How do you make friends in your first weeks at college when you don’t know who you can trust?
Since Emily Thompson arrived for her freshman year at Tufts University, she’s been in mandatory quarantine, only leaving her dorm room, which she shares with a roommate, to go to the bathroom or throw out garbage. Their dorm room is next to the hall’s trash can, Emily says, and though they aren’t allowed to leave their door open, “If we’re leaving to go to the bathroom or throw out the trash at the same time, we’ll stop someone in the hall and say, ‘Hey, what’s your Instagram,’ and start DMing if we have common interests.” They put sticky notes on their window saying hi, and the sophomores who lived in the dorm across the way put up stickies with their Instagram handles.
After quarantine is up — as soon as students get three negative Covid tests — they can join their hall’s “cohort” of about a dozen neighbors who may socialize with more relaxed rules. In the cohort, they’re allowed to hang out “slightly closer than six feet,” with masks on. All other social interaction has to happen six feet apart. “In our group chats, I’ve seen a lot of people say it’s as if Tufts were picking out our friends for us,” Emily says.
As colleges reopen (and for some, promptly reverse reopening plans), first-year students aren’t just greeted with Covid-19 tests and Zoom events. They also must confront this sobering thought: How do students begin a new life phase, in a new community, when the possibility of mass infection and campus shutdowns looms?
What appears to be an ever-expanding “trust gap” between students and their institutions has been well-documented: Students have been brought to campuses only to have schools pivot and send them home or cancel in-person classes, as if no one could’ve seen a surge coming (so far, the New York Times has tracked 51,000 cases at colleges and universities). Schools have wildly different protocols about notifying students or staff regarding positive tests, creating a knowledge gap that can only increase guardedness. The overall messaging seems to sprawl from the spirit of we’re-all-in-it-together (“Real Trojans Wear Masks” reads one banner on the University of Southern California’s campus) to outright shaming, threatening, or suspending students for socializing — despite having collectively marketed on-campus living as an essential part of the college experience.
But beyond the apprehension some students feel toward their schools’ administrations, there’s also wariness among student bodies. It’s not hard to see how the series of Covid calculations would sow apprehension and stress: What happens when you find out your new friend isn’t wearing a mask as they should be? What if a seventh person accidentally shows up to your socially distanced gathering, and breaks a six-person-max rule? How do you explain to a wealthy new friend that you’re not sure how you’ll afford the ticket home if campus closes before your work-study job begins? While stereotypical freshman fall (that was never a reality for everyone) might have previously been presented as awkward-but-endearing get-to-know-you events, where first-years meet future lifelong friends, tailgates in school colors, and clustering with friends and vending machine snacks on dorm beds to dish about parties and classes, students this fall have been met with PPE and contact tracing.
James, a first-year student at Duke, is uncertain his class will ever have class cohesion after the semester kicked off with a major bout of social media shaming, where people would point out if someone wasn’t wearing a mask, or post photos of large congregations on the quad to social media, decrying fellow classmates for being irresponsible. That’s died down a bit now, James says, but “It is pretty difficult to build trust with peers because of this ‘you could ruin it for everyone’ attitude that everyone has on the back of their mind.”
Snitching — or telling on classmates who attend parties or break guidelines — has also become a fiercely debated topic. At Cornell, students petitioned to have fellow student and TikTok influencer Jessica Zhang’s acceptance rescinded after she posted videos of parties that violated campus guidelines. (She has since apologized and remains on campus.) Another TikTok video went viral when a student promised to snitch on parties: “I spent too much fucking money going to this school, to stay in this dorm, to get sent home months early because you motherfuckers can’t follow the goddamn rules.”
“[They’ve] been slowly working on their [alcohol] stash with their roommates alone in their dorms.”
Still, students are trying to navigate ways to socialize responsibly. At Duke, James says there are some weekend “parties” happening in dorms with anywhere from five to 25 people, some of which got busted by resident assistants. He himself says he spends most of his free nights in dorm common rooms with friends, exploring parts of campus and the city, or playing ping-pong and poker.
While many tropes about freshman orientation involve copious drinking, Covid has complicated the alcohol factor. Emily has been oblivious to anything drinking-related at Tufts, aside from the mandatory alcohol education course all incoming students have to take — her roommate doesn’t drink, and she hasn’t gotten close enough to anyone to know about what’s happening around the rest of campus. “I have friends at other schools who brought alcohol with them when they moved in and have been slowly working on their stash with their roommates alone in their dorms,” she says.
