You click on a Zoom link with an 11-digit meeting ID. And then you’re there. No near-bike accidents; no showing up late, drenched or frozen. No running into someone along the way. Just you, with a few other rectangles on your screen. The other people there? You’ve never seen, much less met, them. You don’t know the sound of their voices, their laughs. They’re from all over the world. They’re your friends-to-be.
Someone types in the chat: a warm welcome to the newest class of Tigers.
This scene is nauseatingly familiar to so many members of the Class of 2024, whether it be pulled from orientation events, the first few days of classes, or new club meetings. For many of these students, a campus they have never stepped foot on seems intangible — and the people who populate it, even more remote.
Some first-years have ameliorated these challenges by living with roommates or visiting campus when possible. Nick Masters ’24, a member of the wrestling team, is originally from Georgia. He and a few teammates are spending the fall just off campus.
“This was my first time away from my family for an extended period of time,” Masters explained.
Masters and his new roommates agreed to more than just rooming together — they signed up to cook together, to take classes together, and to spend almost all of their days together. Masters admitted that, for him, there was “a little bit of a nervousness coming into it, because you don’t really know each other that much.”
Now, with the semester nearing a close, it “seems like we’ve lived here longer than we actually have,” Masters said.
Isabel Schoeman ’24 also tried to replicate traditional accommodations. As the semester began, she moved into an apartment with another Princeton student; they had never met in person. Schoeman said she the experience has promoted her to “redefine what you consider social.”
“With my roommate, it’s pretty easy for me to develop a friendship with her because I’m with her all the time,” she said. Schoeman, like Masters, has adjusted her social expectations to fit the pandemic, choosing to spend most days with her roommate.
Some first-years have adopted another strategy to simulate a normal semester: visiting campus. Madison Linton ’24 explained that she and a few friends enjoy studying by the Forbes patio and frequent stores on Nassau Street.
While Linton appreciated her surroundings, being in Princeton reinforced how unusual this year has been. She said she found herself thinking, “this could have been us!”
According to the students, visiting campus evokes what could have been. With campus in mind, Zoom classes — particularly if attended from your childhood bedroom — become all the more disheartening.
“Eventually, it kind of all hits you that this is the same place that you spent the last six months,” Tony Owens ’24 said about spending the semester at home.
Noah Luch ’24 agreed. “I really want to go watch a movie with some of my friends, or just hang out and get coffee or something, but I’m just stuck with a screen that gives me a headache after a few hours,” he said.
According to Masters, when first-years do make it onto campus, “we’re going to be compensating for something.”
Some older Princeton students, sympathetic to the first-years’ plight, have organized programming that mimics the in-person experience. Buds at a Distance (BuDs) simulates meeting people randomly, which would happen spontaneously on campus. Co-founder Hannah Reynolds ’22 explained that the program intends to “expose people to people they never would have met before.”
“A lot of what my friendships at Princeton have come out of are shared experiences,” Reynolds said. “Aside from classes, we don’t have that many shared experiences right now over Zoom.”
Reynolds is a columnist at The Daily Princetonian.
Impromptu Zooms also replicate in-person interaction. Luch said his most engaging experience over Zoom was “some of the Butler Zoom calls. Those are really fun, especially because sometimes they go to, like, 11 to 12 a.m.” Many first-year students have also joined clubs and found the experience engaging.
Though first-years have taken advantage of BuDs, club Zooms, and impromptu meetings on a variety of platforms, making friends virtually remains difficult — particularly when those new friends are liable to disappear as internet instability strikes or a breakout room closes. For Luch, the Zoom social sphere has sparked cognitive dissonance.
“At a very basic level, I realize I’m sitting here in front of a computer, basically just talking to myself in my basement,” he said. “In my mind, it does not feel the same.”
Alison Lee ’24 worried that Zoom friendships could lack permanence. “It’s kind of hard to keep that friendship going, at least personally, as like a, ‘oh my god, you’ve become like my best friend’ over Zoom and text without being able to see them or hang out with them,” she said.
Maria Khartchenko ’24 expressed a similar concern. “I do worry about whether there will be more awkwardness in person,” she said.
Adithya Sriram ’24 agreed. “I don’t think we’ll ever get back to what we were before,” he said. “I think it’ll take a long time for everyone to get used to being with each other.”
Amid these challenges, students are making the most of college. According to Gabe Robare ’24, a contributing Sports and Features writer at the ‘Prince,’ “It’s more difficult, it takes more effort, but I think effort is a good thing. These friendships that have taken more effort will be stronger in the end.”
Sydney Johnson ’24, Class of 2024 Class Councilor, summed up the experience.
“I am never going to get over the fact that we did not have the traditional freshman year,” she said. “It was something that I looked forward to for such a long time. But a lot of things have happened in my life that have taught me that you have to make the best of your circumstance.”