In 2017, I started my first year at college. I had incredibly high expectations for my college experience, and when my first semester fell short of those expectations, I vented all my frustrations into a school project. The video highlighted how lonely first semester was, and how alienated I felt at school.

I posted the project on Youtube1 so I could show it to my professor. The video went viral! All the sudden I had hundreds of people reach out to me and thank me for speaking out about college loneliness. I was so comforted by the overwhelmingly positive feedback, and it helped me realize that this—loneliness—is  a common experience among college students. 

Am I Alone in My Loneliness?

The following year, the New York Times reached out to me. An editor asked me to write a follow up to the video, sharing what I had learned in my first year of school. I was floored by the opportunity—and in approximately 1,000 words, I shared how I felt and what I had been through before, and after, the video went viral.2

Writing this piece for the New York Times helped me further process my frustration with my first semester. I spoke about how I came to realize I was putting a ton of unnecessary pressure on myself and others. While writing the piece, I was forced to face the reality that making friends can be a slow process and that juggling school, a new living situation, and being away from everything you’ve ever known is a lot to deal with and of course I wasn’t going to rapidly have a massive batch of new friends. I wrote about how I figured out what I needed to focus on and how I became more forgiving to myself, ignored social media, and tried a bunch of new things!

The article received some criticism from readers. This criticism pointed to my negligence to addressing my privilege. Readers wrote how incredibly lucky I am to have the time and leisure to prioritize making friends in the first place. A reader commented, “your seeming obliviousness to your enormous privilege is disturbing…add deeper empathy and humility to your life lessons.” Another reader felt I was navel-gazing throughout the whole article—that it was “self-promoting” and “the advice and conclusions come off like a college essay, and scream, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’

I was upset by these comments. I take matters of privilege and inclusiveness very seriously, and I was ashamed that the article could be interpreted as self-serving. I made myself very vulnerable by publishing these works, hoping that others would take comfort in my honesty. Knowing that I was one of many students experiencing loneliness allowed me to be much kinder to myself and I had hoped to provide other students with that same reassurance: that starting college can be an isolating experience.

But I do feel there is a lot that I didn’t address in the article that is important to articulate, since much of my comfort in college is due to my privilege. 

Is Loneliness a Privilege?

When I made the video, it was for a class. I used the assignment to sort out all of my upset and created a visual diary documenting my subjective experience. The intended audience was originally me alone. It helped me to understand and rationalize my emotions and explore my personal issues with my own college transition. The video ended up striking a chord with many people, but it was never intended to represent every college student’s experience—it was only meant to express mine.

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A lot of my newfound comfort at my university is because of systems that play to my advantage. I was able to focus on my social life, a privilege in its own right—and I was able to quickly adjust and thrive because so many of my identities lie in the agent groups. I have never doubted that.

I have been beyond privileged my entire life. I come from a financially-stable and emotionally-supportive family. Both of my parents and my grandparents went to college. I’m white, cisgender, able-bodied, able-minded, English is my first language, and I don’t need to work a job on campus to earn tuition money. All these advantages already give me the opportunity to prioritize friendship in my college experience, to view it as a crucial part of my four years of higher learning. These privileges allow me the social confidence to approach anyone on campus and be unquestioning of their personal biases. Rarely does making friends ever force me to overcome ingrained stereotypes based on my identity. I have the time and leisure to really put myself out there.

It is easy for me to find people who come from a culturally-similar background when I’m on campus. I’m entirely comfortable being myself in public. I don’t feel an overwhelming pressure to fit in—most likely because I already do. I have immediate social fluidity because of my privilege—all of which has made my transition significantly easier. 

College Loneliness is Real and Universal

But the fact this video was so successful seems to support the notion that loneliness in college is universal. Unfortunately, the solutions are not so. Here’s what I’ve learned: The ability to find belonging is a struggle unique to each person—whether it surrounds greater issues like race or gender, or more specific topics like majors and interests.

A massive contributor to my loneliness was that I felt judged while pursuing my interests. My school is very engineering based, and as a fine arts major, I often feel like other students don’t take me seriously. It was frustrating to have people compare their workload to mine or insult my major because it isn’t quantitative. I’ve had others call my area of study “useless” and a “waste of time.” Because of this, I became closer with other students within my major, ones who help me grow as an artist, who challenge me in constructive ways and validate my passion.

My work was never meant to solve student loneliness, and not intended to speak for every experience. It comes from a single experience—and highlights what personal steps I took to rationalize my own discomfort—and how to approach my social life more healthily. Nothing I wrote or created was ever meant to be a pity party or a call to arms, but if there is a message I want people to leave with it’s that students are valid in their loneliness—regardless of identity or background. A student’s transition to college is a massive life change and it’s normal to feel out of place.

So, don’t be hard on yourself. Try new things, move through your campus with an open heart and an open mind. It’ll all shake out in the end.

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Last Updated: Feb 19, 2019