Pepperdine students gather in Mullin Town Square at sunset for dinner and a Starbucks break. Some students faced social anxiety when coming back to school this fall. Photo by Gabrielle Salgado
Pepperdine students’ main cause of stress is not academics, but how to start a conversation and make friends, students said.
After a year and a half of online learning and virtual activities, students relearn the social skills they lost during the beginning of the pandemic. The loss of social skills has many students battling social anxiety as well.
“The biggest concern for me was connecting with people and being able to make friends,” first-year Carlos Mejia said. “I wasn’t even really worried about academics but just meeting new people and making those new connections.”
Online Versus In-Person
Mejia is not the only Pepperdine student who felt anxious about socializing once returning to in-person learning.
Many students faced Zoom fatigue when schools turned to online learning in March 2020. Zoom fatigue is the exhaustion people experience due to the excessive use of video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts, Julia Sklar wrote in an April 2020 National Geographic article.
However, Zoom fatigue has become in-person fatigue.
Students interact with people without the new perceived benefits of video conferences, said Connie Horton, vice president of Student Affairs. From the comfort of their own home, students could turn off their camera or microphone to take a break from socializing. Now, students must be alert and constantly on the move.
“Zoom was a little less pressure socially because everyone was just in the same boat,” sophomore Lidia Qaladh said. “But here there’s a certain pressure to find your people but that’s not always easy to do.”
Students are now hyperalert that people are around and can see what they are doing, causing heightened anxiety, Horton said.
“I think especially the first couple of days I remember I was just exhausted by the end of it,” Mejia said. “Both emotionally and socially.”
Social Anxiety in Students Returning to Campus
Returning to campus created new pressure to be social for many students, and students of all years face some sense of social anxiety, said Horton.
The lack of interaction during the majority of the pandemic links to the increase in social anxiety in students — they said they are having to relearn social skills and become comfortable interacting with others.
“A lot of people are feeling social anxiety,” Qaladh said. “A lot of people are feeling overwhelmed by constantly being around people.”
Introverted students are having even more difficulty in social settings. Both Mejia and Qaladh identify as introverts and have become more introverted since the pandemic, they said.
“It’s been difficult to just start a conversation with somebody and keep the momentum going,” Mejia said.
Social anxiety on campus is not only present for first-year students and sophomores, but upperlevel students as well. Pepperdine upperlevel students said they felt anxious returning to campus and feel a difference in campus culture.
“It was a little awkward but I think I adjusted now,” junior Aaliyah Pitts said.
Pitts, a residential advisor in first-year housing, moved in three weeks before classes started. Pitts said she is an extrovert, but she still had difficulty transitioning.
Even SGA President Chase Johnson said he has become more introverted since the beginning of the pandemic.
“A year or two ago, I would’ve said extrovert but the pandemic definitely made me tap into the more introverted side of my personality,” Johnson said.
The idea that Pepperdine students need to communicate to their peers that they are doing well has been dubbed “PepperFine.” Since returning to campus, “PepperFine” has become more evident, senior Brandon Wong said.
“Everybody has this idea that they need to be fine because everyone else around them seems fine,” Qaladh said.
Students demonstrating “PepperFine” can cause campus to feel lonely, even when there are many people around, Wong said. Pepperdine students failing to be open with how they are feeling and instead are under the impression that they need to feel OK since everyone around them seems OK.
“Sometimes when we’re struggling we think that we are the only one,” Horton said.
Students suppressing how they feel can cause even more damage to their mental health, Horton said. Many people are feeling desperate for any type of normalcy, causing people to avoid possible mental health issues — spreading “PepperFine” like a virus.
How to Combat Social Anxiety
The best solution for combating social anxiety is to step out of one’s comfort zones but still recognize boundaries, Horton said. Interacting with people can slowly ease social anxiety, but if a person begins to feel overwhelmed, they should take a step back.
“Even though they may feel a little awkward or a little out of practice, do it anyway,” Horton said.
Attending campus events and volunteering can also help students socialize within the community — structured events can make conversations easier to maintain, Horton said.
Organizations such as SGA work to create a sense of belonging and community to Pepperdine, Johnson said.
“My biggest goal is to create as many opportunities for people to engage with each other as often as possible,” Johnson said.
Joining cultural identity clubs can also be beneficial in creating community, Johnson said. Pepperdine has many cultural identity clubs such as Latino Student Alliance, Black Student Association and Japanese Student Union.
Mejia, who lived in Mexico City for six years before moving to Pepperdine, said he found a sense of belonging in the Latino Student Alliance.
“Finding people who understand I guess really did help lower [my] social anxiety,” Mejia said. “We had something that we had in common. We had an immediate connection because of that.”
Counseling Center and Resources
For students who may be facing social anxiety, the Pepperdine Counseling Center is a free resource available to all students, Horton said. Students may schedule an appointment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (310) 506-4210.
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