After a year of Zoom University, some students are experiencing a surprising shift: With restaurants, bars and schools opening back up, suddenly the thought of having to see classmates in person sounds more like a chore than a privilege.
Students are less likely to be crowding the halls of Bobb Hall or 560 Lincoln St., nightlife is all but nonexistent and the only interaction most people get is a shy wave from six feet away. As vaccines inaugurate a “new normal,” the ways in which we abide by social protocols, make new friends, maintain the old ones and interact in social settings will continue to shift.
Northwestern students might find themselves walking through Norris University Center or studying at University (Main) Library feeling more cautious about things that they previously hadn’t thought twice about.
“I think the act of sneezing, coughing and even human touch have all suffered during this time,” Medill fourth-year Nia Harris says. “I always worry if I sneeze in public, people are going to look at me as if I am the disease.”
Due to the pandemic, usual greetings like handshakes, hugs and even kisses have been put on pause.
“I find I make friends less when I have to rely on texting and reaching out on social media instead of just striking up a conversation with somebody in person.”Weinberg third-year Cherish Anderson
“In Latin cultures, you kiss your relatives on the cheek when you greet them,” Harris says. “My family lost this embrace when the pandemic hit, and it was so strange. As everyone started to understand COVID-19 better and knew who was quarantining, we started to feel safer doing it.”
Friendships have also suffered some unexpected changes. Before, friends were made at frat parties, Norris, Mark 2 Lounge (aka the Deuce) and even while simply walking to the Technological Institute (Tech). Now, the pandemic has compromised these typical occurrences, and many students say they’re struggling to connect with peers in-person and online.
“I find I make friends less when I have to rely on texting and reaching out on social media instead of just striking up a conversation with somebody in person,” Weinberg third-year Cherish Anderson says.
Anderson isn’t the only one who feels this way. Weinberg second-year Rowan Lapi, who plays on the women’s soccer team, says that her friendships have also suffered, as Northwestern Athletics prohibited athletes from seeing anyone outside their team.
“Maintaining friendships with my non-athlete friends has been hard because we’re not in the same bubble,” Lapi says.
Since the pandemic began, Harris says she’s struggled to make friends through class and social gatherings, as Zoom doesn’t facilitate the same sort of spontaneity present in a classroom setting.
“We all know how breakout rooms can go,” Harris says. “They’re either wonderful or a time of complete awkward silence where all you see are first and last names on a screen.”
Isolation, stress and loneliness have characterized the past year, causing students to subconsciously or consciously narrow their group of friends.
"We all know how breakout rooms can go. They’re either wonderful or a time of complete awkward silence where all you see are first and last names on a screen.”Medill fourth-year Nia Harris
However, while Weinberg first-year Ingrid Falls says it’s been hard to branch out to new people, she also believes the pandemic has brought students together.
“The presence of COVID has forced different communities to interact in new ways and allowed people to learn more about themselves, which has led people to find new passions and meet people with similar passions,” Falls says.
Perhaps the most memorable day-to-day pandemic experience that has limited social abilities, though, has been mask-wearing.
“Our masks cover a huge part of our emotion, and the random smiles to strangers on the street have really lessened,” Harris says. “I think this disconnection was happening with our phones. Now, we have phones, masks and the underlying fear of the spread of COVID.”
Since vaccine distribution began in the U.S. on Dec. 14., more than 40% of the population has received both doses, and the Centers for Disease Control and Infection has lifted some mask mandates for fully vaccinated residents. But some students say they aren’t keen on losing their protective garment yet — or going “back to normal” at all.
“I’m guessing that some COVID guidelines will stay in place for a while because of the lingering concern about the dangers of the virus,” Falls says.