Graphic by Samantha McBride

Undergraduate students share their thoughts on cultivating community during COVID-19

Last year as autumn descended and we neared Reading Week, the world and the McMaster University campus looked very different. First-year students were learning to navigate campus and starting to make friends in their classes and in residence. Upper-year students were trying to put into practice the lessons they learned in first year and were reconnecting after having been apart all summer. Between Welcome Week and homecoming, it was the time of year when feelings of community and belonging were the most obvious. On top of the new university community forming, students would be anticipating going home for Thanksgiving family gatherings or making plans with new and old friends

As we come around to this time of year again, much has changed. Some changes are obvious such as the shift to online classes, while others are more subtle such as how we create and maintain community. Prior to the pandemic, community meant being in the same physical place, seeing each other frequently and often participating in activities together. Now as a result of the physical distancing protocols, this kind of community is very difficult to achieve, let alone maintain. More than ever, students are facing social isolation and loneliness.

The pandemic has forced the world to rethink community, but for students who are scattered across the country and around the world, it is particularly difficult. However, students have been creative in finding new ways to connect with each other, create new online communities and support established relationships. Largely this has meant turning to online platforms and social media.

When I open up my computer now, I’m part of a community but the second I close it, I feel like I’m lost and I’m not part of it, whereas before COVID, it was easier to kind of stay as a part of a community . . . [W]hen you were on your own, you never really felt as isolated,” explained Zahra Panju, a second-year student.

When I open up my computer now, I’m part of a community but the second I close it, I feel like I’m lost and I’m not part of it.”

While friendships now require more effort to sustain than they did in person, many students explained that they are grateful for the increasing use of online platforms and phone calls. It has given them an excuse to reconnect with high school friends and extended family members, who they may not have spoken to in a while or would not be able to see in person anyway.

However, when trying to build new connections, the effortful component of virtual communities can be a hindrance. As a first-year student, the transition to university is always a bit bumpy, but the adjustment to online classes and the lack of an established community has made it incredibly overwhelming and isolating.

“Even Welcome Week, you hear so much about it and how it’s this great week, you make so many friends [and] you connect with people but this year, you couldn’t even see each other. We couldn’t really talk to each other much with the events . . . I think that the general McMaster community . . . has been difficult, just because I don’t think we’ve been given enough opportunities to connect with one another,” said first-year student Isabelle Cardos.

Often joining clubs on campus is a crucial component to finding community at university. While many current first-year students are interested in doing so, they expressed that they don’t know where to start looking. They are also not sure if now is the right time as they are still adjusting to their classes.

In contrast, many second- and third-year students have found themselves joining more clubs this year in an attempt to create the sense of community that they feel they’re missing. As they don’t necessarily get the opportunity to meet new people through lectures anymore, they see clubs as an opportunity to connect with people outside their program who are also interested in building and community. 

Fourth-year students in particular are grateful that they have been able to establish a strong sense of community already. They are now not only looking for ways to maintain that community but also for ways to further establish a community for all students. Many fourth-year students spearhead a number of clubs and initiatives on campus and have been working hard to adapt these to the pandemic. They feel that this year the impact of their efforts is a lot more apparent, and also arguably more important.  

[W]e’re finding a lot of new people tuning in and I’m kind of hopeful about new connections that can be made . . . [T]hese are probably the hardest times that people have had to face in terms of going to university and . . . if an online connection isn’t always just the tedious work thing, then that’s important,” said fourth-year student Rhea Murti, who is co-president of the McMaster Yoga club and also involved in organizing the McMaster Indigenous Health Movement.

[W]e’re finding a lot of new people tuning in and I’m kind of hopeful about new connections that can be made.”

Overall, students clearly expressed the importance of supporting each other. Many felt that the pandemic has encouraged them to be more open and more vulnerable with their family and friends, even if they are connecting online because they know everyone is going through a difficult time.

“I feel like before the pandemic the need wasn’t as urgent to really build community and be empathetic . . . I feel like we were kind of moving away from that before the pandemic. I feel like since this happened it’s kind of forced us back into this place, I feel like we naturally have to be in, towards just being nice to each other,” said Blessing Akinniranye, a fourth-year student and assistant director of Diversity Services.

While the McMaster community is still navigating these changes and trying to find new ways to connect and maintain connections, there is still a very strong sense of community as students look for ways to support each other through these trying times.

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