of how life is both the same and different.

Let’s start with what hasn’t changed for me. My bedroom is still where I sleep and snack while binge-watching trashy shows (like Netflix’s pretty amazing new reality T.V. show “Love is Blind”, which I highly recommend you watch with your flatmates, pasta, and wine). Every morning, I still check Instagram and Facebook to get stupid and funny memes from my friends or to find memes myself to send them (because connection is so important, now more than ever… right?).

Our memes almost exclusively come from the burgeoning Facebook group “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens” (which has over 542,000 members world wide). And my guilty pleasures have expanded to activities with my flatmates, such as creating a “finsta” (or “fake Instagram”) for sending close mutual friends videos of our embarrassing kitchen dance parties while waiting for our banana bread in the oven. We even posted on Instagram our failed attempts to sing Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye”. I wish I could say we were inspired by the heart-warming videos of Italian people singing on their balconies, but to be honest… we were actually practicing Bocelli’s song to recreate this video of a “concert” that panned from a single gummy bear on a small, inverted bowl or “stage” singing to a crowd of hundreds of gummy bears (which were all practicing social distancing, of course) that sang the next line of Adele’s “Someone Like You” as a chorus. Another development is that procrastinating has never been easier with fellow self-quarantining friends FaceTime-ing me more than ever, especially the extroverted ones. They even resorted to redownloading Tinder and ashamedly creating TikTok videos.

While our antics have become progressively sillier with each day of self-isolation, another aspect of our lives that hasn’t changed is the fact that my flatmates and I are still full-time college students. We still have classes to take, readings to do, and papers to write. However, the student experience is definitely not the same.

Firstly, classes are all online. When I first heard that I would be speaking to everyone in my class via Zoom, I worried that this pandemic would cause waves of loneliness amongst people and significantly deprive us of organic social interactions that a usual classroom setting would ideally facilitate, such as unexpected conversation after class. We would, as a result, feel isolated, disconnected, and distracted. While virtual interactions can never fully replace in-person communication, my Zoom classes have actually made me feel oddly more connected to people in my class. Mostly because everything is so new, weird, and awkward. And it’s actually a wonderfully collective form of awkward.

Imagine this. You click a link to join your first “class” on Zoom and you are immediately confronted with 20 equal-sized rectangles showing vaguely familiar faces that fill your screen. You are seeing them through their webcams, no one ever looking straight into the eyes of another person anymore. Yet, many people (probably in trying to get used to this whole dynamic) have still not found their most flattering angles. Also, everyone’s name is suddenly very visible. Our names are next to our video displays, so the T.A. can now call your name, pretending to know who you are from the very beginning, asking you questions about a text that you only half-read.

Speaking of feeling oddly closer to our lecturers and T.A., I don’t know about you, but seeing what their rooms look like and what the color of their walls are really makes me think — never did I imagine my Polish lecturer to have bright seventies orange wallpaper. Nor did I ever think that my T.A. would have red walls with a flamboyant white tiger painting above her bed… Like, wow, I have so many questions!

Okay, and here is the most perplexing one: some students are in bed during class?! Yes, the line between the public and private is becoming more blurred as we can see into the rooms of the people we are on Zoom with, but does that mean they are now our best friends whom we can call while lying on the bed, under our bed covers, as if we are casually chatting about critical race theory and qualitative research…??? Honestly, I don’t know.

Everything is so awkward. But… maybe that’s why I feel like there is something inherently human about this whole experience of academics and students trying their best to get on with a “normal” life, despite our physical distance and the “inorganic” ways to communicate, which appear to be the only ways to interact for now. While existing online methods may seem unfamiliar and strange, the strength of our will to connect reveals what social creatures we are. We crave connection, especially in tough times.

I know that this is a particularly stressful time for everyone. This pandemic has grave consequences for many people’s health and livelihoods and it should be treated very seriously. If you aren’t self-isolating or are not convinced that your self-isolation will contribute much, do your research. Reconsider — if not for yourself, then for essential workers and high-risk individuals for the coronavirus. While acknowledging the gravity of this pandemic is paramount, if there’s anything I learned, it is that we must hold onto hope and optimism as much as we can, even if that means chuckling more frequently at memes. Let’s not lose sight of the value of human connection. I recommend consistently seeking the company of others, be it through Zoom wine nights, home workouts with friends via FaceTime, or genuinely sending warm regards to professors, to make us all feel a little less alone. If we can build human connection, even in the most awkward of online classes, I’m pretty sure we’ll get through this period and come out of it hopefully with a greater ability to reach out and connect.

More Thrive Global on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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