Stuck inside and feeling lonely at the beginning of lockdown, Ira Habiba was scrolling TikTok when she came across a pen pal site called Students of the World. Wanting to meet new people, she signed up.
“I would just, like, close my eyes and pick a random country, and then I’d pick a random person to talk to,” said the West Quincy, Massachusetts high schooler.
Pretty soon, she was chatting with people from Korea, France and Finland. They added each other on Instagram, and messaged back and forth with conversations that stretched over days and weeks. Her French pen pal would send voice messages in English, and Habiba would respond in “broken French,” she said. Her pen pal described living on a farm in the French countryside, where she would tend to horses and cows.
“For her, you know, living in the countryside, having a farm, those things are simple for her. But to me, it’s like a completely different experience,” Habiba reflected.
Not only did she learn about worlds beyond her Massachusetts suburb, but as the conversations went on, she began to feel comfortable sharing about more vulnerable experiences like her anxiety attacks or moments of emotional distress.
“You tend to trust strangers a bit more because you know that they won’t judge you,” explained Habiba. “And they would listen.”
Samantha Farrow hadn’t yet completed her freshman year at Stuyvesant High School in Brooklyn, New York when the random hookup Indianapolis pandemic shut down in-person classes. Going into sophomore year with only nascent friendships was “a little bit scary and a little bit lonely,” she recalled.
But Farrow and some peers took to Zoom for hangouts. Her friends brought their friends. And soon she felt that her social network had become more full. The group played charades and watched Korean dramas. Other times, they’d log in and each do their own thing.
“Everyone was doing whatever they wanted to do, but we were just there together and it kind of brought this feeling of solace,” said Farrow.
Practically no one she knew was dating during remote learning, she said, and the short flings she heard about mostly fizzled out in a matter of weeks because it was difficult to meet up in person.
“You don’t need anyone, girl. You’re strong by yourself,” her friends would tell each other. “You can depend on us.”
“I definitely don’t look the same so I don’t know if some people will remember me,” she said. “There’s people who I talked to before the pandemic, and I didn’t talk to them during the pandemic. And I don’t know if I should say hi to them or not. So there’s a lot of, like, awkwardness.”
They’re trying to make up for lost time by going over to each other’s houses whenever possible – in small groups to stay COVID safe.
“We just want to take in as much of each other as we can,” said Farrow. “We’re really close now because, like, if you’ve been through a pandemic with someone, I feel like we’re bonded for life.”
It wasn’t until prom 2021 that Rohith Raman saw most of his classmates in person during his senior year. He had stayed online as a precaution for the safety of his grandmother, who lives with his family in their Houston home. Other than games of Call of Duty Warzone and FaceTimes here and there, it had been tough to stay in touch with peers who were outside his inner circle.
“We had kind of talked about having a lot of gatherings or hosting stuff. And just having fun with a lot of people,” said Raman. “Prom was the catalyst for that kind of thing.”