A 2018 study by the American College Health Association found that 67% of females felt very lonely, up from 60% in 2013. 73% of females felt very sad, 45% felt so depressed it was difficult to function, 57% felt things were hopeless, and 90% felt overwhelmed by all they had to do. And the most challenging time for most college students is the first semester freshman year. Whys is this so and what can be done about it?
One challenge all first year college students face is creating a new support system. They have left the security of their family and high school friends and have to start fresh. Studies show that college students are having less face-to-face contact as they spend increasing amounts of time on social media. Many young women have told me they feel socially awkward and have a hard time going up to new people and having a face-to-face conversation, and they blame their dependence on social media for this. Women tell me that they need to “pre-game” before they go out to parties or bars, i.e. throw back 3-6 shots in order to gain the courage to interact with peers. They also report that most people walk out of class and across campus with their noses in their phones, thus missing the opportunity to connect with people. This lack of social interaction contributes to a sense of isolation and loneliness.
I have also found that many young women have a picture in their minds before they start college of parties, wild times, and what has been described to them as “the best time of my life”. The reality is that it takes time to develop friendships and a close community, so their picture isn’t immediately fulfilled, causing frustration and discouragement. Young people’s lives have also been uber-structured and supervised for them, so those first months of being on campus is challenging as they work to create their own lives.
The following are suggestions for what new students can do to better acclimate and find connections.
- Put your phone down when you are in class, walking across campus, and hanging out in your dorm room. Make eye contact, smile at people, and have the courage to start conversations.
- Shrink the campus. Pledge a sorority, join a club, take exercise classes at the rec center, participate in the honors college, or play intramural sports. Marissa decided to join a rock-climbing club her first year in college and found her best friends at weekend climbing events. It’s less daunting to talk to small groups of people, so start small and build.
- Remind yourself that you are not alone. Everyone starts college starting over with friends, wanting new connections and feeling insecure. Create a mantra to repeat to yourself if negative self-talk starts to bring you down. An example would be, “Relax Tim, I deserve great friends, just be patient, you’ve got this.” You replace discouraging thoughts with encouraging ones, which is the truth. Find a few people to share your fears and discouragement with and discover for yourself that lots of your peers can relate to you.
- Find true friends. I encourage women to get clear about what kind of connections they want and make a list of the qualities they look for in a best friend. With this list in mind, they can look for people who match their list by observing people they meet. Watch for how they act, treat you, and treat others. It’s smart to be picky about who you hold close and spend the most time with.
- Spend time with professors and advisors during their office hours. Sometimes they will meet with small groups of students, making it easier to get to know people.
- Feel the fear and do it anyway. Accept the fact that you will probably experience some anxiety with all of the firsts you experience at the start of college. Just don’t allow fears to cause you to avoid situations that would be beneficial. When you hear the roar of fear, go towards and through your fears. Remember that you have experienced hundreds of times where you were anxious about a future situation and when the time came, it almost never was as bad as you imagined.
- Create a new picture. Envision what you want as far as friendships, and then relax and allow a new picture to form. Be yourself, put yourself out there, and allow your own, unique college experience to unfold.