One of the most valued aspects of on-campus learning is the college social life. Students form lifelong bonds, network with future colleagues, and build relationships with professors and leaders in their field. But if you’re pursuing your degree online, you may worry that you’ll miss out.
Developing strong social wellness skills during your online studies helps you make the most of this chapter of your life. Social wellness is defined as the ability to continually develop and maintain friendships and social networks. We learn how to interact with others, express ourselves, conduct everyday habits, and connect with communities different than those immediately around us.
This guide digs into the factors that comprise social wellness and connectedness—and how online students can replicate the experience. Read on to learn more about overcoming the potential social barriers of getting your degree online.
The Importance of Social Wellness for College Students
Humans are social creatures, so social wellness affects every aspect of your life. When you’re connected in meaningful, fulfilling relationships, you’re better able to learn and synthesize new information. Social wellness contributes to feeling thoroughly engaged in your college experience and keeping you passionate and excited about your pursuits. Motivation, stress management, and academic support all directly contribute to the state of your social wellness.
“Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you; spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” — Amy Poehler
The people to whom you are connected play a massive role in the overall tone of your life. Do you bring out the best in each other, want the best for each other, and bolster one another in those efforts? Or are the people around you stagnant, leaving you to languish instead of moving closer to your goals? Poor motivation directly impacts the quality of your social wellness and, ultimately, your academic success.
Some stress is a positive force for motivation. This type of good stress is called eustress. However, most stress is actually negative stress, called distress, which makes you feel overwhelmed and unfit to complete tasks. The antidote? Having a support system to rely on for reminders to take a break, grab a meal, or have a laugh before returning refreshed to your task. Maintaining social connection helps those around you tune in to your needs, ease your distress, and positively impact your social wellness.
Many students, including those who are first-generation college students or who have experienced other hardships on their journey to pursuing a college degree, benefit from additional academic support. However, the students who need these services the most are less likely to access the services than their peers. While it may be both challenging and humbling to ask for academic support, this support can go a long way in helping you to establish the sustainable study habits that lead to academic success and the resulting social wellness.
Impact of Online College on Social Wellness
For online students, a different set of challenges arises that can impact your social wellness. It can be difficult to break through the screen to build connections and, if your geographic location hasn’t changed, you may feel a little stuck in place. These challenges might feel overwhelming and leave you struggling to create a sense of balance.
If you watch reality shows like Alone, you’ve probably been surprised at how cripplingly lonely some of these intrepid survivalists become after only a few days. They miss loved ones and suddenly no amount of money is worth the isolation. While this example of isolation is extreme, most of us have experienced the sense of loss that even short-term isolation brings. Not spending time with others affected us during the lockdown phases of COVID-19, and we now know first-hand how painful isolation can feel.
Limited Opportunities for Social Interaction
Students pursuing a degree on campus are often by the number of activities, events, groups, and social outlets offered. Online students will inherently have fewer of these options available to them, which can make it difficult to feel as connected to the academic community and to peers in general.
Difficulty Creating a Sense of Balance
If you’re living at home while pursuing your online degree, it can feel difficult to create a sense of balance. As a newly minted adult with increased independence, you might struggle when engaging with parents, siblings, and other relatives. Plus, you won’t have a clear split between your on-campus life and your back-at-home life. Siblings may still barge into your room during your classes, parents may still expect to know where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and aunts and uncles may forget that you’re an adult and a college student.
Keeping in Touch: How to Maintain Relationships
Just because you’re going to school online doesn’t mean that your social wellness must suffer. You’ll have lots of options for remaining connected to those who mean a lot to you while you pursue your degree. Read on for some hands-on tips for how to keep your friendships going, even when location and time may interfere.
Build New Connections as an Online Student
In addition to maintaining your existing social connections, building new relationships is important as you evolve and explore who you want to be in adulthood. Use the start of your online degree program as an opportunity to meet other students who are also new and experiencing the same challenges as you. Here are some places to start.
Social Self Check
You’re the expert on you, and you’re the best person to gauge how you’re doing with respect to your social wellness. What constitutes being in a good place? How do you know that you’re feeling connected? The following five questions are starting points to look inward and evaluate your social wellness during this chapter of your life.
Do I have a supportive network of friends and loved ones I can turn to when I need help?
