I spent three years studying design at university. I worked hard, played harder and made friends for life. But my first year in academia was also the most insecure I’ve ever felt.
It got off to a strange start. My first few weeks as a ‘fresher’ were spent looking after a girl in my halls of residence who was very unhappy and unsettled. She found socialising a struggle and didn’t like mixing with other people. She would tell me that she ‘just didn’t fit in’.
She hadn’t really encountered boys before, and I’m not sure she had ever been out much either. When she did join us, she would get very drunk, very quickly, and I would have to take her home.
She ended up leaving before the first term had ended, after being diagnosed with depression. She has since sought professional help and got a degree at a different university, closer to home.
It was a similar story for a shy friend of mine who turned up on day one at university to find that almost everyone else knew each other from school. Too nervous to venture out, she spent most of her time in her room, only emerging when friends and family came to visit. Not surprisingly, she ended up dropping out.
I understood how both these girls felt, because I wasn’t so sure myself. It took me a whole year to find my feet.
It comes a shock when you learn, very quickly, that it’s entirely possible – common even – to be surrounded by so many people your own age and to feel almost claustrophobically alone.
The cruel paradox is the lonely aren’t alone. Almost half of UK students (46%) admit to feeling lonely during their time at university, according to a 2017 report by Sodexo. Another 42% have considered dropping out because of physical or mental health issues.
Those students who are more ‘outgoing’ seem to blend in and appear to know everyone, which makes you judge yourself and question your own – even better than average – social abilities.
In freshers’ week you went out en masse, as a sort of army, which was intimidating to see but also intimidating be part of. Activities were focused heavily on ‘fitting in’ and ‘keeping up’, usually with drinking pints and shots.
Whilst the intention was one of inclusion and fun, that’s not always how it felt. Social media didn’t help. On the nights I chose to stay in, FOMO would set in because the photos, videos and comments would flood my feed the next day.
At my university, and it wasn’t unusual, there was a definite ‘lads’ culture, which could be intimidating. Although I had been to a mixed boarding school, I still found it tough.
But university is all about doing more of what you love, so I tried out for the swimming team. The squad’s brilliant record was one of the reasons I chose to go to this university, so you can understand how horrible it felt when I didn’t make it in.
Once you get a knock back so early on, it can be difficult to collect yourself. Speaking to others, this is not an uncommon feeling. At school, you might have been one of the best at drama or hockey or art. But at university, suddenly, you’re a small fish competing in a much larger pond.
By the second year I had managed to find a lovely group of friends and settled in properly to academic life. It seems crazy now that it took me a whole year to feel really happy. Living in a house of real friends – rather than halls full of potential friends – worked much better for me.
I’m now 26 and I realise that settling into life at university was a dress rehearsal for life after graduation, when you move to a new place, start again with making friends, struggle to budget and fight to prove your worth – only this time in the careers market.
Having done it once at uni, I felt far more equipped – emotionally and mentally – to do it again. But given that more than 9 million people in the UK (close to a sixth of the population) always or often feel lonely, but more than two thirds can’t admit it or talk about it, surely this should be something we need to start saying out loud.
University could be an easier experience if we could admit being lonely, understand why, and know where to access the right help and support to cope with this very human emotion.
Because if even students, surrounded by their peers, are experiencing loneliness, then what hope is there for the vulnerable and elderly?
If enough people ask for help, help will have to be given, so let’s start talking.