"How I handled my social anxiety during Zoom classes"

With so many schools gone fully virtual in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one GL girl in shares her story of coping with college learning through Zoom. 

In an odd way, I was excited to start virtual learning. Knowing I'd be kicking off the school year from the comfort of my own home was something that brought me comfort. I've always been that person who had anxiety about returning to school after summer break. And after a six-month break because of the COVID-19 pandemic? Forget it. When my school went totally online for the fall, I was looking forward to the "new normal"—sleeping a few minutes later, no longer rushing to get ready in the morning and (of course) skipping those cringeworthy first-day-of-school icebreakers. 

But my first week of Zoom classes brought more challenges than the relaxing experience I'd initially anticipated. The first day, I got an email saying that everyone's camera had to be on to get full participation. Being the shy person I am, having my camera turned on in front of dozens of students frightened me. Sure, they see my face IRL—but displaying myself on Zoom felt different, more personal. Participation started to feel like a task that was off the table. I wanted to remain hidden, invisible. I kept thinking: "What if something weird happens in the background? Or my parents walk in?" I chose to keep my camera off despite the risk to my final grades. 

To my surprise, a lot of other classmates did the same. I felt a little less nervous knowing I wasn't the only one. But I did feel bad for my teacher, who indicated that she missed the face-to-face interactions. A part of me now *did* want to turn my camera on—but I didn't want to be the only one to change her mind. When it came to participating, most students chose to share their answers in the chat box instead. 

Another class *did* include one of those dreaded icebreakers. This one? 
The game "Two Truths and a Lie." The teacher used the attendance roster to call out everyone's names. For these kinds of things I feel like I need to prepare my response an hour before, not in the moment! As she approached my name on the list, I closed out of the Zoom and left the class. I felt bad but my anxiety just got the best of me. After months of minimal social interaction outside my household, the thought of talking about myself in front of all those new people was something I didn't feel prepared to do.

In a third class, we were placed into breakout rooms. That's the Zoom equivalent of group work. In the first one, everyone was silent for five entire minutes. I wanted to be the first one to speak but felt as if I was frozen. Finally, someone said hi and, from there, a conversation began. I forced myself to speak up and make an effort to talk to my peers and ask questions. Some people answered and were friendly, but others stayed silent. It's weird to think that in normal, IRL life no one could just fade into the background or turn off their microphone. We'd all be forced to talk and contribute. It would seem harsh to blankly stare at someone who asks you a question—but Zoom makes this possible. Technology can be empowering, but it can also allow you to remain hidden.

The takeaway? The "new normal" is an adjustment for many. There are ups and downs—I love the calm, no-rush mornings, the freedom to multi-task and the disappearance of cafeteria meals and "Sunday Scaries" but I miss laughing with my friends in person and feeling the comfort that comes with a face-to-face discussion. But I'm learning that I'm not alone. Most people I know are struggling somewhat with online learning and navigating the etiquette of Zoom school. Others are afraid to say the wrong thing, to show their face onscreen and to have something awkward pop up in the background. 

Here are my tips: Turn your camera on. Set up your space ahead of time so you know your background is learning-ready—and your notebooks, chargers, pens, water and snacks are right beside you as you work. Remind your family of your school hours so there are no untimely interruptions, and reach out to a friend or two in your class outside of the Zoom so you feel like you have a connection already. 

I'm slowly gaining confidence when it comes to participation. I've had some eye-opening conversations in the breakout rooms, and other students have created fun group chats to bond. I know that next time my teacher suggests an icebreaker, I'm going to stick it out. 

by Taryn Herlich | 10/7/2020