How do I get my son, who began college as a freshman this past September during the "COVID era," to get involved in campus activities even though they are currently all being held virtually? How do I get him to meet some new people at school and become involved?
Contrary to popular belief, college is only partly about learning stuff in classes. It is first and foremost about becoming an independent young adult and dealing with other human begins. Thus, you’ve put your finger on one of the biggest challenges for first-year students during this pandemic year: connecting with people.
Even without COVID, the first year of college can be tough as students not only find their academic footing, but accumulate a posse who will be their confidantes and partners in learning, mischievous fun and personal development in school and beyond.
Those beloved souls usually arrive via chance encounters at the bookstore, spontaneous late-night dorm stairwell discussions (and trysts), and in classrooms when the person sitting next to you is wearing a hilarious t-shirt that starts a conversation. Remember bookstores, stairwells and sitting next to people? That’s so 2019. None of these things is happening right now, so meeting people and making friends is stilted in the two-dimensional world of a Zoom meeting.
Spontaneous, serendipitous, casual and low-key (aka not scheduled) contact is what helps us be healthy humans and in fact accounts for the biggest ingredient for living a long time. Susan Pinker talks about this in her TED talk, when she says the social contact that counts is “how much you interact with people as you move through your day.”
Move through my day? I don’t move. I sit a whole lot and see people on my screen, and I get to talk to them. It’s all planned, it’s all scheduled. There’s no accidentally bumping into an acquaintance and petting their dog. There’s no friendly exchange with the cashier, whose smile is currently obliterated by her mask (as is mine) which btw is preventing my mirror neurons from joining in the pleasantness of seeing another happy human face. Robert Waldinger’s TED talk notes that, although intimate relationships matter, it was really the amount of casual, communal contact the men he studied had with strangers like bus drivers and mailmen that accounted for their long lives.
For now, we are in a time of re-setting expectations and adjusting to a new and crappy normal. But what we parents have is the ability to look beyond that. We can help our kids set expectations and also help them envision a future that will be a new and better normal. Young people stink at envisioning the future because the parts of their brains (pre-frontal cortex to be exact) that helps them do that won’t be fully developed until they’re well into their twenties. The future, to a young person, is tomorrow and possibly only later today.
So my suggestion would be to help your son see that the disappointing encounters that await him in virtual club meetings today are not supposed to pay off today. Acknowledge that they are bone-dry and barely approximate human interaction. Emphasize that the payoff will come down the road when he runs into someone from a Zoom club on campus and they bond over their relief that the Zoom days are over. Right now, your son probably can’t imagine a college experience that will be fun and loose and spontaneous. But as his parent, you know it’s coming.
The other thing college students aren’t too good at (owing again to that still-developing pre-frontal cortex) is patience and impulse control. It’s hard to patiently wait for the day when you can hang with your friends freely. It’s hard for ME to do that, but my 58-year-old brain has 57 years of memories that help me put this one COVID year in perspective. Your son’s teenage brain doesn’t know yet that that the future will be brighter, and that collecting the names and faces of people who are attractive to him, interesting to him, make him laugh, make him think, in some random Zoom club meeting, will be super helpful next year.
Let me also offer that you will be filled with frustration and disappointment in your efforts to get your son to do anything. The last time I got my son to do anything was when he was in middle school and he still believed the myth that I was the boss. That was so 2008. You can and should be introducing new ways of looking at things, and especially encouraging him to bring a vision of the future into the decisions he makes about his present.
Parenting college students is more a series of invitations than edicts. So consider inviting your son to do some imagining. Invite him to think of some teeny tiny threads of interest and enjoyment in seeing these Zoom faces that might some day become points of connection with real people live and in person. Present the idea of imagining like it’s a secret door he didn’t know was there, rather than a voice of parental pressure to make more of this first year.
It’s not that he’s supposed to start having a fabulous time in virtual club meetings. It’s that the fabulosity will come later, and he’ll have a collection of faces and names to go with it.