When you think about a network of friends and loved ones, are there individuals who come to mind as trusted confidantes? If you struggle to come up with more than five to ten people whom you could turn to in a moment of need, consider the best ways to form new relationships or deepen existing relationships to increase your connectedness.
Do I feel connected and engaged with the people around me?
When you think about the people around you, are you truly connected with them? Are you tuned into their lives on a regular basis? Make sure you’re putting in the effort to stay involved and engaged in the lives of those who are meaningful to you by asking questions and remaining present.
Do I have a healthy balance between my academic and personal life?
Are you finding that you feel refreshed when you go back to schoolwork after having some leisure time? Or are you too overwhelmed by schoolwork to take a break? You’ll need a healthy balance between your academic life and your personal life so they bolster one another to increase your success.
Do I feel comfortable expressing myself and being myself around others?
When you’re around your support people, do you feel you can open up to them about how you’re feeling? Are you able to be vulnerable and even disclose when you’re having a tough time? Vulnerability is the key to meaningful relationships, so check in with yourself to make sure you have this level of trust with the important people in your life.
Do I feel comfortable seeking out new social connections and building relationships with others?
When faced with the opportunity to build new relationships and form new connections, do you enjoy that experience or do you struggle with self-doubt? Think about how you’ve been doing with new relationships. Do you feel confident in what you have to share and offer others in terms of friendship or camaraderie? If not, why not?
Further Reading: Resources for Social Wellness
For more ideas on how to foster and promote your own social wellness, look to some of the following resources for guidance or advice. Consider trying some new practices to increase your social wellness.
- Belong, by Radha Agrawal: If you’re finding that you spend time with others without feeling connected, Belong is a guide to finding a thriving community.
- Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown: Essential reading for those who are looking to deepen relationships, increase connection, and make the most of their social wellness. Look to these lessons on vulnerability to be your best self.
- Exhale: The first emotional well-being app for Black and Indigenous Women of Color by Black and Indigenous Women of Color. Use the app to meditate, engage in guided imagery, absorb affirmations, and get coaching to improve your wellness.
- Fabriq: Fabriq is a social wellness company that creates apps and content focused on helping users strengthen relationships and build a thriving support network.
- Good Inside with Dr. Becky: While geared toward parents, people of all ages can engage in “cycle-breaking” habits and behaviors to live more fulfilled, connected lives. Consider listening to episodes to learn more about how to be gentle with yourself when challenging situations arise.
- Happier with Gretchen Rubin: Tune in weekly for helpful ideas, suggestions, interviews, and research-based strategies to increase your happiness. From habit change to family traditions, learn more about social wellness and connection so you can feel your best.
- Headspace: Connecting with others is best accomplished through a strong sense of internal regulation and the ability to access calm and relaxation. Try a course with Headspace to grow your mindfulness and learn to stay present in a variety of settings.
- Meetup: Consider checking out Meetup groups in your area to pursue a common interest or connect virtually. Meetup groups are a great way to form new connections.
- Well, by Sandro Galea: For a more macro approach to understanding wellness and social wellness, Well explores health from a holistic perspective to help readers look at what may improve their health.
- WhatsApp: Used worldwide and across phone types and carriers, WhatsApp is a great private messaging and calling app for chats with friends and loved ones both near and far.
First-Hand Account: Interview with an Online Student
Lironne Koret is the Director of International Outreach and Projects at the Center for Jewish Impact, where she uses her expertise in diplomacy, public affairs, and Jewish advocacy to develop projects that benefit Israeli civil society and Jewish communities. She has experience working with the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, American Jewish Committee, Israeli politics, and Wikistrat consulting. She holds a BSc in social sciences from Minerva University, with a concentration in government, politics, and designing societies.
Q: Tell us about how you decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree online and how you feel about that decision now that you’ve graduated.
A: I knew that I wouldn’t want to pursue an average degree—I wanted something different. At Minerva University, studying online allows students to travel to different campuses worldwide, in San Francisco, Berlin, London, Seoul, Hyderabad, Buenos Aires, and Taipei. Students live in dormitories, and all courses and discourse take place online. However, students are able to study from their home country. Teaching online also allows Minerva to recruit the best professors from all over the world, which made the quality of the academics top-notch. Furthermore, and most importantly, the platform used to facilitate these active learning classes is a proprietary platform designed by Minerva. I got to try it before finalizing my decision to matriculate and I was utterly impressed. I found it was a better experience than studying in person since it had so many functions such as breakout groups, a lesson plan built into the platform to allow a streamlined lesson experience, surveys and quizzes, and most importantly, the ability to receive customized and individualized feedback during the lesson replay. When everyone moved to Zoom in 2020, I was so grateful to Minerva because my academic experience was improved by the strengths of its platform, not hindered by being virtual.
