The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday December 7th

Column: My first-year experience — and learning to live with loneliness

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After a brief, tearful goodbye with my family on move-in day, I ventured to the quad with the other first-years to attend a fun welcome event. 

There, I bonded with some new friends over popsicles, cornhole and spikeball. We formed a group chat so we could make plans together in the future, and promised to hang out later that night.  

The unforgettable memories we'd share together over the next four years would inspire the stories I plan to tell my future kids when they ask me: “Mom, what was college like?” 

I’ll recount fond memories of our weekly horror movie marathons, the times we rushed Franklin Street after a UNC basketball victory against Duke and our late-night runs to Time Out.

Of course, my first-year experience did not live up to these campy expectations. I soon realized that my preconceived notions about college were rather unrealistic. Within just a few weeks, the idealism that I brought to college during move-in day vanished.

Lonely. If I could encapsulate my freshman year into one word, that would be it.

At the risk of oversharing, I didn’t hit the friendship jackpot until relatively late in the year. As the semester progressed, friend groups solidified. I found it increasingly difficult to bond with anyone. I quickly became tired of putting myself out there, only to receive flaky, disinterested responses when I asked if someone wanted to hang out. 

I realize now that I shouldn’t have beaten myself over my struggle to find “my people,” as my experience wasn't unique.  A study by Psychology Today found that 64 percent of surveyed college students have reported feeling extremely lonely in the last year. Many attribute it to “unmet social expectations.”

College, however, was isolating in ways that superseded my social life. At UNC, everyone seemingly knew exactly what they wanted to pursue career-wise and had the exemplary grades they needed to do it post-graduation. 

My loneliness deepened as I began to really struggle in school for the first time in my life. 

In high school, I was a straight-A student. The lowest grade I had on my transcript was an 89.34 percent that my venomous chemistry teacher refused to round up. Other than that, I could usually rely on myself to provide a stellar academic performance. My self-esteem had depended on it.

That changed in college, specifically after I got my first economics midterm back. It was my first —  yet probably not last  — C. The exam was worth 25 percent of my final grade. 

I skulked out of Hamilton Hall and tried my best to stall an impending mental breakdown until I reached my dorm. As I crossed the Pit, I weaved through a tour full of hopeful, bright-faced high school seniors. I made eye contact with a person on the tour and telepathically willed her not to come to this school. Or at least not to take that same economics class. 

Honestly, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t question my decision to commit to UNC. I was constantly exhausted due to a combination of poor eating habits, nonstop walking and the fact that my brainiac pre-med roommate woke me up at 1 a.m. whenever she came back from studying and then again at 6:15 a.m. to get ready for her early classes. Every. Single. Morning. 

I got five hours of sleep a night and only ate Clif Bars. Fortunately, my second semester was a turning point. 

I switched to a major I actually enjoyed. Both my mental health and GPA benefitted from this decision. I also learned how to effectively live with someone that I was struggling to get along with. After much trial and error, I found reliable friends who I loved spending time with. I overcame my fear of rejection and applied for a paid research position, where I found incredibly supportive mentors who shared my intellectual curiosity.

Most importantly, however, I accepted that loneliness was inevitable at an institution as large as UNC. I learned to embrace it. I stopped dreading every time I had to go to the dining hall alone or attend an event where I knew nobody. At times, I missed being by myself. 

“Privacy” is a very fluid concept in college. 

Those “what-if” scenarios, where I fantasized about transferring to another university, no longer plagued my imagination. Eventually, I realized that I probably would’ve faced similar challenges had I accepted an offer elsewhere. Speaking with friends who went to other schools confirmed my epiphany. It turned out that my first-year angst was a pretty universal problem.

To future freshmen – it’s OK if your first year doesn’t go as planned. No one thinks you’re lame if you eat a meal by yourself. Rejection is unavoidable, but it shouldn’t deter you from applying for an exciting job or making new friends.

You might luck out and become best buddies with your roommate, but you might not. The people you hang out with during orientation week probably won’t be your lifelong friends (But there’s also a possibility they will). 

College is loads of fun and presents a world of new opportunities, but your first year will likely be far from perfect. My advice? Learn how to enjoy being by yourself.

@GeorgiaRoda404

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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