At a time when seemingly everyone is forced to be apart, some doctoral students in Washington State University’s College of Education are making a concerted effort to feel more connected.

They’re calling their Zoom meet-up group “E-Togetherness” and are doing them three times a week, broken up as a “merienda,” a “coffee break,” and a game night.

“The first day of class after spring break was quite shocking,” said group host Priya Panday Shukla, a doctoral student in the college’s language, literacy, and technology program. “Via Zoom, I saw the faces of my classmates: They were looking stressed, anxious, gloomy, worried, overwhelmed, lost.”

This isn’t surprising. Social distancing expectations often lead to full isolation. The American Psychological Association said on its website that “spending days or weeks at home with limited resources, stimulation and social contact can take a toll on mental health.” These items included fear and anxiety; depression and boredom; anger, frustration or irritability; and, in some cases, stigmatization.

To combat that, Panday Shukla enlisted very willing classmates (Jose Riera, Jo Ann Arinder, Collin Shull, Ali Asiri) to help make the group happen.

“This is a valuable social and emotional support to our College of Education community,” Riera said, pointing out that faculty and staff have been extremely supportive thus far. “It’s inspiring to see faculty leaders such as Sarah Newcomer and Tariq Akmal not only accepted our invitation to join the group but offered to lead some of the weekly Zoom meetings.”

Riera said Newcomer even asked her undergraduate students to attend the meetings to generate impact within the overall college community and that Akmal immediately supported the effort as well.

College dean Mike Trevisan also joined on April 16 and was impressed, committing to join regularly. At that meeting, he said: “I really appreciate the opportunity to be here and see people. I miss being in the office and seeing people there. You just take it for granted. When it is taken away you learn to appreciate it more. I’m interested in hearing people stories and their extended family situations.”

Perhaps one of the slightly humorous aspects of it for Panday Shukla was that she created a Facebook group page in order to connect everyone and have a place to share Zoom links, as well as non-academic things. It was her first foray into that social media platform.

“I did not even have a Facebook account before and I had to create one in order to make the group page” she said. “I am still learning to manage the page but it’s worth it in order to help maintain the well-being of our peers.”

Panday Shukla said she didn’t want anyone to get emotionally sick from being alone or not having enough support from family, friends, or peers.

“I believe that during this difficult time, we need to be together – maintaining the physical distance – but at the same time continue talking, supporting, and caring for each other.”