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The Loneliness of First Year College Students


In Sunday's New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni alerts readers to a plight of many first (and I would add 2nd and 3rd and 4th) year college students: loneliness. I'd also include graduate students and some adults in this same grouping.

Bruni makes a point that is often ignored: adjustment to college is not all that easy for students: they are away from home and away from the familiar. While opportunity abounds, that does not mean students (whatever their stage or age) are completely comfortable and at ease in their new surroundings.

And for those of who have graduated from college decades ago and seemingly only remember the "good times," it would be wise to pause and reflect just for a moment on the actual felt experience of being away from home and/or with new people and wondering whether one was truly "up to the task" and "competent" and whether one would "fit in." Think about one's first social experience, one's first broken heart, one's first low grade.

I want to take a moment here to expand on Bruni's point. For many students — first generation students, low-income students, minority students and students with high ACEs — the emotional challenges Bruni describes are even more challenging. They often experience a different and added kind of loneliness —  they have no one at home with whom to share their experiences who can say "been there; done that." They have parents and friends for whom the college experience is new, and the student's adjustment is uncharted water for their family and friends. And for some students, family and friends are overtly or quietly suggesting that college and going away are not the be-all-end all; perhaps they are not even the desired or needed ends. Home, tradition, are good enough.

Think about that. There is personal loneliness as Bruni describes. And then there is added loneliness that comes from "breaking away" from the traditions and experiences of one's family. That is not easy because there is no reciprocity; the student who is breaking away oft-times has no one from the past with whom to share their new experience and no one in the new environment with whom to share either. In short, they have loneliness on steroids. And, Bruni is right: it is hard to be lonely. Painful and wrenching actually. And, that is why some students, if we are honest about it, leave college. They need to return to what feels comfortable; they want to return to people with whom they are comfortable.

Change is hard. New settings are hard. But, what is really hard is loss: leaving behind one's parents and friends for a new place that is unfamiliar — even if better. I wrote recently in a piece in the Aspen Journal of Ideas that the hard part about change is not the newness or the innovations or even the desire for something different and better. It is loss, giving up what one has, even if it is sub-optimal.

For the reasons described in Bruni's piece, educational institutions need to step up how they respond to loneliness. Yes, you can redesign dorms. Yes, you can have active orientation with activities to draw students from their rooms into shared space and shared activities. Yes, you can monitor students so they do not isolate themselves in their rooms texting and facebooking friends from home.

But, I think we can and should do more, all embedded in the concept of lasticity and described in Breakaway Learners (now available in e-book on Amazon and at TCPress).

We need to enable, encourage and effectuate reciprocity. This is not just orientation activities; this is not just revamped space. This is active engagement between a student and an institutional representative who is an adult, who understands the student and the student's background and experience, who can share and comfort and just be a knowing presence.

In other words, we need adults within institutions to engage with new (and existing) students to show that that they care, that they understand, that they, too, have been there and done that. Students need to hear this from adults: I get it; I know what you are feeling; I will not pooh-pooh it as trivial or as immature. These new students need adults who aren't afraid to coddle and don't view the pain of breaking away as being a symbol of a snowflake. Hardly.

So, I'd take Bruni's thoughtful and persuasive op-ed and put it on steroids and encourage those within institutions to step up and be reciprocal. That is different from building buildings and programs. It is building relationships that matter.

As we approach Labor Day, that day is often seen as honoring those who work. It is also a time of major store discounting as if, somehow, Labor Day is a time to spend hard earned cash from one's labor. Labor, as a word, does not just mean work, although it can mean that. It can also mean hard struggles — as in I am laboring to do this project. It is also a word used to describe the birthing process, where a prospective mother is in labor and believe me, that is hard work (for most of us).

As we reflect on all college students this Labor Day, then, let's reflect on the meaning of the word "labor" in its broadest sense: hard work, struggling, and birthing something new. Students from all walks of life with all sorts of baggage (large and small) are experiencing a new phase in their lives — and part of that experience is overcoming and coming to terms with loneliness.

On this Labor Day, let's not labor under the delusion that the start of college is all fun and games and opportunity for the best experience of one's hopefully long and productive life. Instead, let's recognize the labor it takes to experience and come to terms with oneself, defined as loneliness challenges on the pathway forward.

Note: A special thank-you to MW who understands that even when we are away from home on vacation, my need to write is not diminished and that for me, writing is what keeps away loneliness and enables engagement. He gets it and he gets me. You can't ask for more than that.


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