Society

Forging college friendships in a pandemic-hit world

Students of Stella Maris at an off-campus meetup in Chennai  

It’s been a year since I joined college, and I haven’t once stepped into my classroom. I haven’t ambled across the campus, I haven’t whiled away afternoons over samosas at the canteen, I haven’t conspired a mass bunk in the back benches, I haven’t run tirelessly from corner to corner preparing for the college fest.

All my classmates are in tiny boxes on a screen in my lap.

Can you be friends with someone you have never met, but spent over 100 hours talking to? It is a strange idea of friendship, one that us first-year college students have been perplexed by, ever since we enrolled in 2020.

A year into the COVID pandemic, this is the new college experience. What seemed like a stop-gap measure in 2020, online classes have changed the way 17- and 18-year-olds are approaching new friendships.

For many teenagers, college is their first window into adult life. The homogeneity of schools gives way as they meet people from a wider variety of backgrounds. The hours and hours spent together in libraries, hostels and dive bars result in a lifetime of influential alumni networks and friendships.

Could this experience be just the same on a single computer screen? I ask others in the same boat as me.

A digital family

In the past year, over group projects, assignments, and Zoom classes, Vedant Dugar found a close bond with his classmates from Mumbai, Gurugram and Kolkata. Often, their days would begin by waking each other up for attendance. (In online classes, you have the luxury of waking up 15 minutes before class. If anything goes wrong, or you don’t know the answer to a question asked, there is always the convenient ‘network issues’ excuse).

By February 2021, they decided to fly down to Mumbai, even though their college was still shut, to finally spend some time in real life.

“It didn’t feel like I was meeting them for the first time because I already knew so much about them,” says Vedant.

“I didn’t expect the first year of college to be like this even in my wildest dreams. But once you find the right people — online or offline, everything works itself out,” says Ayushi Jain, an 18-year-old studying Economics at MOP Vaishnav College in Chennai. The girls in her batch, she says, cherish a close bond — surprising, as a majority of them had not met each other despite being in the same city.

Classmates from MOP Vaishnav College meet in Chennai

Classmates from MOP Vaishnav College meet in Chennai  

“Initially, it was funny knowing your new best friend lives only 15 minutes away and you still can’t meet her,” says Ayushi of her friend, Chetana Boothra, who like her, lives in T Nagar.

Long calls for work eventually turned into lighter conversation and fostered deeper, meaningful relationships. But to help break the ice, they first had to move away from the stilted formality of Zoom classes. In after-school icebreaker sessions, party games like ‘2 truths and 1 lie’ helped get them more comfortable. When they did finally meet, it was at college while submitting their documents. Spotting and recognising mask-covered faces that they had only so far seen on their screens was like a game in itself, says Ayushi.

She and Chetana have now started to coordinate their morning walks so they can meet each other safely. The girls hope to eventually be able to meet up as a class at least once a month — at cafes, restaurants or the beach. “It’s such a tough time but having each other’s back through it all helps,” she says.

Back in 2020, Salem-based Mithali Surana, a 1st year BBA student had zero expectations from online classes. Making friends had never been an issue for the self-proclaimed extrovert, but she adds, “I was very sceptical about how genuine virtual friends could even be.”

Forging college friendships in a pandemic-hit world

What she did not foresee was that she would be binge-watching romcoms till 2.30 am every other night and practising Chloe Ting workouts in the day, with these very new-found friends. When Mitali came to visit her friends in Chennai for the first time, she stayed at her best friend’s house, whom she had just met, for two days.

Because, she eventually discovered that as difficult as it is making friends online, the more real is the connection for it requires that much greater time and effort.

Just ask the first-year students of ISDI, Mumbai. In the class of 28 people, everyone is scattered across 22 states including Gujarat, West Bengal, Delhi, Haryana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and more.

That did not stop 13 of them from playing a cross-country Secret Santa last December. In a sisterhood of travelling gifts, everyone couriered their presents to another and on Christmas Eve, unwrapped them together while guessing who it was from.

“Whenever it is someone’s birthday, or the end of an exam, or a festival, we party online. Everyone grabs some snacks and something to drink. We synchronise our virtual backgrounds and this one friend plays the DJ and makes us dance,” says Khushiyaa Taleda from Chennai.

At the end of the day whether we’re in front of a laptop screen at home or seated side-by-side in a classroom, it’s the people that make the experience magical.

Cross country for you

At Chennai’s Loyola college, however, the party was not virtual. Before the second surge began, and the situation seemed stable, the first year batch planned an informal fresher’s day in March 2021. Of the 26 people that made it, 15 were from Chennai. The rest flew in from Delhi and Kerala, and other parts of Tamil Nadu such as Salem, Coimbatore and Erode.

Hosted at Level Up in Aminijikarai, they met the faces they had only ever seen on Zoom calls, muddling through awkward introductions. A twisted version of Bingo to crown a Mr Fresher soon warmed things up. The boys, joined by their seniors, headed over to a private villa on ECR and stayed up the entire night, talking. When they left the next day, they were unsure if they would ever meet again in person.

Cut to the second wave of the pandemic, and now with Mumbai under a crippling load of positive cases, the ISDI batch can only dream of meeting their friends from other cities. They wonder out loud how they would react when they do. Dramatic gushing? Sprinting? Bear hugs?

“If we meet.. No, wait not ‘if’, when we meet it’s going to be a full Bollywood kind of run and hug,” says Khushiyaa, "And I can’t wait.”

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 12:09:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/first-year-students-pandemic-college-experience/article34375882.ece

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