For most people, the COVID-19 pandemic constituted an upheaval of regular social order and a reworking of existing patterns and habits. While this manifested in my life in many ways, it was especially distinct in its effect on my relationships, considering the important transitionary period I was entering during the pandemic. I and the others in the graduating class of 2024 had the displeasure of starting college fully online, without the same experiences or opportunities that incoming college freshmen are usually granted.
I have never been particularly skilled at socializing or making new friends, and I often find myself at a loss for words when meeting strangers. In the summer before the start of class, I swore to myself that I’d leave my comfort zone to make friends, but after learning that my first semester of class would be virtual, I felt anxious and uncertain of whether I’d be successful.
Class over Zoom was filled with awkward silences and interruptions and was generally not the best environment to make friends (except for the brave few who traversed the private chat feature). I knew that, for a reserved person like myself, the place I’d really be making connections would be outside the classroom, so I was eager to join a ministry.
As a Christian, joining a campus ministry was essential to continuing my faith and connecting with other believers, but my previous experiences in church were often characterized by loneliness. I never really felt like I fit into the youth community of the home church I grew up in, partly because of my own reclusiveness and partly because of environmental circumstances. I was afraid that college ministry would just be a repeat of my middle school and high school church experiences.
A few weeks into August, I received an email from Stepping Stone Ministry (SSM), a campus ministry and church at Hopkins, asking incoming freshmen about our interest in attending some outreach events and joining SSM. I quickly replied to confirm my interest.
I learned later that only six other freshmen replied to that email. Those six people — as well as others at SSM — are currently my closest friends at Hopkins and some of the kindest, most caring people I’ve ever met.
In a time when I expected to make almost no friends, and certainly none that I’d be close to, I found a community of people who made me feel accepted and connected to the larger Hopkins community. These people were surprisingly vulnerable with me and with each other, which in turn allowed me to open up to them and feel like I didn’t have to be afraid of judgment.
Even with the barriers of geographic location and different time zones, we regularly met over Zoom and found ways to work around the lack of face-to-face contact. We taught each other an endless number of online games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Avalon and Codenames. We watched C-dramas and movies together and talked about all kinds of things from God (of course) to K-pop stars to our families.
I was able to speak with my SSM friends about my faith in a way I couldn’t really with my other friends, and we spent many late night conversations discussing our doubts and praises and uplifting each other in a collective spirit of fellowship. As we got to know each other, I felt encouraged and refreshed by everything I learned. Now that we’ve all come to campus for the Fall 2021 semester and have grown closer, I feel that I can call these people a true blessing in my life.
I’ve always struggled with insecurities and dissatisfaction with myself. I wonder if I am where I’m supposed to be or if I really have any worth at all. I don’t feel that these friends have solved these problems or that they even could. But I do feel that they make me feel seen and that I can look up to them in my own personal growth. In their compassionate attitudes toward everyone around them, they inspire me to grow more empathetic and kind and to look outside myself and my own problems to consider the needs of those around me.
Community is an integral part of both the college experience and the Christian one. It may look and constitute vastly different things in these two spheres of life, but at the end of the day, it is centered around relational interactions and a mutual sense of trust and goodwill. In a season when I didn’t think I’d find any sort of community, I am happy to be proved wrong.
Aliza Li is a sophomore from Houston, Texas studying Writing Seminars and Cognitive Science. Her column explores how her relationships with others are continuously transforming her and her college experience.