By Lindsay Dembner
“It was the best four years of my life,” my dad said to me. I had heard this phrase countless times in the weeks approaching my first day of college. Rather than making me excited about college, these words made me apprehensive. I was nervous about going away. What if I didn’t have the “best four years of my life?” Would it mean that there was something wrong with me?
The first few days of college were a painful combination of homesickness and loneliness. I did not connect with my roommate, who seemed to be effortlessly making friends. I knew that I was incredibly privileged to be attending college on a beautiful campus in a major city. However, as an only child who was incredibly close with her parents and shy to begin with, I felt completely out of my element and had a difficult time connecting with people. Since kindergarten, I had attended school with, give or take a few, the same 130 people. I hadn’t had to make new friends in years and there were 2,500 students in my freshman class.
As I watched my hallmates attend parties and make seemingly tight-knit groups of friends, I couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong with me. With almost 30 fraternities, Greek life was big in my school, and I had trouble finding my niche. I felt like I didn’t fit in with anyone. I ended up starting the rush process, thinking it was the “cool” thing to do, and ultimately dropping it because I realized it wasn’t for me. My older cousin was a senior at my school. One time she asked me if I had “gone out” the night before. She looked flummoxed when I told her that I had watched a movie in a friend’s dorm room and I realized she had of course wanted to know whether I’d gone to a party or a club, things I didn’t quite have a desire to do at the time.
The problem was that I had been so focused on getting good grades so that I could get into a “top” college that I hadn’t given myself the opportunity to figure out what I wanted in life. I struggled constantly with fears of being “boring” and “different” from everyone else. Perhaps ironically, I almost let my fear of rejection and loneliness keep me locked away in my dorm room, but I forced myself out. Some strategies I found useful in overcoming my feelings of isolation and loneliness were:
Exploring various activities on campus: I tried to find my niche in extracurricular activities, rather than in the party scene. I spent some time editing for my college’s newspaper and volunteering with a children’s theater group on campus. Working with children was ultimately where I found my niche. A student group was volunteering at Ronald McDonald House, and I decided to try it out. I also tutored in a local school. I made one of my closest friends by attending an orientation seminar on seeing theater cheaply. We ended up ushering together at a theater in downtown Philadelphia. We didn’t hit it off right away, but during our second semester, something clicked. We would usher and then spend hours at an Irish pub talking about relationships, our families, and silly things that made us laugh.
Putting myself out there: I remember going alone to an 80’s night and walking up to a group of girls who “looked friendly” and introducing myself, something I had never done before. This was incredibly scary for me, but I ended up staying friends with those girls throughout college.
Understanding that it’s okay to be different: Some people enjoy having a ton of friends. I realized that I was a person who was more suited to having several very close friends, rather than being part of a large group. I also learned that people show loneliness in different ways. I remember my shock when I found out that a “popular” girl in my hall had experienced similar feelings and had even considered transferring.
Giving things time: Ultimately, I learned not to force things, including friendships. I had expected to find close friends right away, and while some people do, it took me a while. It also took some time for me to find extracurricular activities that I felt invested in.
“The best four years of your life” is a platitude that people say to incoming freshmen to help build up the excitement about you starting the first stage of your adult life. College is full of challenges. It is a time to explore your interests and to get to know yourself. Even with these strategies, my college experience was not perfect, but my experiences helped me grow and become more resilient. That is what college is all about.
Lindsay Dembner is an Academic Advisor at Kingsborough Community College.