COVID-Pals brings people together while stuck apart

By Elizabeth Sayasane, Features Editor

As Ege Onal, a junior in Engineering, prepared to return to campus this fall, he knew it would be different from when he left in the spring. With a high number of positive cases and restrictions about how and where people could go, it would not be the traditional lively homecoming returning students remembered.

One particular new aspect of life on campus concerned Onal: students stuck in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.

“We don’t actually see those people around the streets, they are isolated, and they are probably lonely, trying to actually get themselves better,” Onal said. “There are also academics, school work they have to do, and social responsibilities and other things going on.”

When considering the toll this must take on these students, Onal came up with an idea to help them cope with their time in isolation. He started working on a website: COVID-Pals.

Through this website, students who are in isolation, or even students who are taking precautions by staying inside as much as possible, can connect with other students on campus. They can schedule 30-minute meetings to chat with a volunteer, a stranger and fellow student, about anything they would like.

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    It was important to him that these volunteers taking calls were also students, as it would be more comfortable for those reaching out.

    “Speaking with a student is always different instead of a counselor,” he said. “Students, we tend to kind of better understand each other in terms of workload and what’s kind of going on.”

    The service is live and Onal has been working to get the word out to other students. He has already recruited several volunteers ready to take calls.

    Kaitlin Mikrut

    One of these volunteers is Aidan Rogers, a freshman also in Engineering who met Onal through one of his classes. He had similar concerns for those students stuck in isolation.

    “I know if I was in isolation, that’d be super difficult,” Rogers said. “I signed up because I wanted to see if I could help people get rid of the struggle of being in isolation.”

    Another volunteer, Romir Singla, freshman in Engineering, saw participating in this program doubly beneficial. Singla decided to stay at home this semester, so he has also been unable to explore campus and meet other students.

    Singla said that volunteering for COVID-Pals would be a great way for him to help students going through similar or more extreme situations. He could help others while also meeting new people and potentially making new friends.

    “A lot of people need that sort of connection just to get through college, so I wanted to help participate in that,” he said.

    As the initiative has only just begun, they have not taken any calls yet. Nonetheless, Onal already looks to the future for this platform. He said it could eventually be more than just a way to help those lonely in isolation.

    Even those who don’t have to stay isolated still do not have the same opportunities to meet other students as they have had in previous years. Freshmen missed out on Quad Day, orientation programs and in-person classes where they can mingle amongst each other before the lectures begin.

    COVID-Pals is one avenue that students can use to try and meet others on campus who are also looking for friends.

    Both freshmen, Rogers and Singla are aware of this struggle. Rogers said even with the recent efforts made by the University, such as the movie nights and concerts, it is still difficult to actually form meaningful friendships. He said he is trying to find friends in the balance between students who will not leave their dorm room and those who disregard all safety measures when going out.

    Singla said he feels that he isn’t getting the most out of his freshman year because of missed experiences from not being on campus. What has helped him cope is taking more initiative in forming these connections.

    Singla recognized the importance of being able to meet new people when he began volunteering.

    “People need others to talk to because we have very similar connections with one another and we need to voice those, we can’t just keep that inside of us,” he said.

    Onal’s first emphasis on this initiative was always to connect people. He said his focus is “connecting people around campus so they’re not that lonely, especially during this time.”

    “We as Illinois, are strong together,” he said.

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