A brief glimpse at stock photographs in University of Sydney (USyd) marketing spotlights the relentless branding of universities as optimal places to make lifelong friendships. Amid a whirlwind of expected parties and pub crawls, less emphasis is placed on experiences of student isolation — a feeling which many students, adjusted to recent social ‘highs’ from post-HSC holidays and high school networks, have likely not felt for several years.
Pei Wen Tan argues against campus loneliness:
Loneliness sucks. A 2015 VicHealth survey found one in eight young people experience a high intensity of loneliness — an emotional response to social needs which are not met — with correlated impacts on mental and physical wellbeing.
The stories behind these statistics aren’t hard to find. Clique-y societies littered with so-called BNOCs (‘big names on campus’), and pre-formed social circles dating back to high school can be polarising for those outside of established private school and selective school groups. A limited culture of making new friends runs through USyd’s tutorials where making acquaintances is the norm but true friendships remain hard to find. The combination of commute times and new working pressures blend into a potent cocktail which primes students for social burnout and disillusionment after the initial weeks of semester.
According to a 2017 study, students generally believed peers were more socially connected, leading to a lowered sense of well-being and belonging, and difficulties recognising others were in the same, isolated position. “No one wants to seem desperate for friends,” says third year Commerce student May*, “You have to be vulnerable to put yourself out there.”
Even when students attempt to join social circles, the university’s fast-paced teaching schedule complicates the formation of meaningful, long-lasting connections. Even after making acquaintances, it’s possible to feel isolated.
“There’s so much pressure to not seem like a loner that most friendships you form feel superficial,” May* tells me.
When expectations of an easy social transition into university clash with an unfamiliar and isolating reality at such a critical juncture of life, it is inevitable that consequences ranging from an increased likelihood of depression to social anxiety follow.
Vivienne Davies argues for campus loneliness:
Solitude — the comfortable, self-satisfied state of appreciating the merits of alone time — is frequently stigmatized as shameful or unsettling, but experiencing isolation can actually benefit personal growth.
The struggle to forge meaningful connections at university can be an instructive ethos, capable of breeding both contentment in pre-existing relationships, and understanding of qualities valued in friendships. “I’m more content by and with myself,” Liang* says. “I’m more appreciative of what [friendships] I had versus what I wanted.”
Reflecting on social solitude, students found it engendered deeper self-growth. “It helps you mature,” Liang* told me, admitting, “I don’t think I’ve felt lonely beyond what is normally just part of life.”
Accepting solitude at university is crucial preparation for later life, where it becomes inevitable. Solitude forces you to confront the most important relationship in life — that with oneself. A sociological study conducted by the California State Polytechnic University showed that individuals who removed themselves from their social context were better equipped to reflect on the impact of that context. This allowed students to recognise why they were feeling lonely —whether due to expectations of prolific socialization at university, or because one is used to a stable network — and adjust accordingly.
If university is a microcosm for society at large, solitude teaches us to stumble through bouts of isolation in order to mature. Disappointing social experiences are a fact of life. That’s not to say we should give up meaningful connections altogether, or dismiss prolonged or depressive bouts of loneliness. Rather, we should understand that contentment comes with being alone and being realistic with social expectations are the first steps away from loneliness and towards embracing solitude. You are not alone in feeling lonely – but finding company in yourself might be the best remedy yet.
*Names have been anonymised