November 9, 2020

SMITH | On Friendships, Cornell and Covid

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My mom’s favorite things to share about her college experience were all the memories she had of her friends. The late night study sessions, the dorm dynamics, the nights out, and sneaking extra coffee cake from the dining hall. So as I took my first steps on North Campus, I was filled with excitement and expectation thinking of the great friendships that awaited me. Similarly to high school, I was fed a narrative of college being the greatest time of my life, the place where I would make my forever friends and other rose-tinted statements that are simultaneously true and false. 

While I certainly talked to and gave a lot of people my phone number during O-Week, a lot of those numbers are sitting in my contacts like emails in my inbox from the club listservs I joined out of genuine interest but never ended up going to. Still, I’ve met many wonderful people that have been invaluable to me as pillars of support, cheerleaders, relationship coaches, comedians, study buddies and just proof that amazing human beings are out there. But Cornell is busy and hard and I know for me, at least, it’s easy to disappear into a laptop-light tinged bunker as the semester picks up. It’s harder to coordinate schedules as deadlines pile up and availabilities conflict. There are lots of impersonal-sounding reasons out there to make friends; they can impact your academic success, broaden your horizons and bring other l benefits into your life beyond just having a person you can unabashedly send photos of your cat to. And while we live in a culture of individualism, it just feels better to know you aren’t alone on a treadmill headed for graduation. 

Enter COVID. Hanging out with friends in person can sometimes involve mental calculations weighing their social circle and behaviors versus yours, and associated risk. Is there an immunocompromised loved one to consider? What is your risk going to a restaurant in the commons, or the farmer’s market or for a run?

Making new friends in class is more difficult because it’s near impossible to have side conversations or create the equivalent of walking together after class in a Zoom lecture. Plenty of people I would love to get to know more have come into my life but the message now is to shrink your social circle, not expand it and I am not sure my social anxiety can manage smoothly sliding into Zoom DMs. Not “running into people” as much means that hanging out has to be more structured — be it a scheduled FaceTime or a small dinner party planned around when everyone gets their test results. There’s less ease in seeing whoever, whenever you want, just as there is with going or doing wherever, whenever you want. The pandemic has had an acknowledged strain on friendships, a change in how we celebrate holidays and how schools and communities operate. The desire for “old times” is a nostalgia common during lulls in friendships, but now it’s coupled with nostalgia for pre-COVID “normalcy.” My “Hey” and “How are you?” texts get answers and I have the odd catch-up, but I can’t help but want my own “How are you?” texts. COVID is fueling my usual insecurities regarding friendships and I find myself at a loss as to how best to go forward. In a fit of mixed feelings over Halloween, I concluded that I might have to swallow my pride and reach out more. 

Friendships are hard at Cornell . . . and harder in a pandemic. It’s one of those situations where it’s easy to feel alone, even if you’re not. The exact same sentiments expressed here have been repeated back to me by the very people who I wondered why I wasn’t hearing from. So I guess if you should walk away from this with anything: Give your friends a call.

Emma Smith is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at esmith@cornellsun.com. Emmpathy appears every other Friday this semester.