In normal times, heading off to college is a magical time. You drink your first Four Loko, experiment a little sexually, start to decide what you want to do with your life, and make a ton of new friends. But this year, like much in the world, all of those things will be made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. But there's no reason for coronavirus to keep you from meeting new people and making college friends — though it might look a little different than it would have during BC Times (before COVID).
Virtual learning and social distancing guidelines being enforced by schools just mean you'll have to get a little creative to meet your new friends, explains Jill Grimes, MD, author of The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook.
You may want to stick with texting your besties from back home, but resist the urge. “Making new friends can be fun as well as a little nerve-racking, and COVID-19 has added fear to that. But the social aspect of college is an integral part of the experience,” says Carter Barnhart, chief experience officer at Newport Institute.
“Something important to remember too is that every incoming student is in the same boat and wants to make friends as well, so friendships will form quickly and your classmates will be open to befriending others,” Barnhart adds. Yes, even in a Zoom room.
Here are some fun, not-so-scary ways to meet new people “on campus” (even if your “campus” is the computer screen in your parent’s basement right now).
Kick it outdoors
If you're lucky enough to be on campus, outdoor activities are a safe(r) bet than indoor ones. “Anything outside with masks is ideal,” Dr. Grimes says. “Especially without food and drinks since people take off their masks to [consume them].” Some fun ideas that allow you to keep your face covering on, and to socially distance: outdoor yoga, casual sports such as tennis, golf, or frisbee (a college classic), or outdoor movies.
Go to a Zoom party
We know, we know, you’re sick of Zooming. But it's worth logging on to meet the fresh batch of faces on your screen. For bigger gatherings, some schools are using smaller "breakout rooms" so you can meet and chat with a more intimate crew, says Dr. Grimes. Others are playing the same old icebreaker games — Zoom edition.
Don't be afraid to suggest your own activities. For instance, you can do a "PowerPoint party" where attendees will craft creative slideshows, often about silly things and share them with each other. The best "presentation" I've seen lately was the "Disney Hunger Games." Another friend taught me about a wild conspiracy that Australia does not exist.
Use social media
Get on social to follow other students in your classes, and campus organizations that might announce events where you can meet new people. Following your school newspaper is also a good place to keep up with events.
Another perk of platforms such as Instagram: If you’re trying to be extra careful to avoid getting sick, Dr. Grimes says you can do some sleuthing to see if your potential new friends are taking the same level of precaution you are. “It’s a good way to start connecting with others, plus generally it will give you an idea of someone else’s risk tolerance,” Dr. Grimes says. “If every picture shows different groups of people drinking, no masks? You know the score.”
If you do make a friend via straight social media, Dr. Grimes recommends Zooming before meeting face to face — or mask to mask, in this case. “It’s a safe and easy next step,” she says. From there, you can decide if the person is worth hanging out with (while socially distanced) in person. The truth is, the more people you add to your bubble, the more likely it is you could catch COVID-19, so it’s worth feeling the person out to make sure they’re worth the risk.
Consider going Greek
In some instances, Dr. Grimes says Greek life can be well organized and safe. But she warns that if a sorority or fraternity is still promoting its awesome house parties, you should be wary. “Understand these have already been hot spots for COVID transmission,” she says. “The combination of alcohol decreasing caution, crowds, and people not wearing masks because they’re drinking are a powder keg for COVID-19”
Although hitting up a party in the Sigma Chi basement isn’t a pandemic-friendly activity, rushing can still be a great way to connect with other students, she says, so it still might be worth looking into how your local chapters are operating. “The online recruitment is certainly changing the look of 'rush' this year, but [Greek life is] still going strong at most universities,” Dr. Grimes says.
And if you’re hellbent on attending a party, Barnhart emphasizes that you should wear a mask and socially distance as much as possible.
Join campus organizations
Yes, they’re still around. Dr. Grimes says they’re doing their best to reach new members with virtual events, and by doing socially distanced outdoor activities. Browse through your campus club list, and reach out to organizations that appeal to you, and remember that sending them a message is not the same as committing to attend their meetings until you graduate.
If you’re not sure where to start or feel overwhelmed, here’s a pro tip from Dr. Grimes: Google “top ten clubs" + your university name. “Most schools have hundreds of clubs, and large schools might have over a thousand,” she says. “Everything from frivolous fun like “bad movie” societies where they watch, laugh and critique bad movies to active outdoor games like Quidditch to foodie clubs to serious service organizations or political and environmental groups.”
Bond with your roommate
If you’re on campus, getting close to your roommate isn’t a bad idea, as you’ll probably be spending even more time with them than you would have before COVID-19 struck. Organize a fun movie night where you both watch something you’ve been wanting to see, or suggest an outdoor activity, a Paint By Numbers kit, or a board game.
Icebreakers can be a little annoying, but they’re a staple on campus for a reason. Dr. Grimes says “get to know you” games like Game of Phones or Table Topics are great ways to get to bond. She also recommends looking to your RA for floor events.
Form a virtual study group
Once classes are under way, reach out to a few other kids who seem cool to form a study group. Of course, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be chatting half the time. You can connect through programs like Zoom or Google Hangouts. There’s also GoConqr, which was designed with study buddies in mind. You can set an agenda and take breaks where you chat or have a virtual dance party or stretch session if you just need to move after sitting in front of a computer all day.
In my college days, my study group friends and I would order a pizza as a nice, extended break. If you're not together IRL, order a pie into your individual spaces and eat it "together." An added bonus that would only happen in our surreal new world? There’ll be leftovers.