Michelle Li / Sun Contributor

Connection is harder for Cornellians — whether remote or in Ithaca — with physical distance between them.

October 21, 2020

Between Masks and Zoom, Finding Community Is Harder Than Ever

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In a campus void of typical college experiences, community and connection seem to be quickly deteriorating despite efforts to hold virtual events.

Without the annual traditions that bring a sense of spirit to campus — Homecoming, Apple Fest, O-Week — and without regular interaction inside classrooms, students are struggling to stay socially active and connected to each other.

“Students are not OK,” Malavika Ramarao ’23 said from her home in California. Choosing to study remotely, Ramarao expressed concern over a lack of acknowledgment from Cornell faculty about the overall wellness of their students.

“We’re going to classes, we’re continuing with our college year, OK, fine,” Ramarao said. “But, we are putting aside a lot of the mental and emotional strain we are feeling — through loved ones who have died, through the stress of living in this time — and we’re trying to cope with the difficulties of college.”

The usual support system of living in a shared community is now much more disparate, with many students seeing each other only through screens. Months of physical distancing only amplified these feelings of stress and pressure, students said.

“A lot of classes, especially if they’re asynchronous, don’t give me the opportunity to meet or make friends,” Ramarao said. For many, classes were once a space to freely talk to people with similar academic interests. Now, those casual interactions, key to the college experience, are much harder to come by.

“What seems like the easiest place to meet people — in class — is no longer much of an option,” Michelle Cazorla ’24 said. “We join our Zoom meetings and leave it as soon as we are dismissed. There is no chatting on the way to class nor back to the dorms.”

But students living on and off campus aren’t having the same experience, with remote students feeling more disconnected than their peers on East Hill. Cornellians in Ithaca have each other; they study with their roommates and pass by students they’ve never met before. Campus is quieter, but they’re not alone.

Still, even for them, making genuine connections has still proved hard.

“I miss being able to knock on [someone’s] door and be like, ‘hey let’s go get lunch,’” said Jiarui Hu ’23. “Now it’s more of a process, and I feel like everyone’s schedules are even more different because classes are at weird times.”

While student organizations and departments across the University have brainstormed ways to create community online, it doesn’t feel the same.

“I personally feel discouraged to join a Zoom activity,” Cardoza said. “I would prefer to partake in something fun and traditional to Cornell while, of course, social distancing and wearing masks.”

Right now, the University is operating at a “green” level, with eight active, on-campus positive cases. Under this alert level, only gatherings of 10 people or fewer are permitted, with physical distancing and masks required.

In a silver lining, students named the relative success of the semester as one way that has helped them feel more connected — that trusting Cornellians to follow the guidelines has eased some of the stress.

“I’m really impressed by the way Cornell has treated a virtual semester,” Hu said. “They’ve done a good job of establishing rules and guidelines to keep everyone safe.”

Describing improvements the University could make to improve the student experience,  Ramarao said that “the biggest thing that Cornell could do is require that classes have a synchronous option.”

“You have to record a lecture anyway,” she said. “Why not have students there while you record it so that they can at least form some kind of connection to the material, to the teacher or to other students in the class?”

Ramarao added that having cameras on — with face-to-face contact and more immediate reactions — further contributes to feeling closer to in-person interaction.

Despite the challenges of the semester, Ramarao nevertheless found a sense of optimism in the Cornell community’s ability to persist and find ways to adapt.

“There still is a Cornell community,” Ramarao said. “It’s just a lot harder to feel as if you’re a part of it, and it’s a lot harder to participate in that community due to this setting.”