Students Struggle to Build Connections on a Socially Distanced Campus

By Sydney Haulenbeek | Contributing Writer

Photo by Sydney Haulenbeek.

Jessica Perez on the Kaufman Mall, outside the Webb, picnicking on Tuesday, September 15. Aaron Tenney, freshman, hangs out on campus between classes.

It’s 2 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, and there are very few people loitering on the Kaufman Mall, despite the sunny, warm weather. Most students are shuffling up the stairs into the Webb Center, or are shuffling across cement on their way to an in-person class.

But Jessica Perez, majoring in elementary education, is having a picnic.

And while the decreased number of students on campus has been a change, students are also seeing prolonged changes in their social lives because of COVID-19.

“It's changed a lot,” said Perez. “I’m a commuter, so it's definitely made it a lot harder to make friends because now no classes are in-person, so I’m just having to reach out more, whether on Zoom chats or just saying ‘hi’ to people walking around.”

Perez went from having all in-person classes in the years previous to having only online ones, with an exception of one class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Even that, Perez says, is recorded so students don’t have to attend in person.

She is a part of Kappa Delta, a sorority on campus, but the meetings are on Zoom and Perez says she has to work a lot harder to stay connected.

“We have to put a lot more effort into relationships. We’re not seeing each other at chapter meetings, or in person at all, so it's having to reach out and say ‘hey, do you want to hang out here?’ instead of just ‘I’ll see you later.’”

The reason Perez is picnicking on the Mall? She’s doing homework and trying to stay connected to the school.

“[I do it] so I can at least come to campus once a week,” she said. “So that I’m not completely disassociated from ODU.”

Aaron Tenney, a freshman and commuter, is also struggling with how social distancing procedures have changed building new relationships.

“It's very difficult to make friends because normally when you go to school you’re sitting right next to people and constantly interacting with them, but now you always have to stay six feet apart,” Tenney said. “You can’t continue the normal interactions that you would normally do, because we are a [low] context culture. So we rely on talking instead of gestures, like other nations.”

He’s noticed how the masks make it more difficult to understand other people sometimes, and how Americans really rely on facial expressions to communicate.

“The same thing applies when you’re texting someone, you don’t exactly get the emphasis that you’re normally used to so you can take things wrong when you hear it, or read it,” Tenney said.

There is also a very present concern about health that is keeping many students from reaching out to others.

“Because of COVID no one really wants to spend time together or open themselves up to other people,” said Tenney, “because they’re strangers, you don't know if they have this disease, you don’t want to get all your family sick, all your friends sick, everyone that you know.”

But the reason that students keep coming back to campus amidst the risk? The desire for the college experience, and to be a part of the ODU community.

Tenney has a 45-minute commute, but taking in-person classes at ODU is important to him.

“I still wanted to have a portion of the college experience,” Tenney said, “to actually go to campus and see what it's like.