affect · being undone · loneliness · teaching

On being lonely in university

A Huffington Post article made its way into my Facebook feed, last week, describing how “Almost 70% of University Students Admit to Feeling Lonely.” I clicked it because I remember the absolutely crippling loneliness of much of my undergraduate years. The post led to original news story on the topic at CBC, that details the study more closely, and outlines what staff at the University of Winnipeg are doing to support students. It links as well to a Washington Post article describing the terrible health effects of loneliness–“molecular level” physiological effects comparable to diabetes! smoking! obesity!

So go make some friends! suggests the article. In fact, there’s a different HuffPo story on “How to Cope with Loneliness at University“–spoiler alert, you cope with loneliness by making friends! The CBC story is a little more nuanced, giving space to several employees from a campus wellness program at the University of Winnipeg describing counselling and support interventions offered to students. Still, students have to seek these out.

If you’ve ever been really lonely–not solitary, not introverted, but lonely–you will know at least one thing: it’s such a terrible feeling that no one resides in it willingly, and if you knew how to be less lonely, you would do it. . People risk loneliness by coming to university, full of people, but people who are already established in campus networks, or everyone else uprooted from their home contexts and starting from nothing. If you don’t live in residence, or socialize easily while wearing multiple sets of beads and a ridiculous hat, while shouting university fight songs, it can be hard to make connections. Doubly hard if you commute from away, or if you have family obligations, or are an international student, an older student. If you are a graduate student, for whom not even these forced social encounters are organized.

I don’t know how fair it is to ask the lonely to just “make some friends!” or even necessarily to reach out for formal help.

What if we asked the non-lonely to do something instead? How might those among us blessed with social connections and a feeling of community help incorporate lonely undergrads, lonely graduate students, lonely professors?

What can we do in our classrooms, our department get-togethers and meetings, our course materials and assignments, to help ease this heavy burden of isolation?

One thing I’m still trying to do is to move beyond my own comfort zone–so hard won!–and interact with new people at events. I have been running formal and informal writing groups that make space for simple chat, and for being alone together in a common cause. In my classes, I will continue to find new ways to structure activities so that students have opportunities to meaningfully interact with one another–one of the simplest tricks being that each group has to nominate someone to introduce all the members to the class, or making space for students to have negative feelings, or having all the students send me an email introducing themselves and their interests, and I respond to it in kind.

Loneliness in higher education is real. I have at various times and stages suffered terribly from it myself, and felt completely powerless to change my situation. I think now that I’m more secure and supported, it’s time for me to be part of the solution. You? Have you suffered academic or other loneliness? How do you reach out to others?

One thought on “On being lonely in university

  1. Oh gosh I feel this one. I'm teaching at my fifth new university campus this fall and feeling grateful for the hard-won social connections that I have in the city I live (an hour from my work). When I feel lonely — which happens a LOT in my academic life (solitary work, lack of time to connect, lack of staying in one place or department to build long local connections) I use social media to connect with friends. Actually, more than even social media I am a BIG fan of the text message. When I feel lonely I send texts telling friends and loved ones how wonderful they are. Or I ask for help (lucky, I know, that I feel I can ask for support). I am also a huge fan of asking new acquaintances to go out for coffee.

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