Written by Emily Reeves, University of East Anglia, BA International Relations and Valerie Bauder, University of Innsbruck, BA Psychology

It seems almost obsolete to talk about the importance of friendships and being socially connected for mental health.

During this pandemic, most of us experienced a massive downturn in our social contacts. It is not insignificant that many students feel isolated and therefore more unhappy than before. As social creatures, we strongly crave new friendships, exchanges or even just something as simple as a hug.

Within the Aurora Student Champion scheme, the pen-pal activity connects two Aurora students from different institutions to facilitate the discussion of Aurora topics and events and communication between like-minded individuals. This activity led to the partnership and friendship between myself, Emily (UEA), and Valerie (UIBK). We chose to produce a piece of writing together comparing mental health at our institutions in the UK and Austria. From this, we decided to focus on friendship, how people socialise with one another, and why this is a positive thing.

Due to the pandemic, new students are less likely to meet new people. If they don't get on particularly well with people they live with, they have no way of meeting other people through clubs, societies, or their courses; this limits their friendships and has arguably negatively impacted students' mental health and wellbeing. Covid-19's impact on people meeting others and forming friendships at university is something we were interested in exploring more deeply and comparing how our institutions have decided to tackle the issue.

At UEA, many people use Facebook groups to do things like advertise upcoming events or rooms which are available to rent. This year, there has been a new theme featured in these groups; advertising yourself to try and find friends. The past academic year has been difficult for everyone for various reasons, heavily impacting people's ability to meet and interact with new people. Friendships at university are essential to good mental health. When students come to university, they establish friendships that encourage socialisation, get them out of their comfort zone, and provide a sense of belonging. Loneliness and alienation at university are detrimental to a student's wellbeing, especially since mental health is already a big issue amongst them.

Students in university accommodation who have struggled to bond with their housemates have not been given the opportunity to meet new people in the same way as student's pre-pandemic. In other circumstances, students would meet their housemates, the people living in accommodation around them, their coursemates, and members of societies or clubs. There were endless ways to meet new people pre-pandemic, but in the environment, we find ourselves in now, digitalised communication has been one of the only options. While this does offer a route to make friends, it is not personable. It is difficult to transmit emotions through written messages or over a video chat. Events to meet new people or find potential housemates and student-led programmes to help people settle into university life have provided a few possibilities. However, it is clear that those who started university this academic year have struggled.

In Innsbruck, it is also quite visible that emotional wellbeing has taken a hit during these times. At UIBK, the student counselling has been more sensitive to mental health-related topics noticing that students were increasingly demotivated and sad. On that matter, the ÖH (Austrian Student Union) in Innsbruck did a survey where they asked students about their mental health. Here, for example, they found out that 81% agreed or rather agreed to the statement, "I am currently listless and don't manage to motivate myself to study very well." And roughly 73% "agreed" or "rather agreed" to the statement that "The prospect of online lectures and virtual seminars/exercises lower my motivation to study." And less than half say they felt happy at the moment. As of my own experience of those I heard from, many students felt like they had not much to look forward to, especially during the hard lockdown. Also, many students had to cancel their exchange programs, therefore, missing out on some valuable experiences meeting new people with different backgrounds and cultures. Although it cannot replace the scope of experiences that students would have had by studying abroad, there are possibilities to connect internationally anyways.

Aurora has helped students from multiple institutions come together across a digital space, make new friends, and form new connections. To be able to implement further the opportunity which Aurora presents for breaking traditional barriers to communication could be a great way to address the issues discussed. While we may be moving back to 'normal' in the UK with the lockdown easing measures, there are still students who remain away from university, or alternatively, away from their families. International students have travel bans to contend with, and some students may be shielding.

There is potential for Aurora to provide a space to help this in creating a monthly, student-led gathering where people can just talk amongst themselves about whatever they like.

Although the digital world cannot buffer the loss of embraces, it can provide us with a vast number of possibilities to create social interaction spaces. Especially for us students, it is important to discuss study matters, share ideas and perspectives, broaden our mindsets, and promote academic growth. Here, the fundamental principles of Aurora come into play because the organisation was created to help students boost each other's potential.

Since Aurora should affect every student from every partaking Aurora University, it would be great to initiate a digital space that is free and open for every respective student. Gatherly could deliver such a space. There, among other advantages, break-out rooms can be created conveniently. When people come together to get to know and help each other out, benefits are guaranteed. From academic collaborations to tandem for language learning, everything can be achieved for engaging students. We can learn mutually, learn about other cultures and traditions, and ask for help if we need intellectual input or discover job opportunities and fields that we would not have thought of otherwise. Also, building international connections is not only useful but also important in this day and age. This is not only valuable for later professional life but also to tackle the major problems we are facing.

Of course, human connections are not only significant in professional life. We think that since the pandemic started, people have come to appreciate friendships more than before. Also, the students would welcome such a platform of exchange and would value it even after the pandemic since they have become used to this form of meeting people online.

So, this is why we see a good possibility that such a platform could be well received, and we would love to see friendships building across the barriers which the pandemic put in place, which will hopefully last beyond it.