Since COVID-19 began, students at UNC Asheville experienced a social decline, both in and out of the classroom, but safe campus events and other efforts from both students and faculty could help them take back their social lives.
“College shouldn’t be a lonely experience,” said Caitlin Doherty, president of Asheville Campus Entertainment and a senior at UNCA.
Since starting online classes, students struggle to make friends and have the college experience that existed before COVID-19. Lydia Page, a sophomore at UNCA, faces this struggle.
“I think it is slightly harder. I work for campus recreations and I got my job last fall which was our first semester dealing with the pandemic. I made friends with my job, but I feel like, without it, I haven’t really connected with people that I didn’t already really know,” Page said.
UNCA provides both in-person and online options for students. Page takes one in-person class and the rest of her classes online. She said online classes make her miss the in-person interactions she had before COVID-19. She goes to classrooms or spaces around campus to get in the mindset of going to class.
“Online learning is hurting the social network just a little bit,” Page said.
Faculty at UNCA say they have also noticed the social effects the pandemic has on the students.
“I think back to my time as an undergrad and being social was a really big thing. That was a good part of why I lived at the dorms and went to school. I feel for the students now that can’t do that,” said Lori Horvitz, an English professor at UNCA.
At the beginning of the pandemic, online learning started abruptly in the middle of the semester. A bond between students and faculty was already there and cameras would be on. Now, with students leaving their cameras off, it makes it difficult to create that bond that once was there with in-person classes, Horvitz said.
“I find one of the hardest things about teaching is when students turn their cameras off and I mean that’s fine for a few minutes if they have to eat. But some students leave them off the whole time and you don’t know if they are there or not. I talked with my colleagues and they feel the same. It is so hard talking to blank squares and you don’t even know if they are there. It is like talking into a wall,” Horvitz said.
Horvitz said she understands there are good reasons students have their cameras off, but for all of them, that is not the case. She had one student had their camera off because they were driving.
Despite the lack of human interaction and blank screens, Horvitz said the majority of her students still participate in class and they all have good discussions.
In online classes, students find themselves often put into breakout rooms where they are paired randomly with other students to complete tasks for a class or to discuss topics given by faculty. Horvitz said some students enjoy this.
Page and other students she knows have concerns about breakout rooms.
“I feel like for me personally, it is easier to talk to people in person,” Page said. “Since the rooms are timed by professors. I feel like there is an obligation to keep the conversation going the entire time you’re in the breakout room.”
Page also said Zoom makes it hard for students to participate in class because Zoom classes could have up to 30 people. Due to the restrictive format and large class size, students and professors struggle to say everything they want. On top of that, the human connection and mindset of being in a class is gone with Zoom.
Horvitz said she does miss the community UNCA had before the pandemic and misses interacting with students and her colleagues. She said she feels for students who are missing
this aspect of college, especially with socializing outside of class.
“One student said she felt sad she couldn’t make friends because of Zoom. You couldn’t really hang out after class and go out for coffee,” Horvitz said.
Outside the classroom, social interaction remains difficult for students, but not entirely impossible.
“I think if students are willing to get connected through something with campus then they can make friends. Join a club or get a job. The community of UNCA will do the rest,” Page said.
UNCA continues to be very cautious about the pandemic, enforcing mask wearing and keeping the campus clean, Page said. Page participates in the women’s ultimate frisbee club and they take many precautions to be safe during games.
Groups on campus such as ACE are one of the many groups that provide events for students to socialize and are taking all precautions to keep everyone safe.
“We want to get students to come out and socialize, make friends and make the college experience less boring and lonely,” Doherty said.
She said there are more challenges to planning events for students since the pandemic started.
“I am worried (about the pandemic) and on-campus with cases going up. We want to give people this
experience, especially freshmen. It is their first year and they are trying to make friends and we don’t want people to be isolated all the time. It is definitely hard to balance safety and events,” Doherty said.
The attendance of the events has disappointed some members of ACE because, despite the effort put into them, they are sparsely attended, Doherty said. She said the feedback they received from students who have attended has been positive.
“I understand completely not wanting to go out in a pandemic. I 100 percent get that, but I am not gonna sit here and say, ‘Oh you still should get out.’ That’s not what I am saying at all. I am saying it can be good to get out if you sit home all day on Zoom and want a break,” Doherty said. “You don’t have to stay long and it is good to get out every once in a while.”
ACE has been providing events for students such as grab-and-go and socially distant movie nights.
In the future, ACE plans an art show and other events for students to socialize with each other, according to Doherty.
“It’s hard because I know a lot of people have been upset that in-person stuff is happening and that’s the last thing we want to do. Make anyone feel unsafe at our events and I hope if anyone felt that way they would come to talk to us about it,” Doherty said.