As a Princeton student, in between dinner dates and study sessions, you sometimes find yourself completely alone. Maybe you have a phone in your hands, maybe a good book, or even a piece of homework to distract yourself with. Other times, you’re alone with your thoughts, but you look to your left and right: you see couples lovingly gazing at each other, best friends sharing secrets, and acquaintances sharing opinions on the problem set. You see so many people having fun with each other. And as you look at the invisible people next to you, you wonder: are you the only one who is totally alone?
Frank Bruni, in a column for the New York Times, recently described this phenomenon, titling it “the real campus scourge.” He reports that nearly 60 percent of college students reported feeling “very lonely” in the past year, and 30 percent over the past two weeks. While these numbers seem shocking at face value, they make sense. If, for example, any current sophomore ever felt lonely during their freshman year (which is very likely, given the lack of connections one has at the beginning of college), they’ve felt lonely over the past year.
I think back to myself last year as a freshman, calling my parents regularly and crying to them that I had no friends. Talking to someone I didn’t know in the dining hall was terrifying. Small talk at social gatherings, especially at the ones where upperclassmen didn’t talk to me, was daunting. Putting myself out there to clubs — where I was most likely to be rejected, but also likely to make friends — was beyond mortifying.
On a campus like Princeton's, where we are all so concerned with grades, internships, and jobs, friendships are yet another source of stress. Who to talk to? How to talk to them? At what event? These questions ran through my mind all of last year. Every time I sat at a meal table with upperclassmen, I silently hoped that they would talk to me. They usually didn’t — they probably didn’t even think to do so — but had they asked me how I was or what I wanted to major in or even what my name was, I wouldn’t have felt that I was sitting at a table for one, full of other people. A certain upperclassman from a musical group I was in never looked my way when I passed him. I probably just wasn’t even in his consciousness; that said, his actions didn’t make my consciousness feel too valued, noticed, or, frankly, welcome on campus.
This isn’t to chastise upperclassmen; they have moments of loneliness, too. The report that Bruni mentioned didn’t just apply to freshmen. I’ve had juniors and seniors whisper to me that they never made any good friends in college, or that they usually eat alone. And it’s sad that we usually don’t do anything about it, despite the fact that we have all felt lonely at some point, probably in the not-too-distant past. Yet, we sometimes brush aside those who experience it or don’t help them through it. We prefer to stick to people we already know rather than let someone know that they have been, in fact, noticed, and that their presence is valued and welcomed.
It shouldn’t take a University policy change to get people to be nicer to each other; it should take, rather, empathy and compassion, which can be sparked through campaigns and posters. Maybe it’s worth hanging up signs around campus — we do, after all, have awareness campaigns for gender and sexuality and mental health, issues pertinent to large segments of the campus population, but why not loneliness — an issue that has affected almost everyone?
We have the Princeton Peer Nightline, which provides a space for people to talk to others if they feel lonely. But we don’t have the infrastructure to remind people that they have an obligation to help their fellow students out when they feel like they don’t have a single friend in the world. We haven’t developed the programming or signage to remind people to think about someone besides themselves — because, maybe, the student next to you doesn’t have anyone at all.
We don’t always know who exactly is suffering from these feelings, but it never hurts to walk together with someone new to class, start a conversation with the underclassman in choir, or (gasp!) sit next to someone new in the dining hall. Full disclosure: it takes courage, gall, and nerve to do some of these things — but if you can help someone feel a little less alone, it’s worth it.
Leora Eisenberg is a sophomore from Eagan, Minn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.