I don’t know how tall my friends are. I don’t know how fast they walk or even what they smell like. I won’t know any of this until next semester, at least. But it’s not just me that this applies to; this is the norm for the Class of 2024.
Scattered across the world during this remote semester, most of us haven’t met any of our classmates in person. We don’t really know what they look like—we associate them with their GroupMe profile pictures rather than any features or mannerisms we might glimpse as we pass them by on campus. We’re forced to rely on social media to establish community, but trying to make friends when all you have is technology feels infinitely harder than trying to connect with people in person.
“It’s not like I can just walk down Locust,” Tomas Hernandez Patino (W ’24) remarks. “It would just be instantaneous, right? Like you’re walking by, maybe you see somebody do something cool or somebody that’s in your class, [and you say] ‘Hey, what’s up? How’s your day going? Want to do this or this?’ That doesn’t really happen when you’re home and you open up your computer and then go to school and then close it. You don’t get those instantaneous opportunities to bond with people.”
Without the convenience of being together on campus, we’ve adapted those spontaneous interactions to occur through the hundreds of first–year GroupMe chats we’ve created over the past ten months. As we made more and more group chats—ranging from special interest chats (foodies, financial literacy, feminism) to cultural groups. Iris Horng (C ’24) produced a one–stop spreadsheet with all of the GroupMe links. “I thought it was helpful to have a spreadsheet … that everyone could view and is easily accessible with all different types of links,” she says.
And though we’re apart, Iris doesn’t feel like that diminishes our connection to each other. “I feel like I’m still connected to Penn students, but in a different way,” she notes. “In person, you’re physically seeing people, so you can walk with them somewhere, get lunch, do whatever. Online, I feel like it’s easier to talk with people because you can just check your phone whenever and reply or send messages [whenever]. And also it’s easier for a bunch of people to chat together because anyone can respond at any time.”
In a way, my GroupMe app is Penn’s campus—it’s where I interact with other students and how I learn about Penn from upperclassmen who have joined some of our group chats and from other first years. I met some of my closest friends through a reading–centered group chat—Penn Reads—and similarly, Olivia Szewczyk (C ’24) met her friends through one of the larger group chats.
At first, being in the main Class of 2024 group chat, with over 1,600 students, felt intimidating to Olivia. “I was kind of anxious about it because, you know, imagine 1,200 plus people in one big group chat—that’s just crazy,” she says. “But then people started making separate group chats for different interests like food, fashion, TV shows, classes, everything like that. Once it started breaking down into different subgroups, I felt way more comfortable with it. I felt that I could make way more friends than I could have when it was just this one big group chat.”
Olivia joined 15 group chats, and Tomas, Iris and I joined 28, 50 and 25, respectively. We all laugh at the number of group chats we’re a part of, but scouring Iris’ spreadsheet and joining any and all group chats that sounded interesting was one of the most convenient ways to connect with our peers.
“I remember adding myself to a whole bunch [of group chats] because I was just so desperate to try and make friends,” Olivia adds. “I’ve made friends [through] the group chats and we Zoom or FaceTime or Snapchat all the time. We used [GroupMe] as a way to get the formalities out of the way and then we broke off from there and started talking to each other independently [from the larger group chats].”
Though I never expected it, my GroupMe app is my strongest link to the Penn community. Every time I open it and scroll through unread messages, I feel a little less isolated and a little more connected. Trying to make friends online is draining and feels like more work than it should be, but our shared experience unites us. “We’ve all bonded over this crazy and unique Covid situation that other classes might not have experienced,” Iris says. “So even though we didn’t get that typical experience in the Quad, I still think it’s a unique experience because … we’ve all had to adapt.”