Q: What were you most concerned about with starting a college degree virtually in 2017?
A: I was mostly concerned that I’d spend too much time on my computer rather than seeing the world. Since Minerva uses a flipped classroom approach, each online class also required between two to three hours of preclass readings and prep work. With two 90-minute classes a day, sometimes three, and a total of eight a week in addition to assignments, that’s a lot of screen time! I balanced it out in two ways—first, I made an effort to take classes at cafes and other locations that weren’t my desk. And I created structured off-screen times to make sure I got a break. Halfway through my degree, Minerva also instated a mandatory “eye-rest break” for two minutes which was also helpful, though not sufficient on its own.
Q: What were some ways that pursuing your degree online had advantages over your peers who were on campus?
A: As mentioned above, studying online had two major benefits: first, the flexibility to be anywhere for classes. During our semester in Berlin, I was able to travel to nearby cities, visiting Amsterdam, Paris, and Barcelona. I also decided to take two semesters off rotation and study from home, in Israel. I continued studying and participating as usual, although when I was in Israel, the timing of the classes was challenging. Since all courses are live and synchronous, I was participating in lectures at midnight and 3 am! It was a price I was willing to pay to economize on tuition by living at home. The second benefit is the quality of the lessons. With a maximum of 20 students in a live seminar structure with zero distractions from peers and a massive digital toolbox for flexible teaching, I always felt significantly more focused in my classes and that each class maximized its potential.
Q: How did your communication skills improve because of distance learning?
A: First, Minerva, in its pedagogy, puts a large emphasis on skill-based learning. They call them Habits of Mind and Foundational Concepts that are instilled in the first year and accessed through the rest of your four-year degree. Minerva has a whole unit called Multimodal Communications that puts a large emphasis on both verbal and nonverbal communication. I got very good at expressing myself by retrieving this knowledge, putting it to good use, and articulation over time.
Second, Minerva’s small live seminar approach, with a platform that allows instructors to measure students’ speaking time, ensures that everyone in the class participates, and there’s a liberal use of calling on students to engage. As a result, I have become very good at being able to answer questions on the spot and convey my messages clearly and concisely.
Q: What were your three favorite leisure activities while you were pursuing your degree?
A: When I was in San Francisco, I regularly practiced yoga. In Argentina, I got into ceramics, and in London, during the pandemic, my roommates and I got very good at cooking. As a fourth bonus activity, I did a lot of hiking in my free time in every country we visited.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you received about building relationships and staying connected while you were pursuing your degree?
A: While in most programs this question would probably refer to being in touch with your peers, at Minerva this pertains more to staying in touch with your loved ones, friends from home, and the local friends that you made during your global rotation. I got very good at FaceTime and finding creative solutions to be in touch, such as joining friends and playing a board game with a virtual board or doing watch parties. Luckily, in our postpandemic world there are lots of technological solutions to adopt. My other advice is to try to build real relationships with your classmates even over an online class—meme groups and inside jokes are always a great way to bond.
Q: What advice do you have both socially and academically for a first-time college student who is beginning a degree program online?
A: On the social side, I know it can be easy to feel isolated when your entire program is online, so find a balance between investing in your local friendships while also making time to stay connected with other students. Go on Zoom dates, work in pairs, or do study groups to support each other. For example, during finals week my classmates and I used to set up a Pomodoro YouTube video and work in sprints, and then in between we’d listen to music together or even just gossip and joke around. It really depends on your interests, but you can join a Discord page, or start a Facebook group for memes, or use other social media. If you have peers living in your area, make the effort to meet up or even plan a fun trip with a friend.
On the mental health side, make sure you set time in your calendar to be off screen and make sure you have other activities that balance you and give you the social and relaxation rewards you need.
And a pro tip: Organize your schoolwork on Notion or any other collaborative and digital platform, both for your own sake but also to share your class notes with your friends and have them share theirs with you. It’s so helpful to collaborate with your peers and support each other, even when you’re remote.