The Hypocritical College Experience: My Lonely Years?
And what it taught me about myself.
Scrolling through pictures of my friends living their best lives in college, I had always assumed that these four years would be the best years of my life. My parents had made their lifelong friends here. My friends’ parents had met here. Yet, once the unpacking was done and I was left alone in my dorm room, all I could think was “what now?”
Making friends is hard. Making friends when we already have hundreds of “friends” on social media that we constantly share everything with is harder. I had always enjoyed spending time by myself, but the pressure to “live it up” at college pushed me into an abyss where I longed for real connection but felt like there was nobody left for me.
College is such a short period in our lives, and there’s pressure to make as many memories or lifelong friends as we can while we’re in that microcosm. Making friends as an adult is hard, and I felt this sense of urgency to get out there and meet people — to skip all the superficial conversations and get to the deep talk that I so deeply cherished — because I wouldn’t get this chance again.
These years really do pass by so fast; it can all go by in a blur if I didn’t process what happened during the day or past week. Constantly being surrounded by people means you don’t get a chance to learn about what you are made of unless you make the time for it. It was easy to get carried away in relationships and the lives of the people around me, but, at the end of the day, I only got one college experience.
Here’s why I spent a lot more time than I expected in college alone (but not lonely) and what I learned from these moments of solitude.
A disconnect even when surrounded by people
There’s a certain kind of emptiness that you feel when you feel lonely even when surrounded by people. BBC conducted a Loneliness Experiment in 2018 where they found that although most young adults were surrounded by people, they felt lonely because they didn’t have the deeper connections and relationships that they craved.
It’s in those small moments — like when I walked into a party and saw a couple of acquaintances that I could chat up but not the close friends that can lighten up any experience. In college, we are surrounded by thousands of peers that are our age and likely have similar experiences and interests that we could bond over, but the sheer amount of people made it hard to find the people that I could connect with on a deeper level.
Much like how decision fatigue kicks in when shopping for clothes, I felt overwhelmed when I interacted with so many people but didn’t know who my college friend group would be (which is already a fallacy in and of itself because you’re hardly ever restricted to one friend group). I beat myself up for not fitting in before I realized that loneliness is different from being alone. I felt lonely in some moments, but the simple human interactions that had interspersed between my classes, clubs, and adulting 101 made life a bit more meaningful.
Superficial conversations are easier and quicker
When I first met someone, it was very unlikely that the other person or I opened up about regrets, desires, or dreams. Conversations like that make us vulnerable, and we only feel comfortable speaking about these topics with people we trust.
Unless you’ve bonded with your barista at the coffee shop nearby or the acquaintances you chat up while waiting for class to begin, it’s unlikely that you know them enough to trust them. More likely than not, it’s a “the weather is nice outside” or a “dude, I’m so stressed” type conversation. There is, of course, nothing wrong with connecting to people on that level. However, these conversation topics fall under what is known as superficial conversation because they do not affect the parties involved.
These are the conversation topics that come to mind because they’re easy and we’ve been using them for decades. Seeing people for short spurts of time, such as when I was waiting for your professor to arrive, making it difficult to bridge the gap from superficial to deep conversations. Not every relationship needs to be deep, but I derived emotional fulfillment when I had people in my life that I trusted with the most vulnerable aspects of myself. When we do not have this emotional fulfillment, we feel as though we don’t have people to turn to when life gets tough.
In college, we are given the choice: to either stick to the same old routine that has (or hasn’t) worked for you, or to embrace the possibilities of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. What will you choose?
Everyone has different schedules
This was one of the biggest adjustments I had to make when I came to university. The beauty of college is that you have the chance to meet people with such different experiences, passions, talents, and interests as you. It’s a chance to learn and walk a life in somebody else’s shoes.
Gone are the days when you take the same English, math, science, and history classes as the rest of your peers. I got to take courses that interested me, attend campus events that I’ve never experienced before (acapella concerts anyone?), and make memories that will last a lifetime.
However, this also meant that my friends had places to be and things to do. It was difficult at times to make plans when my friends had different interests or were in different organizations than you. This meant that I occasionally had to eat dinner alone in the dining halls or make conversation with strangers I barely know, moments I grew to enjoy after I got comfortable with being uncomfortable. I grew to embrace these chances because it prevented me from getting complacent in my relationships. I felt rejuvenated and ready to see my people when the time did come around, and it made us much more intentional about the quality time we shared.
Friendships of convenience
I struggled with friendships of convenience for my entire freshman year. There were friends that I felt like I felt as though I had bonded with, only to rarely see them the next semester because we didn’t have classes together.
It is easy to make conversation with people we see repeatedly, whether at work or our weekly F45 workout. The struggle comes with reaching out when people aren’t in our day-to-day routine anymore. In college, there are a lot of friendships that are made out of convenience, but I had been intentional with the relationships I wanted to nourish and maintain.
A lot of our lives are driven by habit and convenience. We talk to the same people over and over again, work out to the same playlist because we know it will hype us up, use the same hygiene routine every, so on and so forth. It makes our life easy and frees up space to focus our energy and thoughts where we want to.
But once that habit is broken, we are given a choice to either fill the void with the same chatter or to take the time to truly process whether this is something we want. Meeting new people isn’t bad. Spending time alone isn’t bad. It’s when we get complacent that we can sometimes struggle to make meaning with our lives.
What I Learned About Myself
People will come and go as their chapters in your book end. It’s important to remember that not everybody is meant to stay in your life forever. But those relationships that do stay will be there because you put in the effort to spend quality time with those people. The best advice that I got in college was that the friends I made in the first month of school might not stay my close group of friends as we progressed through university.
This is such a pivotal time in our lives as we transition into the foreign concept known as adulting and learning more about ourselves. There are natural reasons why people might drift, and it is not entirely your fault if a relationship doesn’t turn out the way you might have expected.
With that said, however, I got to meet so many people that became my closest confidants and trustworthy friends that I’ve been lucky to make so many friends with. It took me some time to find my tribe, but I haven’t looked back since. Even if you’re not after a tight-knit friend group, there are people you will meet in college, whether as a passing hello or a three-hour conversation with a stranger, that will have an impact on you though they’re not as close to you. I’ve learned to adjust my rigid definitions of what “important people” in my life meant because that’s the beauty of human connection: it takes so many different forms that it sometimes doesn’t need a label.
College will be exhausting and lonely at times, but the experiences taught me about myself and how to make long-lasting relationships. I’ve grown to embrace those rare moments of silence where I can be alone with my thoughts, to reflect on the hustle and craziness of college and all the new memories that I made.
Learning to be alone to process can also mean going to places or doing things by yourself. I’ve noticed that not being bound by other people’s schedules and interests has freed me to explore cities based on what I personally would want to see, and it’s given me the time and space to appreciate the nature of what’s around me without getting lost in inside jokes and conversation with others.
This is your chance to learn about yourself before being thrust into the real world and wherever else light might take you. It might take a paradigm shift to let go of the societal expectations of wild nights and forever friends. At the end of the day, it comes down to intentionality and what you want to nourish in your life.
Relationships in college are a choice you actively have to make. To send that text, ask that acquaintance out for lunch, talk to the stranger who is waiting for the same class as you — you are given opportunities to nurture your growth and the friendships in your life. It is now up for you to take those chances and see where it leads you.