Reimagining Virtual Relationships

The second week of my senior fall semester, I Zoom’d into my section for the class “Literature and Social Justice” and couldn’t help but notice the older, tatted dude speaking excitedly about the texts we had just read––before section had even started. James Hatch (he/him/his) soon introduced himself to our section as Jimmy, an Eli-Whitney student in his sophomore year at Yale.

Our sections were Thursday mornings at 10:30am and every Thursday Jimmy came in ready to discuss Federico Garcia Lorca, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Burke, Pablo Neruda, etc. Meanwhile, I was usually barely awake eating breakfast and spending the first ten minutes trying to think of intelligible things to say. One random Thursday in October I received an email from him thanking me for my contributions in our section earlier that day. I was pretty surprised––I had never received such validation after a class, certainly never in the format of an email. 

The admissions website describes the Eli-Whitney program as a flexible program (as it can be completed part-time or full-time) designed for “non-traditional” students––people who haven’t followed the “linear” or “traditional” path of starting college pretty soon after HS. Jimmy, I later learned, spent close to 26 years in the military and after his retirement, decided to enroll at Yale because it felt like a place where he could “become a much better human.”

After that first email, Jimmy and I started a thread. We’d talk about our class, social and political issues (and how we would respond to certain comments), our life and where we’re from. And slowly but surely, in the last few months, I’ve learned so much about someone I’ve never even met in person! 

Jimmy is currently taking classes remotely from Virginia but before the pandemic, he spent his first year in the Directed Studies program and lived 20 minutes from campus. When I asked him how his dynamic has been with other undergrads, and what his social life looked like, he mentioned that before the pandemic he would get coffee, lunch , or pizza with classmates––all before 8PM, however, because he thinks “he is old” (he’s in his 50’s, so he’s really not that old). Jimmy has stressed to me a few times how important it is for him to build connections with his peers outside of the classroom, where he can get to know people as humans, but also be a resource in whichever way he can. As soon as I told him what jobs I was applying for and what I wanted to do next year, he sent my résumé over to people in his networks. People at Yale are generally pretty nice, but Jimmy really takes kindness to a whole new level! 

As someone who’s seen so much of the world, and has experienced things I can’t even begin to imagine, it was great to have Jimmy as my classmate. But for the very same reason, getting to know him as a friend has made me realize that my favorite things about being at Yale, more than anything, always have to do with the people here. Being away from campus has made meeting people more difficult. And while emailing a stranger from my section is not something I would ever think of doing, Jimmy told me that when navigating this new digital realm, he’s learned to become okay with the discomfort and clunkiness that virtual interactions entail. He even said (and I agree with this) that he wishes there were a required Zoom class where students from all backgrounds, majors, classes could get to know each other and have social time. And while the logistics for this would be chaotic, it brings up the importance of connecting during the most difficult of times.

I’m grateful for that random email I received in October. It reiterated the value of both maintaining and creating new relationships because you really never know where they might lead. But it also taught me to actively show and vocalize my admiration, appreciation, and desire to connect with people––whether they’re random strangers in my class or on social media, or (hopefully one day) at a coffee shop. And that could be as small as complimenting someone’s outfit or energy. Or, like Jimmy, it could mean starting a whole new friendship.