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Thursday, May 23, 2024
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Abby Zucker, Leah Repenshek, Bradley Wellikson, Ryan Johnson, Rafe Mori and Hana Heidenreich photographed from left to right, top to bottom.

How COVID impacted communication for 6 UW-Madison students

Four years later and traces of the COVID-19 pandemic are still recognizable through shifts in University of Wisconsin-Madison students’ communication patterns.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about the importance of communication and proved that, through technological advances and an increase in virtual interactions, society is more connected than ever before. 

Over time, University of Wisconsin-Madison students have navigated the changes and new opportunities that come with a changing communication environment. This period of transition has altered their communication practices and changed the way they think about day-to-day interactions with others, underscoring the importance of a collective reflection on the lasting impacts of the pandemic.

Here is how the pandemic affected communications for six students. 

Abby Zucker, 19

The experience of 19-year-old Abby Zucker highlights a shift in connection and communication since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“My communication has increased more through technology. I feel like we have more apps and more ways to communicate, with things like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, than we did before,” Zucker said.

Beyond academic and professional settings where work went virtual to continue day-to-day operations, Zucker said she did not explore many new communication apps. Rather, Zucker said she and her social circle relied more heavily on apps they were familiar with to maintain a constant stream of communication.

“My friends and I will use Snapchat and use technology more than before, while for my parents, it maybe didn’t change as much with COVID,” Zucker said.

Zucker felt digital communication filled a void during the pandemic. She noticed that the spontaneity of valued in-person interactions progressively diminished, which made virtual check-ins with loved ones and peers more important.

“There are a lot of times where natural conversations or times where you see someone in person just may not happen as often, so it can be helpful to catch up on that time by intentionally texting someone,” Zucker said.

Leah Repenshek, 19

Beyond social interactions, Leah Repenshek found a changing communication landscape primarily affected her academic experience during the pandemic. 

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It’s an impact she felt separated her experiences from those of different generations. 

“My life has changed the most in terms of school and communication, [which] was challenging with online classes and technology,” Repenshek said. “That was very different from life for my grandparents and my parents, where besides work, it didn’t shift things as much.”

Repenshek said the pandemic made online platforms the new normal for interaction. This created barriers to learning, such as difficulties communicating with teachers, receiving individualized help or accessing education resources that could help students succeed in a new, virtual learning environment.

With classes overwhelmingly offline again, Repenshek said she feels in-person exchanges allow individuals to connect more. She said in-person communication methods impact both education but also relationships. 

“Communication during COVID was pretty strictly online, but I feel like recently that has changed a little bit and gone back to largely being a mix of both,” Repenshek said. “It has helped us not take in-person interactions, [whether] personal or school-related, for granted.”

Repenshek said navigating a pandemic-era world where traditional methods of interaction were upended taught her the importance of open and continuous communication. 

“I feel like it is important because you don’t know when something like that could happen again. It's important to communicate with your loved ones and everyone as much as possible,” Repenshek said.

Bradley Wellikson, 19

Bradley Wellikson said the sharp increase in digital communication during the pandemic resulted in him feeling “chronically online,” a term he used to describe a lifestyle heavily influenced by digital interactions.

“There is just so much more technology in my life than before, which can be both a good and bad thing,” Wellikson said.

On one level, being chronically online is a reflection of increased technology usage. Approximately one in six say they use TikTok and Snapchat “almost constantly,” and 54% say that it would be difficult to give up social media, according to a 2023 study from Pew Research Center. 

This dependency can shape worldviews around digital trends — and sometimes conspiracy theories — that significantly influence their interactions within the real world. From misinterpreting what is “problematic” to fostering obsessive speculations over Kate Middleton’s disappearance from the public eye, being chronically online blurs the line between the digital space and real-life events or concerns.

Although the increase in digital communication has the potential to make an individual overly immersed in online culture in this way, Wellikson still finds it offers unique opportunities to strengthen relationships by connecting on social media or other communication apps.

“My style of communication [as a result of the pandemic] has probably become more online and less in-person, but I do have more frequent communication with friends who aren’t in visiting proximity or live far away, so that has been a plus,” Wellikson said.

