We’re around people all the time, and we often spend the whole day dealing with them. We spend mornings and afternoons in classrooms full of people, in classes which are often quite interactive and involved. We spend evenings and weekends around people, too—“studying” with friends, doing extracurricular activities we think might look good to employers and law/medical schools, drinking, smoking, eating, making plans with friends, watching those same plans fall through a few hours later. We probably send hundreds of electronic messages every day. Sometimes, we even feel that it’s difficult to get away from people—more often than not, we have to live with them, and in a shared apartment, suite, or room, privacy and calm are often difficult to come by.
And yet, despite having spent the entire day interacting with people, I sometimes return to my room feeling profoundly alone. Despite all the things here that are supposed to build a sense of community—clubs, sports, classes like UW, student newspapers, frats—it is still too easy to feel alone and only peripherally attached to Columbia. In the nearly two semesters I’ve been here, I haven’t made a single close friend and only a handful of casual friends. I feel alienated by clubs and student organizations, and I don’t say hi to people anymore when I cross paths with them.
Even though I am constantly interacting with others, I barely exist on this campus. I have nothing to say about John Jay, 1020, Mel’s, or Pret. I usually spend Saturday nights (and nights on other days of the week) working in an empty classroom on the sixth floor of Lewisohn. I haven’t felt a true sense of belonging to any student organization I’ve tried to participate in, and I lie in bed during Bacchanal for want of a place to go and people to go with. Even the never-ending job search accentuates this feeling of alienation: I’ve shown up to countless information sessions and networking events alone, unable to match names to the same 30 or so faces that show up every time another investment bank comes to campus, faces that always arrive together in groups of three to five and seem to be friendly only to each other, faces that I interact with—but fleetingly, shallowly, cursorily.
I feel like this should be a relatable phenomenon. You never realize, but people come and go unnoticed from lecture, and unremembered in seminars. There are people who stay in their rooms all-day, coming out only to attend class, take exams, and eat curly fries alone at JJ’s. At my previous university, we all had an idea who these people were—we were few enough, and the classes were small enough, that you would notice when you saw someone only in class and never in the library (which functioned more like a lounge than strictly a study space), in the street, in the courtyard, or at any party.
But at Columbia, it’s easy to get lost. You see new faces every day, and you can’t make the sort of deductions about other people that are possible on a campus of 800, but impossible on a campus of 8,000 undergraduates. Deprived of reliable information on what other people’s lives are like, we tend to assume that they are uniformly more interesting, more successful, easier, less stressful, and less lonely than ours. And maybe, on average, they are—but not everyone publishes as first author in Nature by the time they are 20. Not everyone is a frat president, not everyone has their dream job or internship, and not everyone has accumulated dozens of confessions on Columbia Crushes (and Crushes 2.0). Not everyone is satisfied with their social life and relationships, and if you’re reading this and you feel alone, well, you may be alone, but at least you’re not alone in your aloneness.
Why does this happen? As I’ve written before, part of the story is that we’re unnecessarily cruel to each other, and our insecurities often lead us to play subtle and unsubtle little power games. For me, much of it is not having the first-year residential experience that you miss out on if you transfer, if you don’t live in the dorms, or if you’re in GS. For you, it could be any number of reasons orthogonal to the lip service that student council candidates pay to mental health issues.
I’m not a very good sociologist or social engineer, so I don’t know where we should look for change or how to accomplish the nebulous, ill-defined task of promoting social cohesion and making people be nicer to each other. But what I do know is that loneliness is just as much of a problem as the stress culture, anxiety, and depression we know and love. Maybe in two or three years, Columbia will get around to the familiar ritual of forming some committee or task force to address this issue. All I can do is hope that it does a better job than the one we have now.
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