Get stories and expert advice on all things related to college and parenting.
The Science of HappinessMJ O'Leary
Jamie was 20 years old when, after two years of living at home and attending community college, she moved on campus at Texas State University. She looked forward to the academic opportunity, as well as the social scene and the many new friends she hoped to make living in an apartment complex.
But then the loneliness set in.
“I had a roommate but she was invisible — she literally stayed in her room all the time,” Jamie said. “I was surrounded by people on campus but the reality was I didn’t know anyone and felt really, really alone. I thought it would be so easy to meet people in my classes but everyone kept to themselves. It was totally different than I thought it would be.”
Three years ago, Cornell University student Emery Bergman posted a video talking about how lonely she felt and how difficult it was to find friends on campus. The video went viral, and students everywhere piped up about the epidemic of feeling lonely during a time when everyone thinks they should be meeting tons of new people and having the time of their life.
Adjustments to college can be tough for various reasons. Kids have left a familiar environment, a close-knit group of friends that grew up together, and comfortable living arrangements. Students who were once academic or athletic superstars can feel like a small fish in a big pond, and the feeling of “starting over” can be downright overwhelming.
In a study conducted by the American College Health Association, 64 percent of students surveyed said they experienced feelings of loneliness within the last 12 months. Twenty-nine percent stated they felt very lonely within the last two weeks.
In the fall of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness is an even bigger challenge than ever before.
What can college students do to feel LESS lonely and MORE connected? For starters, they can take these six steps.
If your student is feeling lonely, encourage them to spend less time online viewing social media accounts where everyone they know appears to be having fun and posting pictures with big groups of people (one possible silver lining of the pandemic is that there are fewer of these photos!).
Turning off the computer or phone and venturing out in the common areas of the residence hall or apartment building is the first step in meeting new friends. A note for fall 2020: Whether your student is living on or off campus, they need to follow the rules about socializing during COVID-19. This may mean wearing masks, limiting the sizes of groups and maintaining social distance. People can still have conversations and make friends!
“Find people that care about you and that you care about,” said Jamie. It will take effort to connect with new people, so attend the residence hall mixers and social event nights (even if in 2020 these events are virtual).
Your student may not always feel like putting themselves in situations where they can meet new people — your encouragement might be just the nudge they need.
The great thing about colleges and universities is that there is something for everyone. Encourage your student to immediately join a group, club or organization so they can meet people with similar interests. They don’t have to wait for the start of a new semester.
Make sure your student knows the importance of reaching out to friends and family when they feel lonely. “I was horrible about telling my parents or friends how I was feeling because I didn’t want to burden them,” said Jamie. “Don’t try to handle it alone.” Simply telling someone you're having a bad day and talking about it can help you get through it.
If your kid was on the track team, suggest they go running. If they enjoyed art, set them up with supplies so they can paint or create something. If your student misses their pets, encourage them to volunteer to walk dogs at a local shelter.
Finding an enjoyable activity to occupy their mind and body can help get your student through a rough time. For Jamie, it was cleaning her apartment. “I love order and cleanliness so I spent a lot of time doing that when I felt lonely,” she said. “When the apartment was clean, I always felt better.”
If your child is still struggling, insist they seek counseling at the campus counseling center or make an appointment with an individual therapist. You can search by zip code to find a counselor who specializes in working with college-aged students at www.psychologytoday.com.
Telehealth is another popular option, especially during the pandemic. The health and counseling page on the college website may link to resources, and online resources like U Are Heard are available to consult with students and parents about whether this type of service might be a good fit.
Reassure them that it’s perfectly okay to feel lonely every now and then, but if it’s a constant pattern, then it needs to be addressed.
As for Jamie? She advises students that things will get better — including loneliness. “Don’t forget to take care of yourself,” she said. “You are balancing a job, homework, life and school, and it is difficult. Give yourself a break, but also, take charge of yourself. Even when you’re not motivated to go out and meet people, make yourself do it. You’ll feel better.”