College is a big milestone in many students' lives. From lifelong friendships and relationships, the chance to finally study and learn about something they are interested in — it's a very exciting time.

Whether or not students choose to admit it though, it’s also one of the most nerve-wracking times. The thrill of finally having independence can quickly melt into fear. For many, students are essentially starting their identities from scratch.

Due to this, socializing with new people, making friends and adjusting to life on campus can be quite difficult; social anxieties tend to rise with incoming students. However, with COVID-19 now in the picture, those already difficult situations may seem nearly impossible to tackle.

Overwhelmed and Underprepared

Social anxiety is already a prevalent issue amongst college students, regardless of their year or previous college experience. This is the result of a lack of social involvement and engagement necessary to develop critical social skills throughout adolescence.

As a matter of fact, within the last two decades, children and young adults have progressively spent less and less time in social situations, thus losing the experience of learning how to adapt and address challenging situations.

David Reetz, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at RIT, goes more in depth about this phenomenon for freshmen.

“Students come here for the first time and we expect them to make friends, attend social events and simply participate in class,” Reetz said. “However, it’s difficult because they have had a lack of opportunity in the past to be faced with those challenges.”

With the expectation to adapt socially in a new environment without the experience or skills needed to do so, social anxiety becomes more prevalent.

“Social anxiety is the greatest threat to the academic mission,” Reetz continued.

The more pressure students feel to socialize, the less they want to do it.

New Student Nerves

For first years coming to campus, orientation can already be overwhelming. With orientation groups consisting of a mix of strangers from different colleges and majors, stepping out of your comfort zone to initiate conversation can be more complicated than trying to navigate the tunnels on the academic side of campus.

This is especially true for Cayley Smith, a third year Journalism student and transfer student. Her introduction to campus was more difficult than most. With transfer student orientation being completely online and only lasting a day, as opposed to the three days of in-person campus engagement that first years receive, the task of even meeting new people was a chore in and of itself.

“It was pretty tricky to get around and even meet people that transferred or other people in my major,” Smith said.

With social anxiety already being a struggle for Smith, meeting new people has been harder — especially with the social barrier COVID-19 has introduced.

"Already having social anxiety, being the person to step out and reach out to make those connections has been difficult," Smith explained.

Connecting to people is an important step when building relationship with others. This is hard to do when you have to physically distance yourself from them.

"With physical distance also comes emotional distance with other people," Smith emphasized.

"With physical distance also comes emotional distance with other people."

Socializing at a Distance

With social anxiety already being one of the largest issues students are faced with when coming to college, the addition of COVID-19 created a whole new set of challenges. For instance, taking the initiative to reach out and talk to someone new can already be anxiety-inducing. Now with the concept of social distancing — literally creating space between you and another person — and the difficult task of trying to communicate with masks, people may feel discouraged to even try.

Additionally, with some classes being completely online, some students might not even have the opportunity to. While there have been many events and opportunities on campus to get involved, some may not feel comfortable enough to attend.

“I thought about going to events on campus,” Smith stated. “But it’s a big turn off going alone since most people already go with friends.”

People often find it easier to meet new people in their classes, since they are surrounded by people in their major or with similar interests. However, with the majority of classes being online, these social interactions don’t seem natural to students.

For Smith, having four online classes worked well for her academically, but deterred her from engaging in any social interaction. This is something she is now seeking out since starting college during the pandemic.

“Online classes worked well for me because I like working individually. The classroom setting is hard because I’m socially anxious and worry about other people, so I can’t focus most of the time,” Smith said.

Many students, such as Smith, are yearning for classroom engagement again.

“At this point I’m starting to crave more in-person classes because I haven’t seen people in such a long time,” Smith explained.

However, the transition back into the classroom and re-adjusting to being around other people again is something that many students are inevitably going to struggle with.

Post-Pandemic Problems

Imagining a world post COVID-19 seems too good to be true, especially taking into account the difficulties many will face in terms of life returning to normal. People already struggling with anxiety will especially be impacted by this shift.

“When we conquer this pandemic, those already predisposed for anxiety will have a hard time letting go of that because the feeling of threat will continue to linger,” Reetz said.

However, having to re-learn the basics of social interactions may help those who are having a hard time readjusting. According to Reetz, it’s all about practice and experience.

“The more we expose ourselves to the things that trigger our anxiety, the more we give our body a chance to learn that it’s not a threat,” he said.

“The more we expose ourselves to the things that trigger our anxiety, the more we give our body a chance to learn that it’s not a threat.”

While starting college during the pandemic has heightened many students’ preexisting social anxieties, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. By re-learning and actively engaging with other people, students are essentially building up some of the social skills they may have lacked growing up. So, despite the difficulties of adjusting to life post-pandemic, it may give people the chance to emerge as a social butterfly!