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Unplugged: UMD students seek to re-normalize social connection

Five students organized and encouraged the campus to disconnect from their mobile devices and connect with each other.

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UMD staff member Chris Haidos writes he intends to do with the extra time he has if he doesn’t use his mobile device for a day during Tuesday’s Connection Day. The event was organized by students to encourage everyone on campus to connect with one another in person rather than use cell phones. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
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A campus-wide initiative intended to bring people together at the University of Minnesota Duluth started with a class assignment.

Then, writing instructor Susan Perala-Dewey encouraged the five students involved in the group project to put their writing into action.

That’s how “Connection Day” came to fruition Tuesday at UMD. Five students invited everyone on campus to disconnect from their mobile devices and instead seek human connection with the help of intention-setting, name tags and conversation starters.

"This isn't just a college student thing," senior political science student Trevor Peterson said. "It's a people thing."

One opportunity students often miss out on is building relationships with each other during the minutes before class starts, especially in the larger classes, senior psychology student Kelly Gilomen said.

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"It's like we exist in our own little worlds until we absolutely have to reach out which is kind of sad," Gilomen said. "Overall, most classrooms are stick to yourself unless you're instructed otherwise."

Student Tiana Forbes said she hopes that Connection Day will help others who are struggling to make friends find more ways of doing so.

"I'm a transfer student and so I was trying to make connections with people at the beginning of class, but I was struggling because everyone seemed to be preoccupied by what they were doing," Forbes said.

As part of their group project for an advanced writing class last fall, the five students conducted a small campus survey that asked participants if they're more likely to talk to someone who's not on their phone.

Nearly 80% said, "Yes, absolutely."

"Our research showed that phones make it hard to meet new people because people use them as a crutch," Gilomen said.

The five classmates were exploring the relationship between social media and mental health before their instructor, Perala-Dewey, pushed them to consider how those phenomena intersect with research on human isolation and loneliness.

"If a new generation feels uncomfortable trying to interact and introduce themselves, that's really scary," Perala-Dewey said.

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Instead of taking an anti-technology approach and enforcing a list of rules on how to properly participate in Connection Day, the students centered the initiative around learning to make connections and setting that as an intention.

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A white board displayed at UMD for Connection Day displays people’s ideas for conversation starters and what to do rather than use mobile devices. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Bailey Dobratz, a second-year education student, knew she wanted to participate in Connection Day when she first heard about it in class from Perala-Dewey.

The goal she set for herself is one she hopes to carry forward beyond Connection Day.

"It's such a good idea to get people connected with each other on campus because there might be people who don't necessarily feel like they belong and hopefully meeting people who are willing and open gives them a chance to branch out," Dobratz said.

Ladona Tornabene, an associate professor of public health, also participated despite already being largely disconnected from her mobile device.

"I value connected-ness and my heart exploded when I found out that a group of students originated this," Tornabene said.

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Kendra Kvebak, a junior Spanish education student, said she'd like to see UMD's first Connection Day snowball into something bigger.

"I hope that when you tour UMD the tour guides say, 'Oh, we have Connection Day here. It's a staple at UMD,'" Kvebak said. "And then maybe all the U of M schools will take it."

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Tiana Forbes talks about the idea of Connection Day Tuesday while Kendra Kvebac and Trevor Peterson listen. The three help organize the event. People visiting their booth wrote on the table covering ideas for how they would spend their time if they put down their mobile devices. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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