Freshmen make college connections via Internet connections

CHARLOTTE -- A couple weeks before she begins her freshman year at Queens University of Charlotte, Lauren Nation already has met more than 150 of her classmates.

She knows students who will live in the same dorm, share her major and compete on Queens sports teams. Nation has even talked with some upperclassmen to get insight on college life.

These connections weren't all made during a visit to campus. Like a lot of incoming freshmen, Nation is meeting other students on the Web.

From the informal "Class of 2011" groups on social networking sites to an online roommate matching service at the University of South Carolina, the Internet is helping new college students make easy connections with others before they even start classes.

Using the Internet has been especially helpful for Nation, who has spent the past five years in Germany with her military family.

"I really didn't want to show up on campus not knowing anyone; that's never fun," Nation said. "Having Facebook and being in the 'Queens '11' group gave us all something in common and made it easier to start that initial conversation and move on from there."

Locally, at Winthrop University, where all freshmen whose families do not live nearby are required to reside in campus housing, roommates are matched through a computer based on answers to housing agreement forms that students submit. Once roommates are assigned, the university provides names, addresses and phone numbers so they can contact each other.

"We don't give out e-mail addresses," a university spokesperson said, "but I'm sure they go on social networking sites like Facebook to meet."

Gone are the days when most students arrive for the fall semester not knowing anyone, save for old classmates or hometown buddies. Now, students can find out about campus organizations or talk with students they meet during orientation on the social networking sites, said Michele Howard, dean of students at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

For some, using the Internet may be easier and less threatening than trying to form friendships in person.

"There are a lot of people who are shy when it comes to meeting people and talking to them in person," said Nick Jones, who will attend Johnson C. Smith University. "By meeting people on the Internet first, you kind of know people when you go down there, so that makes it that much easier to make friends."

At USC, the social sites are helping some incoming freshmen find roommates. The university has used its Web-based UCHOOSE program for seven years. Students first complete a survey about themselves, then can search for other students with similar interests.

Tim Coley, director of university housing, said he has found that students will find people that seem to be good matches, then head to the social sites to learn more.

"One thing we like about it is they're very much in control of selecting their roommate," he said.

Or selecting who won't be their roommate. At UNCC, some students have asked for a new roommate after finding information they didn't like on MySpace or Facebook, said Jackie Simpson, that school's director of housing and residence life.

That information hasn't always been accurate, though.

"Sometimes the things they put out on Facebook are not the reality for them," said Howard, the dean of students. "Many of them use it as a way to act out alter egos or fantasy. There can be a disconnect between what they portray on the Web site and reality."

Howard said orientation programs included a session on responsible use of the social networking sites.

Many students say the sites have helped them to get more excited about college.

Leslie Pittman, who started the Queens class of 2011 group, even found students interested in forming a dance program at the school.

Pittman, a Presidential Scholar at Queens, said that while she's just as comfortable meeting people in person as on the Web, she knows the online groups are making a mark.

"Even if you don't talk to each and every student member before you get to campus, there is a familiarity that would be impossible without the Internet," she said. "When I get to campus, I will recognize at least 100 names when introduced to me, and that's a lot better than a blank slate of loneliness."