University is supposedly the best time of our lives. There are a vast number of new people to meet, a wide range of new experiences and a chance – in many cases – for a first shot at independence from familial molly coddling. From the chaos of our first arrival on campus, to the ‘shock-and-awe’ approach of the ‘Freshers’ Address’ and the manic revelry of Week One, it is made utterly clear that university life is not merely career enhancement, but a life experience – and one not to be missed at that. But what if it turns into an experience we’d rather forget? Far from bathing in the Ocean, what of the students who spend their Friday nights marooned on dry land?
November, the second full month of university for freshers, is a pretty important time. We’ve been around long enough to realise that our courses involve far less teaching than we might have expected, to speak authoritatively about which obscure bar is the best in the city (despite only visiting it once) and to start thinking about who we’re going to live with next year. It’s also around the time where some start to ask why, in this much-lauded social Mecca, they’re starting to feel utterly alone in a massive crowd of people.
The bottom line, according to Loughborough University Counselling Services, is simple. “Loneliness is a chronic problem for 17% of students in Higher Education”, they say, meaning, “In a university of 10,000 students, 1700 of them may well be suffering long-lasting feelings of loneliness”. The University of Nottingham Students’ Union represents over 35,000 students, so the arithmetic isn’t too difficult to do. Equally, the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported in 2003 that “As many as 60% of first-year students report homesickness”. This is potentially a vast swathe of individuals, a hidden ‘clique’ of anonymous members, all of whom needlessly suffering in isolation.
The reasons for loneliness on campus are varied, but not entirely surprising. For many, attending university is their first time living away from home for a significant period, something to which every individual reacts differently. Equally, while the immediate creation of cliques is an obvious result of so many people suddenly living together, they can present a seemingly impenetrable front to outsiders. Many of us must go from being a big fish in a small pond to being a tiny fish in a giant sea – and, to overextend the nautical metaphor, a small fish is slightly lost without a shoal.
Equally, despite its great reputation, Week One is capable of being an incredibly discomfiting experience – never before, and arguably never again, are students ever subjected to such a cacophony of falsehood and effrontery (unless they are planning to enter politics, perhaps). For every story of a student who met their lifetime best friends in the first week of their university careers, there is a student who – while probably enjoying the week – is a little more circumspect about their experience. Considering the magnitude of expectations of university life, it’s hardly surprising that many students come away from their first few weeks of university feeling disappointed and disaffected – in the end, meeting the right people in the first few weeks of university can be entirely a matter of luck.
In the face of the unavoidably intimidating atmosphere of university, immediately forming friendship groups is the obvious thing to do. The problem, of course, is that while this ‘system’ favours the instantly confident and outgoing individual, it is not too difficult to find yourself totally alienated if you are not a member of this group.
University is also a place for some very serious soul-searching. As one student put it, “It’s the discovery that for everything you thought you were really good at, there is somebody who is better than you at it.” It is not uncommon for students to find detailed career plans failing to survive their first week of university, and the lack of a guiding motivation can take many off the rails.
As members of what can legitimately be called the ‘Facebook Generation’, university students of today are also facing an expanded definition of friendship – while some can boast friend lists of gargantuan proportions, studies suggest that no matter how sociable we are, our brains are only equipped to handle – at most – 150 friends.
Being alone does not constitute loneliness. Being alone can be a very good thing – it’s important for people to make time for themselves, whether it is to rest, recuperate or reflect. The peril of loneliness, however, is that while students may realise that they are suffering from it, they will not attempt to rectify the problem. The assumption may be that if somebody admits to loneliness upon arriving at university, they must therefore have something wrong with them, or have ‘failed’ in some way. Equally, the anxiety of whether to share concerns could compound the problem, leading to a downward spiral. If a student blames themselves for their loneliness, this can lead to a development of a dangerous self-consciousness that hampers any efforts to solve the problem.
The Students’ Union’s Equal Opportunities and Welfare Officer, Katie Mackay, notes that some students eventually reach the point where they do not even leave their rooms for lectures, and is working in collaboration with the university’s mental health advisor on an ‘avoidance campaign’, in the hope of convincing people to confront mental health issues. “The difficulty is finding people who just don’t leave their rooms.”, she said, “The avoidance campaign is to try and find those people who aren’t coming out – the idea is to go to them. It’s a publicity campaign which should be happening sometime this semester.”
Especially for arts students, a lack of contact with their home department can cause or exacerbate any problems they may be having with settling in – a mentality noted in a 1972 study of alienation amongst American college students, but which would surely find resonance among students of a university as large as ours: “Sometimes I think a student could drop dead or out and nobody would know or care.” I myself have met my personal tutor once, when I was considering changing to another course – it’s more my fault than his, but when I have a total of seven contact hours in a week, it is perhaps understandable that I – and many students like myself – could suffer a ‘disconnect’ from my department and any pastoral support it might offer.
This line of pastoral support is murky at best, and is a vital area to improve if the Students’ Union is serious about improving students’ access to welfare support. Faculty Coordinators, School Reps, Course Reps, JCRs, hall staff, feedback committees between students and staff and other such individuals and groups all combine to reinforce the idea of a university and a union that are far bigger than the individual – they create an unforgiving void in which it is easy for an individual to retreat into themselves and become totally alienated. Events like the Freshers’ Address fulfil a similar purpose – creating the impression of a massive and inaccessible Union.
The pastoral problem is made worse if, put bluntly, you’re white, British, able-bodied and straight. While various incredibly useful networks exist to support various different groups (such as postgraduate, black and minority ethnic, LGBT, etc), these do not cover a significant proportion of the university population – while nobody would ever seriously suggest the creation of a ‘white’ officer, it is undoubtedly the case that there is a disparity in the level of support offered by networks within the Union.
There are organisations that can provide support to all students – they key is people deciding to seek help. Nightline, for example (which can be found on 0115 951 4985), is a confidential and student run service which students can phone and simply talk to somebody without the fear of being lectured at, while the university also offers a counselling service.
Equally, the Students’ Union must ensure that, for all of the bombast of Week One and the subsequent few weeks, students know that their union is much smaller than it might appear. While there are a vast number of societies, Student-Run-Services and networks to join, all this does is make it much easier for everyone to find their place – they’re an excuse to get out of accommodation and do something interesting and worthwhile.
Self-help, then, is a key facet of coping with loneliness – as anybody who has suffered from loneliness can testify, while there are groups which can provide a friendly voice to speak to, they cannot find friends for you. There is a website which claims to be able to: Rentafriend.com, a website which has recently seen some increased news coverage, does offer friendship for $10 per hour – and there are some ‘friends’ available for hire in Nottingham – but this is hardly a solution.
As John C. Parkin points out in his self-help book ‘Fuck It’, “We are defined by the level of self-approval that we have…but anything that smacks of anything but approval throws you off. If it really matters to you that other people approve of you, you will inevitably come up against one hell of a bummer fact: you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Most people are “fucked up”, he says, “but their fuck-ups are completely different.” The solution to the problem, he says? Fuck it. Get out of that bedroom and take every opportunity – within reason – that presents itself. Risk taking the initiative, and at least you’ve tried.
University is not initially everyone’s cup of tea – it’s impossible for it to be. There’s nothing at all to say that university must be the same for all us, and the challenge isn’t so much to conform, but to discover our source of self-worth – to work out for ourselves that, yes, the space we are occupying counts for something. At the very least it can be reassuring to know that one of the most notable things about loneliness at university is, oddly enough, that those suffering are most certainly not alone.