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Graduate Matters

Socializing at a distance: how to create meaningful connections

Connecting with peers and seeking guidance from those who have studied in our fields before may offer hope during this time.


We are all in the same storm, but we are facing our own unique blend of difficulties during this uncertain time. Maybe you are beginning your graduate studies at a new institution or are continuing an existing project at a decelerated pace. You might be working on the global pandemic effort and are masking up to go to the lab every day. Maybe you are studying from your home country in a different time zone. Perhaps this is a period in which you are figuring out your next path in life. Regardless, it is important to remember that you are never truly alone. There are always opportunities to reach out, get involved, and network despite social distancing, thanks to the wonders of modern technology. Here are some tips on how to stay connected while apart.

Actively attend class

While keeping your pyjamas on and your laptop camera off during Zoom school is tempting, it is rewarding to interact with classmates and course material in order to get the most from the learning experience. Try to ask questions in class to stay engaged, either through speaking up or contributing to the chat box. This is an additional challenge when completing courses internationally; I applaud my classmates halfway around the world who attend classes at 4 a.m.! Actively forming study groups to meet and discuss course work has been my most rewarding strategy this semester.

Reach out to new students

If you are already settled into your graduate studies, try to check in with new students and make sure that they feel welcome. Even if you are new yourself, introduce yourself to senior members of your research group or program cohort and network with them. While you might not be able to meet face-to-face, you can still seek advice from these individuals for organizing your graduate studies.

Seek and offer mentorship

Universities can facilitate mentor/mentee relationships through student associations, international buddy programs, or co-operative institutes, to name a few. Mentorship is available online as well; Academic Facebook groups might have a “Mentorship” feature through which you can connect with individuals around the world to seek or offer wisdom. Organizations such as the American Association of Geographers offer mentorship services specific to their discipline. Canadians Working for Inclusivity in Chemical Science has chapters at universities across Canada, fostering a community for women and minorities in STEM fields. Especially during such uncertain times, it is helpful to connect with another individual in your field for advice on a weekly to monthly basis.

Study and write alone, together!

At my institution (McGill University), writing clubs gather over Zoom to motivate one another using the Pomodoro method (25 minutes of work for five minutes of rest). The University of Toronto offers a similar service through their Graduate Writing Groups, and Dalhousie University facilitates professional development workshops geared towards graduate students including Writing Week sessions. Students at the University of British Columbia have the opportunity to participate in writing retreats, and sometimes snacks are included! You can always form your own study or writing groups with your cohort members to virtually gather around a cup of coffee and get to work.

Read newsletters

Newsletters are a great way to learn about social opportunities at your university or in your community. My department’s graduate student association hosts regular trivia nights and holds contests each month. Concordia University offers workshops to foster a healthy balance in graduate student life, including through drop-in GradChat sessions for your weekly dose of social interaction. These are examples of great opportunities to connect with other individuals sharing your academic interests.

Make a new pen pal or send some anonymous love

Reach out to friends safely online or through snail mail. Online options for social media are abundant and so are your options for people with whom to interact. Being unable to see friends face-to-face for long periods of time is an issue harkening back through the centuries, which makes mail an even more relevant mode of communication than ever! If opening Amazon packages is so enjoyable, imagine the thrill of opening someone else’s personalized letter made just for you! My pen pal and I tend to include doodled notes and small tokens such as stickers, bracelets, pressed flowers, or even favourite teas. More Love Letters puts letter-writers in touch with individuals in need of a little extra love. You can also find organizations and retirement homes in your area that match you up with seniors; the Yellow Door in Montreal is one such example where you can volunteer for regular friendly phone calls. Sometimes doing a good deed is all that it takes to give your day a boost!

This year has tossed us into our own personal labyrinths, and it is important to know that there is a light at the end of that tunnel. Remember to be kind to yourself, especially now, and know that you are never truly alone.

How are you connecting at a distance? Comment below with your safe socializing tips!

Kelly Burchell-Reyes
Kelly Burchell-Reyes is a PhD candidate studying organofluorine chemistry at Université Laval.
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