“Hey! Haven’t seen in forever!”
“I know! Good to see you! How’ve you been?”
“Good! Really stressed, but good! You?”
“Alright. We should get a meal. Do you have time this week?”
“Um, no, I’m super swamped with midterms and a lecture event I’m organizing. Maybe like, in two weeks, well, that’s the week of the lecture, haha, maybe like three weeks from now? I’m so sorry, I’m the worst.”
“No! You are so busy and doing really important things like that lecture. Is there a Facebook event for it?”
“Not yet, on my to do list that I never finish! But there will be one soon.”
“Cool, I’ll be on the lookout for it. Well, good luck with everything.”
“Thanks, yeah, you, too. Bye!”
Sound familiar? You hear it every day.
There’s a roar of conversation in every dining hall and a chorus of whispers even in the silent sections of the library, linking us on the surface but failing to connect us in authentic and meaningful ways. Living in close quarters with hundreds. Sitting next to people in classes, in the library, at the dining hall, on the spin bike. More connected than ever– Snapchat, Instagram, Outlook email, Find My Friends, Facebook.
And yet, the irony is that amidst all of this activity, there is a loneliness epidemic on college campuses.
Students crave close, dependable friendships, but despite the constant contact with others, both digitally and in-person, they are not finding them.
Real friendships take time and energy, two resources that are hard to spare when you’re completing assignments for four or five classes, working a part time job, making summer plans, keeping up with sports and extracurriculars, and trying to take care of yourself all at the same time.
Small exchanges are cornered into the time it takes to pass someone between classes, while standing in the cafeteria line, or in the few moments before a professor begins class. A twenty-minute lunch in a crowded cafeteria does not feel like the right time to broach a serious topic, but sometimes that’s the only free time to do so.
But it’s not just time that keeps us from truly connecting. Meaningful conversations require a level of vulnerability and a willingness to talk about uncomfortable topics, like feeling alone. It’s hard to talk about loneliness when you’re surrounded by people and resources and it seems like you shouldn’t feel lonely. But when nobody talks about it, people often think that they’re going through it alone.
They are not. 62.8% of college students report feeling lonely within the last 12 months, and 27.1% reported loneliness in the past two weeks (American College Health Association– National College Health Assessment Spring 2018 Reference). Students, administrators, faculty, and staff at colleges and universities struggle to bridge this loneliness gap despite the wealth of potential allies and tools available.
Leaning into vulnerability could be a step in the right direction. Being vulnerable when one is not used to it is like walking barefoot after a long winter: the thawing ground may still sting and the sensitive soft skin feels the sharp edges of a small stone in a gravel drive or the quick tickle of a young blade of grass. As one continues to accept vulnerability, the skin toughens just as it did when you went barefoot all summer.
Perhaps even more important, one’s willingness to be open creates space for others to be vulnerable and that’s when real connections can take root. Perhaps a cultural shift driven by vulnerability could build bridges to connect students’ islands of loneliness and to do so, we must be intentional.
Putting vulnerability into action means breaking through simple small talk and digging deeper. Asking someone how their weekend was can feel like an easy way to be nice and courteous, but if that is where the conversation ends, no meaningful connection is being made. Authentic conversations requires that one enter the conversation with an “open up, follow up” approach. Even in small moments after class or in the lunch line you can start a conversation to get to know someone on a deeper level.
The student takes responsibility to share while also taking responsibility to circle back with their friend about one of their interests, difficulties, or feelings. This may mean following-up on something they’ve said in the past, or asking deeper questions about how school is going, how their family is doing, or about a detail like a book you noticed they were reading. Breaking out of “did you have a good weekend?” is a good first step on the path of establishing a deeper connection with someone.
While your phone may be frequently buzzing with texts, snaps, DMs, and other conversations, it is okay to let those notifications go unread for a little while to prioritize face-to-face interactions. Social media can be a great place to start conversations to be continued face-to-face. Moving away from screens and back to fully engaged real conversation can make you feel more heard and more valued and deepen the quality of the conversation. Keep in mind that unlike on social media, there is no character limit to expressing yourself through speech.
Like any new activity, giving thought and care to each interaction you have is taxing at first. Start slow. Commit to finding a meaningful connection with one person. While you may always hear a buzz of empty conversations in the dining hall, creating your meaningful connections will help to dull the noise and keep loneliness at bay.
Rory Kelly and Jennifer Melcher are recent graduates of Middlebury College and current employees of Christie Campus Health.