Loneliness on campus

Why do so many students go it on their own through uni?

Artwork by Juliette Amies Artwork by Juliette Amies

The best time to use the microwaves in Fisher Library kitchen during the day is 2:40pm. It’s enough time after the lunchtime spike but right before the afternoon rush. That’s when the line is shortest and you can get in quickly. I know this because I spent almost all of my first year of uni hanging out in Fisher kitchen on my own.

When I started at USyd, I didn’t know anyone in Sydney. My social life in first year was non-existent. I didn’t talk to anyone outside of classes. I joined one club but never went to any events or parties. When class ended, I would hop straight onto a packed train leaving Redfern.

At the time, it worked for me. I lived at home but I wasn’t working and I didn’t want to spend too much money eating out, so I’d buy cup noodles in bulk and bring them to uni each day. In between classes, I’d warm up a cup at Fisher kitchen, sit down by myself and watch anime on my laptop.

I thought getting a part time job might change things, but I quickly learnt that working and having an income wouldn’t improve my university social life. I had much less time to spend at uni. I started to meet new people at work; people I was much more easily able to form social connections with than anyone I’d met at USyd. I found fewer and fewer reasons to leave my house in Liverpool and come all the way into campus.

* * *

University is sold as an enjoyable, socially prosperous time in the lives of young adults. But for some, it’s a time of confronting and disappointing realisations about university life. Loneliness is difficult to quantify but not hard to spot.

Going into a Bachelor of Health Science at Sydney Uni, Sangeetha was very excited. “I just thought that I was gonna love life if I went to USyd.” Despite not knowing anyone taking the course, she was optimistic: “At first I was like ‘oh, it will force me to make friends’ so then I’m like ‘yeah this is a good thing.’” At the end of her first year, however, Sangeetha says she made only one good friend.

It’s the case for many students: a three or four-year degree ends up being a solitary venture and university, a cold and unfriendly place.

“We know that it’s good for students to not just come to class and then disappear and we know that it’s good for students not to study just virtually,” says Dr. Petr Matous, a senior engineering academic at USyd who studies social networks. “A large part of the university life is meeting other people, creating relationships and learning how to socialise with others.”

Meeting people is not so simple, however. At a structural level, there are a number of economic problems which prevent students from engaging with campus culture at USyd. Unlike in other cities, students from Sydney often don’t move out of home and live together on campus, which means that campus life is less vibrant. In an expensive city, where work is especially insecure for young people, students have less time and reason to socialise on campus: when you are working to support yourself throughout uni, or trying to rush through your degree to get a good grad job, hanging out around campus is financially unviable.

Lily* moved from Queensland to USyd to study Media & Communications without knowing anyone. She wanted to join some of the clubs and societies during OWeek—the Japanese Society, because she was majoring in Japanese, and the Society for Creative Anachronism, whatever that meant. It would be a good way to meet people at a new university, she thought. Her dreams were shot down when she saw the $70 price tag of the ACCESS card, which lets you participate in the C&S program. “At the time I literally didn’t have seventy dollars in my bank account so I was like, cool, can’t do any of these.”

“A lot of students now don’t spend as much time on campus as in the past and that’s because of things […] like remote learning, […] people need to work, people live far away,” USU President, Liliana Tai, tells me. “We’re trying to make sure that we kind of adapt what we can offer to students.”

The USU reduced the price of ACCESS renewals this semester, and Tai says they’re currently looking into options like extended operating hours and delivery services to cater to changing student needs. “But it’s definitely a big problem for us because we’re obviously a very student focused organisation and a lot of our activities are on campus,” she adds.

Making USyd’s social scene more accessible is certainly a noble aim, but for people like Sangeetha, building friendships is still the first step to feeling less isolated at uni. “Even if I wanted to join a society, there was no one to join it with and so I just never ended up doing it,” she says.

When Sarah started a Bachelor of Psychology at USyd, she hoped to live the kind of lifestyle you hear about. But, dropped into a large cohort with constantly shifting classes, she quickly realised how difficult it would be to make good friends. Sarah says the tutorial setting is one of the biggest structural impediments to healthy socialising at uni.

“There’s this heavy air in tutorial rooms, which didn’t let you do anything. There was no lightness about it, you walked in and everyone was silent. And you just awkwardly sat next to the person and you didn’t say anything to them.”

Each semester, she’d walk into tutorials thinking, this time around she might meet someone new. “And then you’d maybe make an effort the first few lessons and then realise that nothing would actually flourish, then you just be like, fuck it, okay, I’m just going to go to class and just leave straight away.”

* * *

It seems as though most socialising at USyd takes place outside of lecture theatres and tutorial rooms or, at least, in inner city areas like Newtown. Therein lies a big problem: for students who live far from uni, quite often from Western Sydney, and from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds, these venues for socialisation are typically inaccessible.

In Sarah’s case, living in Merrylands and coming from a Lebanese background, attending uni events wasn’t very feasible.

