On Thursday, September 8th, students from four Connecticut universities – Gateway Community College, University of New Haven, Southern Connecticut State University, and Yale – gathered at Southern to listen to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speak. In reality, however, they spent a great deal of their time listening to each other — and that was just what the Surgeon General intended.
The event, entitled Let’s Talk: Social Connection and Loneliness, was structured into two parts: an interactive exercise called “A Conversation on Your Feet,” and a panel discussion with Murthy and students from the various universities. The night concluded with remarks from Governor Ned Lamont.
In “A Conversation on Your Feet,” students in the audience were asked to identify themselves by selecting from two different options. For instance, they were asked to choose if they were a night owl or an early bird. Another question asked if they were comfortable in larger crowds or more intimate settings. They were then told to place themselves on a spectrum and move to a spot in the room that reflected their position – left, right, or somewhere in the middle. Following each prompt, a few students explained their position. These prompts opened a dialogue for students to discuss whether they felt comfortable being themselves around others and how hard it can be to connect with others on campus.
A student from Gateway Community College, who identified herself as Diana, responded to a question about whether she was satisfied with her current social connections or whether she wished to have stronger ones. “I think the biggest awareness that I found [in the COVID-19 pandemic] was that social media and technology has actually limited our ability to be [connected],” she said. “We don't have face-to-face communication anymore…meaning that we aren't really empathizing with a person in their energy. Computers put a binary effect on our own social notions. It’s connecting, however, it’s a really false reality we’ve all created for ourselves. We’re all so much more than that, and I would love stronger connections because it's more valuable to have a heart-to-heart connection with someone face to face.”
Yale School of Public Health student Andrew Zhang, MPH ’23, a panelist, recognized similar challenges with navigating technology use. “I don’t think that the internet needs to be a place where people feel so polarized and distanced from everybody,” Zhang said. “I think that our institutions could be very proactive and bring people together by sharing and emphasizing the right kinds of information. Social media can also be an engine of change.”
Student panelist Mary Lippa from the University of New Haven shared how she connects with others. “One of the best ways I’ve found to establish community and connections was to share my own struggles.” Erika Emenyonu from Southern Connecticut State University said every small action matters. “No matter how small, your contribution is still a contribution…If you bring a brick, although it’s just a brick, if we bring a community of bricks, it becomes a castle,” she said.
Murthy urged students to recognize the power they had to make a difference: “I don’t want anyone to…think the only way you can contribute to healing in America is by going to medical or nursing school,” he said. “Your ability to connect deeply with another human being, to look out for someone else, to listen to them, to give them the benefit of doubt in a conversation – your ability to help somebody feel seen and heard and understood…is a power you can wield right now.”
Second-year YSPH student MiChaela Barker, MPH/MBA ’24, said that the event helped her appreciate the value of listening and its importance in understanding others’ pasts and perspectives. “I don't think that you always have to be the one speaking in order to learn something or gain something from an event,” she said. “People need to be more comfortable with that idea. It was really empowering because we were able to get perspectives that weren’t our own. And sometimes, rather than getting applause or affirmation for speaking up, there's something else that you need to learn from somebody.”