Some students are already experiencing fallout from this social experiment. Tamai Mulbah, a first-year student at Temple University, was hesitant about living on campus due to the rise in cases following move-in but wanted the “full college experience,” including the opportunity to focus on academic work, meet new people, and have access to campus resources. But when the university moved everything online due to a spike in cases two weeks after campus reopened, she moved home. Instead of participating in Temple’s typical welcome week carnival, games, parties, and movies, Tamai says there’s not much for her to do besides attend virtual classes, study, and socialize with friends via social media. “I made one good friend [before leaving] and that was my former roommate. We still keep in touch despite us moving back home.”
The awareness of repercussions is also proving how much students’ actions affect not only themselves, their classmates, and their families, but also the broader campus community. At Duke, James says he’s been increasingly concerned for the staff on campus, who he says skew more Black and Latinx. “The staff in our dining hall have probably been the most stringent about social distancing, and I was kind of annoyed by them until someone pointed out that if we get sent home, they lose their jobs or get furloughed,” he says. “I think that the workers on campus are incredibly grateful to have a job right now, but they’re nervous — because their futures rest on us! I think that might give the students who aren’t worried about the virus because [they think they’ll] probably be fine something more to think about.”
For other students, such privilege gaps were already apparent. Dartmouth freshman Jason Acosta Espinosa was hurt when 150 faculty members signed a petition requesting that all undergraduates be sent home in response to Covid clusters at other campuses, like the University of Notre Dame and UNC-Chapel Hill, after students threw parties. “As a first-gen, low-income student, the petition felt like a punch in the face,” Jason says. He understands faculty fear for their own safety, and knows it’s a difficult time for everyone. But there are significant complications for students to make their way home (assuming they have a familial home) if they don’t have financial support. “There’s no easy answer, but the answer needs to ensure the safety of the institution’s at-risk students,” he adds.
During high school, Jason spent time at school or in cafés to study because he didn’t have a place to work to the best of his ability at home. “Obviously, that’s not feasible during Covid-19,” he says, “nor should I be expected to follow ‘any means necessary’ and seek resources like Wi-Fi from a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts.” His dilemma underscores a critical point in the gap between collegiate life as it is presented, and what students are experiencing, which is that the ramifications of being “sent home” vary wildly.
Xorah Cole, a 16-year-old peer leader at Tarrant County Community College in Texas, explains that students at her school have similar needs. She says students depend on accessing the campus for “the internet connection, so they can study and submit tests, for quiet spaces, the cafeteria,” as well as tutoring services and other academic resources. If the campus were to close altogether and switch entirely to virtual operations, that would leave her and others scrambling for resources.
According to data from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice three in five students experienced basic needs insecurity during the pandemic, and many college students are not in their teens or early twenties. In addition to the pandemic, Kevin McClure, PhD, associate professor of higher education at University of North Carolina, Wilmington notes, the “significant racial reckoning” happening at many institutions has presented opportunities for students to ask questions of their institutions, and the responses have sometimes been wanting. “Some of this conversation around trust, I think, intersects with other issues happening in the United States right now,” he explains.
For some, navigating the challenges of college under Covid has actually helped foster new friendships. Jason is part of the Questbridge program, which supports first-generation, low-income students. He takes solace in his fellow Questbridge freshmen, as well as the upperclassmen who have reached out to help. The fact that much of their interaction happens online “makes the experience bittersweet, because I wish I could see these people and hug them,” he says. “It’s not exactly the most ideal, and I feel bad for students who are either scared to interact online or feel unfulfilled by online interactions since both perspectives are completely valid,” he adds. Even amid apprehension, the human need for connection remains.
College campuses are a microcosm of what’s going on in the country at large: negotiations between different groups of people about how to keep themselves and others safe while still managing to live their lives. But the identity formation that occurs during young adulthood, including establishing a sense of purpose that positively impacts the world and navigating often-competing responsibilities, means that, for a lot of young people, the values and worldview built through lived experiences includes what happens on their campuses. “It’s definitely been difficult to mirror what a college life is ‘supposed’ to look like,” says Jason. “We’re such a unique class that had senior year stripped away, but we’re trying to make the most of an unorthodox freshman year.”