Joshua Wang / The Highlander

“College is the best four years of your life” is a sentiment echoed by the media, friends and family alike, idealizing youth and concomitantly distorting our lifespan perception. Years of media consumption, including every teen TV show and big-budget Hollywood movie enshrining college as an indispensable rite of passage from childhood into the possibilities of the world, convinced me that college was a capsule for hope and freedom. 

Buzzing with excitement, I scoured every form of media —  books, magazines and vlogs. The message was clear: I’m supposed to find my lifelong friends, go to raging frat parties, spend endless nights up talking with people, maybe even random strangers lounging in the common room and take part in the ongoing liveliness of on-campus activities and event extravaganzas. 

Contrary to this built-up nostalgia, most nights I find myself alone in my room, scrolling through social media or mustering the mental energy to read a digital book. Eyes sore from the blue light and my academic stamina exhausted, I’m in much need of a social outlet. I feel the lulling press of boredom, not because I don’t have enough things to do but because I cannot find the motivation to do them. The flexibility of college schedules delivers an unprecedented amount of unstructured time, a stark contrast to the rigid framework of high school. What should be liberating instead acts as a hindrance. When I spend the weekends here, I scramble to fill them up.

Contrary to the simplicity of my high school friends formed by seating arrangement and class schedule, the shift to online instruction means missing out on most of the classroom interaction — the small conversations before the teacher begins the lesson, sidelong glances to communicate nonverbally and little morsels of social interaction that ultimately cultivated friendships. I was unprepared for the shock of how difficult it is to adjust to a brand new environment and make friends from scratch. Living off campus instituted another barrier, as I noticed that the dorms acted like bubbles for friendships with the people in your hall suddenly becoming your best mates. The limited in-person interaction both suffocated me like a lingering cloud of melancholy, but I could also acutely feel its absence.

Frantic and desperate, I threw myself into leadership organizations, operating like a mindless drone to join any club remotely interesting, and contacted local community service organizations. But with the COVID restrictions, many clubs were on hold with no active events or meetings, with some trying to keep afloat through frigid Zoom calls where no one turns their camera on. Everyone tells you to join a club, but the issue is not a dearth of people —  it’s the rare occasions that I find people I click with.

With so few options to see people on a consistent basis, going online is inevitable and a double-edged sword. While the stories scattered across the digital world are great for connecting people with similar experiences, being active on social media simultaneously exacerbates feelings of loneliness. Scrolling through my feed to see the highlights of someone else’s college experience amplified my solitude and heightened my dejection. 

I’m still navigating my new life as a college student, so it would be lofty to claim that I have the answers to finding lasting friendships. Some advice that I found helpful: those high school or hometown friends that you yearn for — don’t expect to replicate those relationships. Even though I reminisce on and greatly miss my close-knit female friendships, most of the time I look back with rose-tinted glasses because I miss the end result of having close confidantes but forget about the years spent together to cultivate those relationships. Be patient; good and genuine friendships take time.

With the record surge of COVID cases through the highly contagious and mutated omicron variant, safety procedures are essential post-holiday season, meaning that connecting in real life is not always a tangible action. To try to retain some humanity, reach out to online classmates, you already have at least one thing in common.

It’s important to know that your feelings are a collective experience, and remember that those wistfully nostalgic accounts of college are more likely a garnished reality. I’m still learning to be comfortable in my solitude and open about my experiences to combat the stigma of loneliness and promote its acceptance as just another human condition. The paradox of loneliness being a universal experience highlights the depths of human connection inherent in all of us.