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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Bumping into each other online- The gradual process of building meaningful connections in online contexts for underrepresented groups in STEM

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Building meaningful connections in online contexts became a necessity in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to rely on virtual means for their interactions. As Zoom Meetings became the common method of participating in work and school, institutions scrambled to create an enriching and meaningful environment for their members. This transition has been challenging, and work organizations have reported increased conflict and ‘zoom-fatigue’ whereas educational institutions have experienced increased disconnectedness and attrition (e.g. Leal Filho 2021 et al; Galanti et al. 2021). In this study, we ask: How can individuals form meaningful connections in the context of fully remote professional environments? In particular, we focus on the processes with which gradual familiarity is created in online contexts. In the physical domain, we take the gradual nature of friendship building for granted; people run into one another in the midst of their daily activities and through repeated opportune encounters they begin to form deeper ties. This is challenging in online environments, where interactions are predominantly intentional and designed. There are few opportunities for people to “bump into each other” and engage in casual conversations in passing. While the importance of making meaningful connections in professional contexts has been effectively linked to several positive outcomes, such as motivation, learning, innovation, sense of belonging and professional identity formation. We examine these processes in the context of first-year STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) students within their first and entirely remote year of instruction on a university campus. We examine the mechanisms that enabled students to feel connected to other students, supported by the university, and experience an overall sense of belonging while coping with an unprecedented time in higher education.

Taylor Fugere, Graduate Student, UC Merced

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