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A UT Austin student studies on campus

UT for Me: Helping College Students Connect at a Distance

Guest Author: Faith E. Miller

As the pandemic has redefined the college experience in fundamental ways, many students are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their higher education goals on track. Amid the distractions and complexities of social distancing and virtual classrooms, that may include a single-minded focus on academics as other aspects of the college experience fall by the wayside. Networking and social activities are taking a backseat.

It’s important to recognize that the relationships that students gain in college aren’t a nice-to-have — they are fundamental to the experience. Study groups are a way to get help for the next exam, but over time, those peers may also become part of a growing professional network and lifelong friends. Students may show up to office hours for feedback on the last essay, but their professors become willing mentors, offering to write recommendation letters or suggest valuable internship opportunities. Fellow members from student organizations may become personal confidantes and emotional support through the rigors of college life.

College relationships can profoundly shape a student’s personal and professional future. During the pandemic, these touchpoints may feel more transactional, making potential connections harder to nurture. Building relationships at a distance isn’t easy. However, in helping students navigate the process, we also help them feel a sense of belonging, build social capital for their professional lives, and gain greater resilience through their time in college.

My team at UT for Me — Powered by Dell Scholars offers support services for Pell-eligible students at the University of Texas at Austin. Read on to learn how we are helping students find new ways to nurture relationships with classmates and professors, get involved with campus organizations, and become part of a community.

Growing College Classroom Connections

Whether attending class virtually or from behind a mask, getting to know other students isn’t as simple as turning to the person one seat over, asking for the notes from last time or commiserating about a pop quiz. While casual conversation might be stifled in person, there’s a good chance it has popped up elsewhere. GroupMe, a group messaging app, has taken off as a place for collaboration and organizing study groups. Every comment provides a potential spark for one-on-one or small group conversations, if students are willing to be proactive and take the initiative.

For those who are feeling awkward or intimidated in the virtual space, it’s helpful to remind them that everyone is in unfamiliar territory. There are no social norms around making friends or setting up a study group during a pandemic. It’s worth pushing beyond one’s comfort zone and giving it a shot!

It’s hard to imagine a better academic resource than teaching assistants and professors. Unfortunately, anxiety about office hours is nothing new, long pre-dating the pandemic, and many students feel even more intimidated by the prospect of a virtual one-on-one. When working with students, one way to combat those fears is to discuss what to expect during office hours and help come up with some conversation starters; they can even write down a few questions as a guide. Whether they’re just dropping in to introduce themselves, asking for tips to succeed in class, or seeking guidance on the next assignment, showing up is the most important step toward building a relationship.

Engaging in Campus Life (from Afar)

Today, most students aren’t learning about clubs and student activities through flyers on campus or even by word of mouth after class. At UT Austin, HornsLink is our online hub for student organizations, programs, and events. I like to challenge students to go to the search bar and type in the most random interest they have! From crafting to gaming, dance to meditation, our student organizations have so much to offer and a place for everyone to get involved.

When I meet with students, they often share plans to participate in student organizations later, when the time is right. Maybe next semester, when it’s safe to meet in person, or once they relocate to Austin after a year of online classes. To those students, I say — why wait? Virtual meetups make for a different kind of experience, but that doesn’t mean students won’t meet new people, learn new skills, explore new interests, and maybe even have some fun in the meantime. Getting involved now means building deeper connections over the long run, and more time to find the organizations with which they are most eager to get involved.

Of course, UT for Me students are also part of our own community at the university. Our program exists to support each of our students through college, with individualized support service and resources to ensure they reach graduation. With a focus on college persistence, we know how important it is for students to feel a sense of belonging. For those attending college from their childhood bedrooms, or those who haven’t been able to step foot on campus, our program strives to help them identify not only as a UT for Me student, but as a Longhorn.

The program’s student ambassadors, who work as peer mentors, play a huge role in our student programming. They schedule virtual hangouts and socials where students can get to know one another and the ambassadors, compete in trivia nights or play the online game Among Us, and hear from special guest speakers. Each of our ambassadors is also tapped into the university community, so they can serve as a model of how to get involved during these unusual times.

One thing that has surprised me most in the virtual setting is how willingly students open up to me in our advising meetings. They are self-aware about the challenges of this time, the isolation and missed connections, and they are ready to meet people and get involved. In my experience, the most important thing I can do to support them is simply nudging them to get started. Now, not later! Building relationships takes time and effort, but at every stage, they will enrich a student’s academic, personal, and professional experiences — at a distance, or in person when the time is right.

Photo at top: ©The University of Texas at Austin.