For most people, starting university is connected to great expectations. Being independent for the first time, visiting those infamous college parties, building friendships that last a lifetime and maybe even finding the love of your life. But there are no great expectations without the risk of great disappointment. And with disappointment comes the feeling of shame.
First-year university students are 2.47 times more likely than second- and third-year students to experience loneliness (Dagnew and Dagne 2019). Why is this the case? Here, there may be several reasons:
Moving Out from Home
Going to university, many students leave their parent’s home for the first time. Instead of living with the people that raised them and provided them with a sense of familiarity all their life, they may live with new people or even alone. In the first years of life, parents or guardians are often the main people students receive confirmation from, so being suddenly separated can cause feelings of disorientation and insecurity. And then – because of the pressure that comes with coming of age – students might feel ashamed of their feelings and get the impression that they failed as an adult (English et al. 2017).
Moreover, new responsibilities like doing the groceries, taking care of your laundry and bureaucratic tasks can be overwhelming at first. Suddenly students are expected to know how all these things work, when just a months before their guardians were still taking care of everything. This has consequences: Especially students who live by themselves report a heightened rate of loneliness. Feeling homesick and having trouble adapting to one’s new home is tough but normal (Diehl et al. 2018).
Drifting Apart from Old Friends
“Best friends forever.” That’s how it felt in high school. However, the first year of university is a challenge for even the closest high school friendships. Researchers from the University of Illinois found that during the first year of college, high school best friendships declined in satisfaction, commitment, rewards and investments (Oswald and Clark 2003). In fact, about 41 percent of school friendships become more distant during the first semester of university life (Oswald and Clark 2003).
Growing apart with someone can be painful and hard to accept. Friendships that used to provide stability fade and leave a hole difficult to fill. But it is not all bad news: Staying good friends is indeed possible and even buffers adolescents from the feeling of loneliness (Oswald and Clark 2003).
Forming New Friendships
Building up friendships takes time, and it is common for students to feel less connected to their peers at the beginning of university. Nonetheless, friendships formed at university tend to be deeper than those formed in earlier life and may even replace the support of family (Thomas and Kerrigan 2020). In fact, they are critical to university life: Many students reported that their friendships helped them deal with the high workload and stress at university and prevented them from dropping out and ending their studies entirely (Brooks 2007).
And so, it is important to remember the following: A student’s first year is difficult, and often starts from a lonely place. Throughout the first year, as they learn to adapt and form new connections, perceived loneliness often decreases (English et al. 2017).
There are individual differences however: It is important to acknowledge that not everyone goes through life at the same pace and with the same expectations. For some, university may be a time spent surrounded by a lot of people. Others spend more time by themselves. Regardless of individual circumstance however, anyone feeling lonely should have the opportunity to reach out to others and seek support. And it is up to us to provide that support.
Dagnew, B. and H. Dagne (2019). “Year of study as predictor of loneliness among students of University of Gondar.” BMC Res Notes 12, 240.
Diehl K., C. Janse, K. Ishchanova and J.Hilger-Kolb (2018). „Loneliness at Universities: Determinants of Emotional and Social Loneliness among Students.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15(9), 1865.
Oswald, D. and E. Clark (2003). “Best friends forever?: High school best friendships and the transition to college.” Personal Relationships 10(2), 187-196.
Primack, B. A., A. Shensa, J. E. Sidani, E. O. Whaite, L. yi Lin, D. Rosen, … and E. Miller (2017). “Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the US.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 53(1), 1-8.