“Most people go out at uni on like a Wednesday or Thursday night. And if you’ve got ethnic parents and you live 40 minutes out from where the parties are, it’s not very easy or convenient … or, you just don’t end up engaging in any of that.”

Students in Sarah’s position can go through their entire degrees without having the kind of university experience you see in movies, or even hear about from friends at interstate universities. Instead, they experience something more similar to the oft quoted ‘in and out’ models seen at universities like Macquarie and WSU, where students go solely for classes then immediately return home.

USyd is different to these universities though. It is not bereft of social scene. In fact, USyd is renowned for its student experience.

“I don’t think there’s any other university in Australia that parallels Sydney Uni’s offerings when it comes to campus activities and student societies,” says Tom Joyner, a former Honi editor. In 2016, Joyner wrote a feature about Manning Bar for Honi: once the centre of campus life in the 90s and early 2000s, Manning fell into decline following the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) in 2005.

“These days where do you go?” Joyner asks.

Many people point to VSU as the reason for the death of campus life. It’s true that VSU, a lack of infrastructure, and the growth of the online realm, have had a considerable impact on the nature of universities, but it’s not quite accurate to draw a straight line between the decline in campus life with student loneliness.

What becomes more and more apparent is that the mythical student experience USyd is renowned for is, and probably was always, out of reach for a certain kind of students. USyd’s social scene is typically a bubble of private and selective school students, many of whom know each other well in advance of coming to uni.

This is something Lily saw from the periphery. “I did feel like you could really tell the private school kids, like the ones who still lived with their parents and hadn’t really lived outside of Sydney.” For people outside of the bubble, it’s difficult. You’re already an outsider. To break in it takes far more effort and you have no indication of whether it’s even worth it.

Sometimes, people can’t break in no matter what, as USyd seems to be dominated by an insidious socioeconomic bias. Classism is rife across campus.

When Sangeetha landed a corporate job, she needed to start wearing business attire, so as to travel between uni and work. In a tutorial for a business class, she recalls how a guy sat next to her on the first day and told her, “‘The only reason I’m talking to you is because you’re the only well-dressed person here.’”

“I was like ‘oh shit’, if I happened to not be going to work that day I wouldn’t have dressed up and then I wouldn’t have had anyone to talk to.”

In their tutorial, they sat behind a Lebanese guy. “This guy from the Northern Suburbs would talk so much smack about this Lebanese guy when he was not there. He would roll his eyes every time he said something in conversation and I’m like, oh gosh, I don’t want that to happen to me.

“I’d just never mention that I was from Campbelltown. Can you imagine if I did? I would have lost my only friend.”

It was much the same for Sarah. “I remember feeling embarrassed to say sometimes that I live in Merrylands. It’s horrible. People don’t even know where it is and if they do know where it is, they don’t know anything good about it.”

Having friends outside of uni was an important buffer for Sarah. Though her time on campus was isolating, she had a social group so she never felt completely alone.

Sarah, now at the end of her degree, doing a Masters, apportions some of the blame to herself.

“I knew people by face because you’d attend class for twelve weeks in a row, but you would’ve never met them or you’d never introduce yourself to each other.

“But then I always think is it me or is it them, like they could probably be thinking the same thing about me, like why aren’t they speaking? And it’s like well why aren’t I speaking?”

* * *

Too much time alone leads to heavy introspection. These are questions that almost everyone in this situation asks themselves, and they’re difficult to resolve. For people who are lonely at USyd, what can they actually do?

In extreme cases, students may feel so isolated they end up leaving the university.

“Certain types of students that we would like to get more of, especially students who come from maybe more remote areas and maybe less privileged backgrounds, come here and they don’t know anyone in Sydney,” Dr. Matous says. “They come here and they feel homesick. They feel lonely,” he continues, “and we’ve had some students who went back home because they just didn’t feel well here.”

Likewise, Sangeetha tells me, “my mates that I started uni with that went to my high school all left to UNSW or UWS within the first two years. I was the only one that stayed.”

Loneliness might push some students to transfer, but the majority of people who feel lonely at uni probably don’t do anything. They’re just stuck, resigned to disappointment. It’s fine, you say, you’ll just go through your degree just not having made friends at uni. Without a buffer, without a bunch of friends from a different social circle, loneliness can be painful.

When you’re a second year and you’re mustering up the courage to go to your first university party, where you know almost no one, only to spend two hours in the bathroom on your phone, beating yourself up for not being as good at conversation as first years, it’s depressing.

* * *

As uni progressed, my personal circumstances have changed. By my fourth year, I’ve managed to slip into university life. I still feel lonely, at times, but I can’t really attest to being isolated on campus anymore.

I still think about it though, about barriers to partaking in university life. It’s sad to think that kind and interesting people are often denied the opportunity to build friendships at university and instead fall prey to the anxious, draining experience of isolation.

It’s difficult to forget the feeling.

Walking down Eastern Avenue, watching people walk alongside their friends, while I walked with a knot in my stomach that I didn’t have anyone to tell about.