A tumbleweed blowing across a street. That’s the image that pops into Kenneth Peter’s mind when he describes the two times he’s visited Bunker Hill Community College in his first year as a student there. “It’s a ghost town,” Peter says.
Peter left the US Army with post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple traumatic brain injuries. Attending college on the GI Bill was supposed to be a fresh start — to get a degree, of course, yet also to make new friends. But the added pressures of learning exclusively online — and the correlating lack of socialization — are pushing him further from recovery.
In September, 84 percent of college students said socializing was what they missed most during remote learning, according to a survey by the nonprofit Hi, How Are You Project. COVID-19 makes it nearly impossible to do, and it’s taken a toll. In the early months of the pandemic, researchers found a 90 percent increase in depression rates among college students. This was tied in part to a drastic drop in socializing, down to less than 30 minutes a day.
College students across Boston are still grappling with this reality.
When the Berklee College of Music campus temporarily closed last spring, Katie Rupinski was in the middle of her second semester. She was just beginning to form promising friendships when she had no choice but to move back in with her parents (she has since moved into an apartment near campus). “It was really hard going home,” she says. “All of those class friendships that I’d started [had to be] put on hold.”
Not only have students left promising relationships behind, they are also dealing with the fear of contracting and spreading a deadly disease. Rupinski is a cancer survivor who also suffers from asthma. “If I get COVID,” she says, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Mike Savoie, a senior at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, says most students he knows are constantly on edge. Before he sees anyone or goes anywhere, he asks himself: Is this something that’s going to put me, my roommates, or my family at risk? Savoie says it feels strange “to be so afraid of the people you are closest to.” Masking and social distancing help, but they don’t always make normal activities, like eating lunch with a friend, any easier.
Because “planning” and “pandemic” are invariably linked, students are lacking another key ingredient for forging and maintaining friendships: spontaneity. One of the pre-pandemic pastimes for Sarah Davids, a junior at Suffolk University, was grabbing a coffee and relaxing by a window in the campus library. Now, she must book an appointment to be in the library at a specific time. The happy accident of running into a friend and stopping for a chat in her usual spot has vanished.
The spaces college students normally use to spark bonds with classmates — campus eateries, libraries, dorm rooms, gyms, classrooms — have been rendered useless due to reduced capacity and fear of COVID-19. “It’s another barrier between becoming closer friends,” Rupinski says. “That place of like, ‘Hey, come over and we’ll watch a movie,’ and end up having a heart-to-heart — that isn’t happening as much, or really at all.” Although Rupinski lives off-campus, without school regulations, she feels unable to act so casually about inviting new people over.
Mikayla Ranson, a senior at the University of Massachusetts Boston, met most of her friends in the classroom, a practice now compromised by full-time online learning. But one of her professors uses the beginning of their Zoom classes to stream a song taken from a class-made playlist, and asks a “question of the day” designed to promote conversation.
Over the course of the year, students have had to get creative in their quests to make and sustain new friendships. For her independent study, Romya-Jenevieve Jerry, a MassArt senior, reads “Poem for a Lady Whose Voice I Like” by Nikki Giovanni to friends over Zoom. With music playing, she then composes a series of quick sketches of her friends while they speak about how the poem makes them feel.
Rupinski met her best friends at Berklee through an online e-sports group in which they played the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. When Rupinski moved back to the city, her small group, all members of the same pod, began meeting in person. “We hang out Friday nights for one campaign, sleep over, then play again Saturday morning,” she says.
Savoie has also forged new bonds online, though off-campus. He says he is “connecting with people in a real way but over the Internet.” Savoie believes students are more desperate to connect now, and are putting more effort into online friendships. Four months ago, one of his new friends traveled from Tennessee to Boston. “That was the first time I ever met him,” Savoie says. “He slept on the couch for a week.”
The party scene has also changed. While Rupinski has heard that “a good amount of people are partying,” she refers mostly to Berklee freshmen who are packing into individual dorm rooms (a violation of the college’s safety restrictions), usually to drink and play music. Savoie estimates that most parties at MassArt now consist of 10 to 15 people, instead of more than 50. “It’s not like before where you’d binge drink and have a crazy night,” he says, though once alcohol is involved, many seem to care less about keeping their masks on.
These days, Savoie has noticed that people seem more aware when they hang out, better able to connect. “I have more deep connections, but [fewer] small connections,” he says. Perhaps this is where the silver lining shines amid collegiate ghost towns: in those deeper connections. “I think quarantine has given me time to reflect,” Savoie says. “My current group of friends right now is more aligned with how I would want to live my life in a non-COVID world.”
He isn’t the only one. Davids is focused on nurturing current friendships, no longer able to put up with chitchat that sounds like “bad dating-app conversations.” Rupinski says that over quarantine, she’s learned who she wants to invest in. “I really want to make sure they are going to push me forward and support me,” she says. Ranson remembers a close friendship she had that revolved around partying. “When all the clubs closed, we stopped hanging out,” she says. It felt like without liquor and loud music, they had little in common.
For Peter and others at commuter schools like Bunker Hill Community College, that may not be as easy as before. He recently attended a Zoom hangout set up by the school. He had one word to describe it: Sad. “I’ll give them a C for effort,” he says. “But it’s OK, at least someone’s trying.”
This story is part of a special report was produced in collaboration with an Emerson College writing and publishing course led by assistant professor Susanne Althoff, a former editor of the Globe Magazine. Colin Kirkland is pursuing a master’s degree. Send comments to email@example.com.