The Importance of Fostering Connectedness

An image of Carla, with short reddish-brown hair, wearing a light blue coat

Written by Carla Alexander, Content Writer

Fostering connectedness with one’s peers is an important part of the student experience. That connectedness can take many forms — taking part in clubs, participating in sports, and building friendships with one’s fellow students. But what happens when life forces us indoors? Or life shifts where in person experiences aren’t as accessible for someone? Is fostering connectedness still possible?  

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on the experiences of commuting: how commuter students felt about their commute, their thoughts on distance learnings, and how they felt about potentially returning to in-person studies. One topic that came up quite frequently was that commuter students often felt robbed of the typical “university experience” in their first year — joining clubs and societies, going to school events, and making friends in their classes. But what happens when online learning because more common for incoming students? The playing field may seem more “even” (nobody has to commute!), but the online sphere still has its own set of difficulties — and ways to overcome those difficulties! I interviewed two second year iSchool students to find out how they fostered connections with their peers during COVID-19, and how they expect those connections to continue as we make the transition back to in-person & hybrid learning. 

The Virtues of Video Games: Jennie’s Story 

An illustration featuring a chat box, a gaming controller, and characters from the video game "Among Us".

Before the pandemic, Jennie was a very busy, social person. Prior to joining the iSchool in 2020, Jennie was working 40-50 hours per week at a full-time teaching job, had just finished studying abroad, and hung out frequently with her friends. As an international student, Jennie’s COVID-19 experience was a bit different than most; while she didn’t have to worry about moving to Canada just yet, the time difference often made it difficult to connect with her peers. However, Jennie eventually adjusted to both the time difference and the online sphere, and she found her own ways of fostering connections with her peers: through online chat rooms with her classmates, and through video games. Student-led games of Among Us became the perfect ice breaker that helped her get to know the people in her concentration. The iSchool Discord became a frequent hangout spot as well, and Jennie often found connections via conversing with her fellow classmates who were in a similar position as her. In 2021, Jennie is looking forward to seeing her classmates in person, but she’s hoping to organize some online video game nights in the future as well.

Emphasizing with Shared Struggles: Lisa 

An illustration featuring a laptop, showing a video conference with four participants. Surrounding the laptop are chat boxes, a piece of paper, a pencil, and a star.

Whereas Jennie had to adjust to being social online, Lisa didn’t have to make much of an adjustment at all. Lisa is very much an introvert, and prior to the pandemic, spent most of her time at home and online. But that doesn’t mean that fostering connections during the pandemic was any easier for Lisa than it was for Jennie: Lisa still had to adjust to all of her classes and tutorials being online, and she missed the experience of seeing her peers in person. Lisa also missed hanging out with her school friends on campus, even if she wasn’t taking part in any larger social endeavors (i.e. societies, clubs). When Lisa started at the iSchool in 2020, she wasn’t sure whether she’d be able to connect with any of her peers — but the pandemic proved to be a bonding experience for them all. As Lisa took part in online classes, she started talking about her pandemic experiences with her peers, and eventually made a handful of close friends, all of whom had bonded over their shared struggles. In 2021, Lisa is looking forward to taking some online courses, but she’s also excited to see what her new friends look like in person.

The Importance of Fostering Connections 

Though students often struggle during their university experience, they often find comfort in one another. It’s important that every student knows that they’re not alone in experiencing these difficulties, and that there’s ways to seek help and foster connections with those like them — whether it be through video games, Discord servers, or through simply seeking out conversations with their peers. This is why “Fostering Connectedness” is one of the Innovation Hub’s Domains of Innovation — because fostering that connectedness, through one’s peers and with the university itself, is vital to a student’s well-being and the quality of their university experience. The pandemic has revealed some new ways of fostering those connections! And though we may be returning to in-person learning soon, it’s also important that we take some of those new connections and bring them with us in Fall 2021 and beyond. 

Check out our Building Digital Connections in Uncertainty report to learn more about the experiences of UofT students as they navigate the online sphere. To see our Delving Into The Digital blog series, click here. To learn more about Fostering Connectedness, our Domain of Innovation, check out this report

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