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College students are still finding romance in a pandemic, through Zoom crushes and actual dates

The dorm hookup, once a staple of college, has mostly become a thing of the past. Masked first dates are the new normal, and dating apps and Zoom crushes have replaced staring at the cute person through the flashing lights of a party.

Campus codes of conduct can be strict — in September, Northeastern University dismissed 11 students for gathering in a hotel room. But hooking up can fall into a gray area. The University of Georgia posted — then deleted — guidelines recommending that students wear a mask while hooking up, after resounding online ridicule. Other schools prohibit close contact with anyone outside of roommates. But the level of enforcement is often unclear.

The changing cadence of college life has made romantic prospects harder to come by, even for those who are back on campus. The nebulous circles that define social relations — lab partners, gym buddies, people you meet on a night out and avoid eye contact with for the next four years — have mostly been phased out, or rendered virtual.

As Diaz-Cruz puts it: “Co-workers have been removed, acquaintances aren’t a part of my life anymore. Friends of friends, all those little social interactions that make up your day, it’s not really part of your day.”

Scout Turkel, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley, adds, “in order to have intense relationships in your life, you also need to have casual people.”

For Turkel, the pandemic has made hookups and what she calls “convenient intimacies” much less available. Berkeley is all-online for the semester, but Turkel is still living in a nearby co-op with other students. Turkel’s solution to the problem of “convenient intimacies”? Hooking up with a housemate, an experience she documented over the summer in the Sex on Tuesday column for The Daily Californian.

“It seems like the only ethical option from a public health perspective,” Turkel wrote of her intra-house hookup. And though the relationship ended amicably, Turkel says, “it does feel like a huge deal to lose my only clear opportunity for physical intimacy during a time it doesn’t feel available to me.”

That desire for physical intimacy is in part why dating apps have become even more popular on campuses (many have seen traffic spikes overall). As Sarah Berg, a senior at the University of North Texas, put it, “during the pandemic, everybody was bored and downloaded Tinder, Bumble and Hinge.”

This video-chatting era has also given rise to the “Zoom crush.” Nicky Romano, a junior at Temple University in Philadelphia, was shocked when a graduate student in one of his online classes approached him while he was studying outside on campus. He’d recognized the blond streak that then marked the middle of Romano’s dark hair from the squares of their shared Zoom grid, and asked him for a study date.

Romano didn’t quite know what to make of it — was it a romantic overture, or a platonic request? But he does know the feeling of seeing someone

The Zoom Chat Solves Education Problems We Didn’t Even Know We Had

When my college went online in March, the overarching education philosophy was Let’s try to keep things normal. Of course none of us knew what that would look like, including me. I’m an undergraduate who works as a writing fellow—a cross between a peer tutor and a TA—in an introductory writing seminar. My “normal” had been walking around a classroom as students worked on their projects, answering questions and giving feedback, while the professor took aside small groups in another room.

a laptop computer sitting on top of a table: Zoom has some surprising benefits. Chris Montgomery / Unsplash

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Zoom has some surprising benefits. Chris Montgomery / Unsplash

When the professor and I translated this structure online, some of it worked: We could keep the small group/large group dynamic with a breakout room and a main session. But in that main session, I struggled to help students the way I could in person. I had no way to look over someone’s shoulder at her draft or gather the three students who were having problems sourcing research. More than that, I couldn’t address individual students without the discomfort of the entire class looking on. I couldn’t walk over to a student who’d been having trouble understanding the literature review genre, and ask him if he’d been able to emulate the model lit review’s style of reasoning. In a physical classroom, that’s a routine check-in; in a Zoom meeting, it’s a public shaming.


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So our first few online classes were very quiet. Students couldn’t sort themselves into groups or partnerships in the main room, and I didn’t know how to talk to them beyond asking, “Any questions?” at the beginning of each session. And eventually we all realized something I was experiencing in my own classes, too: The least effective virtual classrooms are the ones that attempt to imitate physical classrooms.

The urge to imitate makes sense. We want things to feel as normal as possible, so shouldn’t online classes feel like offline ones? But there’s an inherent problem when standard classroom techniques are translated online: They discourage student-to-student interaction. In person, students’ physical proximity facilitates an incredible amount of casual communication; they can sit next to a feedback partner or tap someone on the shoulder to ask for clarification on what the professor just said. When we take away the proximity, though, we’re left with videos of students’ heads trapped in isolated boxes. And the classroom community vanishes.

Because of this isolation, approximations of physical classrooms actively damage students’ opportunities to learn. When there’s little to no interstudent communication, everyone’s learning is limited to what they understand on their own. But if we prioritize facilitating communication, we can allow students to do what makes classrooms successful: combine their learning into a greater, shared whole.

Enter the Zoom group chat.

It sounds counterintuitive that a shared message board could be anything other than a distraction, let alone actively conducive to learning. But embracing the chat was the first step in creating a community again once my writing seminar went online in the spring.