Monday 1 July 2024

Loneliness at University and the Importance of Self-Reliance

Millie shares her experiences of loneliness during her time at university, and the way she tried to combat this horrible feeling – learning to love her own company.

- Millie

During the summer, before I started university, I binge-watched Normal People. I was in awe of how Marianne blossomed from a wallflower to a rose when she arrived at university. My mind was fixed on the scene where Connell sees Marianne at a party; poise and coolness exude from her being as she takes a long draw on her cigarette surrounded by friends. My experience was going to be like hers. I envisioned talking with a group of friends into the early hours about anything from literature, music or the meaning of life. We lived together of course. Our student-terraced house would be slightly run down but in a charmingly cosy way. The smell of chilli simmering away on the hob would fill the kitchen. I’d fill up wine glasses as another friend filled everyone’s bowls with the chilli. They’d be my people. Just like I had been told most of my teenage years, don’t worry, university is where you find your friends for life.   

From the window of my first year’s flat kitchen, I watched my mum’s car turn from visibility. The summer had quickly come to an end, and now I was taking the plastic packaging off saucepans and shoving them into cupboards. I spent the evening making small talk over a game of cards with my flatmates in the stuffy kitchen. We attempted to find common ground, but it was quickly established that that was going to be a difficult task. After the evening was over, and I had shut my bedroom door behind me this unsettling feeling of loneliness latched itself around my lungs.  

After freshers week was over, I sat on my floor and googled how to make friends at university – the advice was certainly unhelpful, noting that freshers week is the perfect way to make friends for life. I’m not the biggest fan of clubbing, so I spent most of the week finding ways to fill my days before classes began. As I sat on this hideously striped navy blue, brown and cream carpet, my mind couldn’t stop thinking about Connell and how different his university experience was from Marianne’s. His was isolating, lonely. I shook off this feeling and imagined my third-year self, living in that terraced house.  

Fast forward to the present day. As I sit down to write this blog post, I am one month and six days away from my graduation ceremony. My Instagram feed is currently bursting with people’s top moments of their time at university. Each photo captures smiling groups of friends going to house parties, BBQs, picnics and cooking meals together. Comments underneath the photos follow a similar pattern of, we really did have the best time, I’m going to miss it so much – I just can’t relate. An unsettling feeling of failure and inadequacy has been murmuring away in the back of my mind, why don’t I have a multitude of group photos to post to my feed?   

To be completely honest, since sitting on that hideous first-year carpet, that feeling of loneliness has neatly stayed by my side. Maybe with a hint of naivety, I entered that first-year flat not realising how isolating an experience the student one can be. Despite managing to make some lovely friends at university, I just couldn’t successfully shake that feeling.  

As my degree had very few contact hours, often with only a couple of things a week, the majority of my experience was spent in my own company. To stop myself from falling into a depressive hole, I reminded myself to reach out to those I was friends with. However, there were lots of times that they were simply unavailable. During my first year, if this was the case, then I’d simply sit inside my tiny bedroom all day and wait until I could go to bed. Because of my social anxiety, I believed if I did something on my own such as study in the library or go on a walk, people would perceive me as a loner. However, during my second year, I began to set myself small challenges of getting a takeaway coffee alone or going on a long walk around campus. I’d be lying if I said that this shooed away the feeling of loneliness, but it did teach me that I could find joy in my own company.   

I never did get to live in that terraced house, eating bowlfuls of chilli with a strong group of friends. However, I did develop a strong sense of self-reliance. During my final year, I’d happily study alone in coffee shops and frequent the campus library. My camera roll might not be bursting with group photos, but instead, small reminders that I can cultivate my own university experience. 

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I'm Millie, a literature student who is about to graduate next month. Recently, my Instagram was flooded with people's highlights of their time at university. Each photo was full of smiling friendship groups and great memories – I just couldn’t relate. Despite making some lovely friends at uni, in all honesty, the majority of the time I felt incredibly lonely.

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