With this, Wellikson said he prioritizes using technology to check in on others and maintain a focus on mental health, and he’s noticed pandemic-era pressures impacted individuals to different degrees. He saw communication as crucial in supporting well-being and fostering a sense of community in uncertain times.

“It’s important to stay up to date [with people]. Especially after the last four years, and given that a lot of people went through mental health crises, I'm a little bit more focused on checking in and making sure everyone’s happy in life,” Wellikson said. “You never know what's gonna happen.”

Ryan Johnson, 22

For 22-year-old UW-Madison senior Ryan Johnson, post-pandemic changes in his life revolve around more constant engagement with family, getting more involved with coaching youth baseball and more purposeful conversations with friends and coworkers. 

“My lifestyle didn't really change much,” Johnson said. “I was still going out to baseball tournaments and coaching because they still had the tournaments.” 

He said the pandemic better connected him with his family in Nebraska. Since 2020, Johnson said he talks to his family more, especially his mom and sisters, and looks forward to family gatherings whenever they come around. 

He has since shifted toward a “preference to not use technology to talk,” having more in-person conversations. While Johnson said he felt fortunate to maintain his lifestyle at the start of the pandemic, at least when it came to work and daily activities, he believed other generations and those who worked from home had to adjust their habits more.

And while Johnson claims that he is far from perfect at checking in on those closest to him, it is something he wants to work on going forward. 

“I don't think I check in on people the most. I think I'm probably a poor example of that. I will check in with you when I see you,” Johnson said. “ I've kind of enjoyed the aspect of but it's probably more of my preference to not use technology to talk to people more in person.”

Rafe Mori, 21

Rafe Mori, 21, said he feels like the COVID pandemic made his communication with his family and friends stronger. 

Before the pandemic, he relied solely on the in-person conversations he would have with people to check in. Now, with advancements in technology, he said there are other options for reaching out to people: a quick text, a phone call or through the use of a variety of social media platforms. 

“I'd say for me, I feel more connected. I feel like a lot of times, I would talk with people in person. I think there's a lot more online communication that has probably continued since then,” Mori said.  

Mori said the pandemic's positive changes have been reflected in the new “self-sustaining” model of schoolwork and resources. He felt teaching support systems and resources for getting are more extensive post-pandemic.

Additionally, Mori said that students have gained more independence and confidence to fill in content knowledge gaps for themselves with access to online aids. He said he felt “a lot more capable to do the readings or watch lecture videos” with little to no guidance. 

For some, the pandemic took away communication avenues. But Mori said he is grateful for the small interactional opportunities he gets to take advantage of every day. His lifestyle changes mostly surround his ability to recognize and take advantage of the “privilege to hang out with a friend or go out to dinner,” even on the busiest of days.

In his view, everyday actions have become less independent and more community-based after the realization of the loneliness that comes from extreme isolation. 

“We found out how much we took for granted with communication, not being able to see friends or family,” he said. 

Hana Heidenreich, 20

Hana Heidenreich is a 20-year-old UW-Madison sophomore who said COVID had little effect on her means of communication over the past four years but instead impacted broader societal views on physical and mental illness.

Heidenreich said she felt an increase in news communications and technological development during the pandemic made a wider population more conscious about illnesses overall.  She said this had a more profound effect on her parents, who became “more accepting of the precautions of COVID.” 

For Heidenreich, these factors prove the power of developing technology and the importance of striving for non-biased mass communication. 

“I'd say that I'm more accepting of the precautions of COVID, and they're still like sticklers that it didn't really exist. So I feel like it's brought in more awareness to the precautions you should take for illnesses,” Heidenreich said. 

Although her interactions have become “more virtual,” Heidenreich said she still enjoys prioritizing in-person interactions with family and friends. The greatest lesson she learned was the importance of taking the time to empathize with others and escape isolation. 

She cited a growing toll of post-pandemic mental health concerns and long-term physical health complications as reasons for greater empathy.   

“I think it's really important because when we're isolated for so long, [people] forget to check up on one another because everyone's so used to just being self-reliant,” Heidenreich said. 

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