Bridget Hall, a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, was one of a select few who started college physically on campus in the 2020-21 academic year. Though her classes were remote due to the pandemic, Hall was part of the Cross Country and Track and Field teams. Hall knew she would arrive to a near-empty campus. But as a student-athlete, she was generally optimistic about the prospect of making friends, given that she’d immediately be surrounded by a team of like-minded runners. At the very least, she expected that it would be “helpful to have a set group of people to know, be in contact with, [and] see on a daily basis.” This solid foundation helped her feel calm coming into the semester.
But all of that ease slipped when Hall tested positive for Covid-19, directly before practices were meant to start. Instead of going to practice every day and building those friendships she had so confidently awaited, she ended up “in an isolation room, for ten days, by [herself], with literally no human contact whatsoever.” This is when the loneliness kicked in.
“I didn’t really have the support group I was thinking I would have going in,” she said, “They were all out there, running together, chatting and getting to know each other. And I was in my isolation room, completely alone.”
While Hall eventually found her footing in an already-developed team bond, some students are not as lucky. Save for COVID-19, most isolated students are not quarantined, but simply struggling (or unable) to make friends.
Developing social connections is one of the most common worries of students transitioning into college. Everywhere from WikiHow to Reddit to the Washington Post offers their own slice of advice to those making the leap. The solution, they deem, is simple:
If you’re not making friends, you’re not trying hard enough.
You should sign up for more activities, sit next to people in classes until they have to be friends with you. Have you tried being genuinely nice? If in-person interaction didn’t work, maybe you have to use Linkedin, use Reddit, use something.
But what happens when none of those tactics result in the meaningful friendships one hopes for? What happens when students have to face the fear of being alone?
Encouraging students to try and make friends is incredibly important, but whether it’s an unprecedented pandemic or simply unpreferrable people, having a social circle is not inevitable. Your environment has as much to do with it as your actions.
If you can’t befriend people, befriend loneliness. Loneliness is not atypical nor unexpected. One in four college students report feeling lonely most or all of the time, according to a 2022 study of 10,000 university students performed by the Higher Education Policy Institute. While some students may be living away from home (and, thus, family) for the first time, they also may simply find that making friends in college settings can be much less natural than high school.
Alex Merka, an international student at Charles University in Prague, found this to be the case when he started college at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Merka’s expectations were similarly optimistic. He said he “expected to naturally make friends with people [he] sat near in classes like [he] did in high school.” But after cycling through several different seating arrangements, he said it seemed like “everyone [already] had groups of friends.”As a commuter student, he credits this to not having lived in the dorms. He didn’t have time to stay on campus longer than he needed to, either, with a dog at home. But he wasn’t too bothered.
“I cope with feeling lonely pretty well, since I’m an only child and am used to being on my own. I would just put my headphones in and I was fine for the most part,” he said. “I pretty much just disassociated my way through the year.”
The feelings of loneliness may be exacerbated by or be exacerbating the student mental health crisis. According to a Healthy Minds study, over sixty percent of university students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem last year.
Our expectations about the ease of making friends in college may be warped by all sorts of factors. The most prominent, though, may be our use of social media platforms. According to the National Institute of Health, studies have found that higher levels of social media use are related to higher levels of loneliness.
Seeing other students posting photos with large groups of friends or having fun nights out may increase one’s perception of their own loneliness.
Zoe Sibthorp, a rising freshman at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus, developed her own expectations from “television,” “a bit of social media” and her “own hopes.”
From this, she weaned that social life in college “should be like what television portrays childhood as — your friends are all in the same neighborhood and you go over to each other’s houses every day, the plans are easy to make, you share in both work and play.”
College friendships, however, aren’t always that simple.
For some folks, the remedy to loneliness is simply stepping slightly further outside one’s comfort zone and making the first (platonic) move. For others, who may not be living on campus or — for any reason — struggle to make friends, it’s important to reach a place where one feels comfortable in their own company. Whether by pursuing self-discovery, traditional therapy or simply practicing managing the negative emotions that can come with being by oneself, there is massive benefit to feeling alright alone.
Learning how to be lonely in college can also be great preparation for post-grad life, where students are likely to move to new cities without natural ways to see friends. Save for a lucky and select few who live or work with their closest social connections, one’s twenties can be a frightening time to make and maintain friendships.
Security and confidence in oneself may also benefit social efforts. Though insecurity isn’t an immovable obstacle to friendship, it’s easier to connect with those who are open and okay with who they are.
The internet has a similar wealth of tips and tricks to get better at being alone. Being satisfied with solitude seems to boil down to three key elements: learning who you are, learning what you like and learning how to think.
The first requires not only self-discovery, but self-acceptance. Befriending yourself takes a variety of forms, but one that can be particularly helpful is talking to oneself. Don’t shy away from talking yourself through thought spirals or difficult tasks. If it helps, give yourself a pseudonym, like Liz Thomas who uses her trail name “Snorkel” to push herself to do hard things on any of her 20,000+ miles of hiking. Becoming your own best friend also encourages you to take care of the more administrative parts of living independently (making sure you have enough food, cleaning your space regularly, etc.) You probably wouldn’t let your best friend go five days without changing clothes, so treat yourself the way a friend would and go change into real pants.
The second invites you to find activities you truly enjoy, exercise most noted for its other benefits. These hobbies don’t have to include thousands of miles of thru-hiking, but spending time outdoors isn’t a bad idea. College gyms are often free or cheap and a walk across campus costs nothing but time. Almost every university has at least one library where you can rent books or technology. Whether it’s a ten-mile run or a good book that helps you release endorphins, take a step back from doom-scrolling and a step towards doing.
Finally, changing how we view isolation can be essential to how we cope with it. If solitude is viewed as a choice rather than a condition, it seems to benefit our well-being and perception of loneliness. These findings fall in line with how life coaches and mental health professionals alike teach us how to get out of any type of rut. Changing how you view everything from work to grief to solitude (or changing your mindset around your struggles) plays a major role in how well you get through them. Though it may not always feel like a choice to be lonely in college, viewing solitude as a beneficial decision can be life-changing.
Loneliness happens. Whether you believe college is the best four years of your life or simply an academic stepping stone to adult life, it’s a great place to practice feeling, coping and being okay with it.
Oriana Riley is a student at Stanford University studying Communications, Politics, and Creative Writing. You can read more of her work at the Stanford Daily.