Loneliness Beyond ZOOM University


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Imagine this:

You walk into the lecture theatre alone on the first day of class. You take it all in—it’s your first day of the new semester. You’re probably excited to meet more people and expand your social circle. This is especially so, given how we had to experience online school for the past few semesters. 

But, wait a minute… To your dismay, you realise that people are seated in groups. Groups of three, four, and even five people. Groups that seem perfectly whole as they are, with no room for anyone else to join them.  Though, you might catch people seated in pairs if you’re ‘lucky’. 

Now, you catch yourself thinking: Why does it seem as though everyone knows each other already? How will I strike a less-than-awkward conversation with people in cliques to befriend them? Ironically, why does it feel as though I’m in a position no different than in Zoom University… 

If you resonate with the above, know that you aren’t alone. A quick search on the r/nus Reddit thread shows that this is a common struggle for students of all years—from freshmen to seniors. This begs the question: is it really that challenging to make friends in university? And as university students, do we really feel that lonely?

Loneliness in Zoom University

Let’s first take a step back to Zoom University. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences where our Professors or Teaching Assistants made concerted efforts to create opportunities for us to mingle with one another. From assigning us into breakout rooms to constantly giving us the chance to unmute our microphones and speak up… The list goes on. 

I’m not quite sure how those went for you, but for me, those moments were beyond awkward, to say the least. Think breakout rooms where everyone is on mute. Think moments when we typed in the Zoom chat box instead of unmuting our microphones to speak. Don’t even get me started on those situations where a brave soul unmutes their microphone to ask a question, only to be ignored by everyone else in the breakout room. 

The onslaught of such situations, accompanied by online CCA sessions, has certainly induced loneliness in us. It just seems like no one is putting in the effort to engage with one another anymore. Well, even if someone tries, they might feel jaded when there’s literally zero to minimal reciprocation. 

We soon find ourselves subconsciously trapped in constant rumination regarding the lack of social interaction in Zoom University. Hence, it’s unsurprising that we feel isolated. We seem to ascribe this problem of loneliness to online school. However, is this truly the case? Do we feel less lonely now that we’re moving away from Zoom University? 

Surprise, surprise! Loneliness exists beyond Zoom University 

Semester 1 of AY22/23 marked a pivotal shift away from Zoom University. In simple terms, it went a little like this: 

Physical orientations: check. 

Physical lectures and tutorials: check. 

Physical CCA sessions: check. 

With everything returning in person, I’m sure we’ve all had high expectations about how the new semester would pan out—more social interactions in seminars, more befriending opportunities…

Yet, we still see the same influx of posts lamenting about the posters’ lack of friends in university.

Heck, even my circle of friends has confided in me about this. It seems as though things have remained the same despite everything taking place physically. 

Why do we still feel lonely despite shifting away from Zoom University? 

I’d attribute the nature of university to the following phenomenon. University screams “The world is your oyster”—from the variety of modules to tutorial slots, we’re able to choose anything and everything. However, with this freedom comes the situation of fluid classes. This greatly differs from our student life prior to university: before university, it was common for us to have fixed classmates who would journey with us through school. Similar timetables, similar recess breaks, you name it, we had it. Yet, this is no longer the case here at university. Here, our circle of ‘Hi, Bye!’ acquaintances is significantly greater than that of our actual friends—and probably even makes up the majority of our ‘friends’. 

Some might put a positive spin on this phenomenon: well, this means that we’re able to network and socialise with different people each time we go to school! While others, on the other hand, feel lonely and find this daily repeating cycle pointless—it’s mentally exhausting and physically draining to establish relationships with acquaintances time and time again, only for us to be ‘friends’ for a semester before drifting apart.  

Beyond the nature of university, some of us might feel lonely due to the lack of opportunities to meet like-minded people. For starters, many students associate socialising with campus residency. The reason for this is as clear as day: campus residency extends students’ social lives with mingling opportunities. From having communal in-house events to going out for supper at the famed neighbouring ‘supper stretch’, chances to hang out with peers seem bottomless. Unfortunately, securing on-campus residency is akin to winning the Hunger Games (quite literally, since we might be hungry for that opportunity). As such, there is a significant proportion of students who live off-campus. In an attempt to meet like-minded people,  they turn to CCAs. This, regrettably, might be a hit or miss. Some might have a strong sense of belonging to their CCAs as they’ve fostered strong relationships with their peers there. Conversely, it is also equally common to see people mentioning how fragmented their CCA is, or how uncommitted their CCA mates are. The ‘Hi, Bye!’ phenomenon takes the stage once again. 

With the above, it is no wonder we experience loneliness! 

Words of Encouragement

Well, I think it’s safe to say that with or without the pandemic, as people who are coming of age, we might struggle with self-identity, loneliness and the need to fit in.

Though Zoom University might have exacerbated these underlying challenges, they lie fundamentally at our core as young adults even without the massive constraints of the pandemic. Thus, even as a university student still finding my own place, I’m confident in assuring you: it’s totally alright to feel this way. Rather than hyper-focusing on our social gains and losses, why not utilise this newfound time and flexibility to explore and discover yourself, your values, and your friendship dynamics instead? These uncomfortable phases of life are necessary learning opportunities we all have to take, or, at least, will vastly benefit from taking. In fact, I’d say that “more so than suppers or CCAs, grappling with this transition of friendship dynamics and loneliness is the quintessential college experience”. Sending you much love (and friends), my dear reader!