‘Alone time is okay’: Kathryn on the pressure to socialise at uni
The media presents university through an extroverted lens of clubbing, nights out, societies, and drinking - the best years of your life - and yet for many, university is not that.
University can be incredibly isolating, and perhaps more so during the pandemic, where restrictions may have had an impact on your ability to get out, meet new people, and make new friends.
My own experience of university was certainly not the best one - I enjoyed my course, I made a few friends, but I kept feeling like I was doing it 'wrong'. I was often lonely, and not feeling the most confident, sometimes held back from engaging in social events and choosing to do things by myself.
I am, by my own admission, not the most sociable of people. Loud parties, club nights, and drinking to get drunk make me feel a distance outside of my comfort zone that I am not at all happy with, and so university was quite a challenge for me - at least in the beginning. I went to university a year after most of my friends from home, choosing to re-sit a year of A-Level study, and whilst that in itself was a lonely experience, it (coupled with the stories my friends told me of their own time at university, both positive and negative) helped to prepare me, somewhat, for what was in store.
Moving into my first year flat, it became clear quite quickly that my flatmates were into the things that I was not, and I wondered what we might have in common. They'd regularly come together to get ready for night's out and pre-drinks in other flats, but often little else (although over time this did start to change).
Looking back, perhaps I could have tried to integrate a little more - I spent a lot of time by myself in my room, feeling overwhelmed, and a little nervous to put myself out there. I was certainly guilty of isolating myself, particularly at the beginning. Forcing myself to do things or putting myself into situations I know I don't and won't enjoy has never been something I want to do, and whilst it did sometimes feel a little lonely, I made my own way. Choosing to spend alone time is okay. As time went on and I found meaningful social interaction outside of my flat, I was able to socialise more with my flatmates, joining them at mealtimes, enjoying Christmas dinner together, and sitting down to enjoy I'm a Celebrity.
Becoming aware of isolating myself, I knew I had to make changes and the first place I looked to were societies. I was lucky in that my university had a huge array of societies to choose from, from pro-wrestling to dog walking. I chose to join the drama society, pushing myself a little way out of my comfort zone - this is definitely not something I'd have done whilst at school or sixth form. At drama society I met a large group of people from across the university, studying an array of different courses, and from different age groups. It offered a nice contrast to my party-hard flatmates, and outside of the demands of my course, it meant I was able to relax and enjoy myself. Sometimes being surrounded by others is all I needed to feel better, even if those people weren't necessarily friends or people I'd speak to outside of the two hours a week in the student union.
A natural place to form connections at university is on your course, and I was certainly eager to build connections with people in my lecture and seminar groups (even if just to ask for advice come deadlines and coursework). Whilst each course is different, group work was a key feature of mine, especially early on in my studies. Not everyone enjoys group work, and it can be difficult when working with new people, but throwing myself into those projects enabled me to be more sociable within my course group. The people I was able to call my friends toward the end of my course were the people I'd built positive working relationships with during those first few weeks of my first semester, and they're people I still check in with from time to time. Even if we don't talk much, they're people in the same boat as me, looking for work during a time when things aren't yet quite back to normal, and having people to talk to has made the process feel less isolating.
Investing time into my hobbies and interests outside of my studies (and off-campus) has proved particularly worthwhile in the long term when combatting feelings of loneliness and isolation. Finding a group of like-minded people through my interest in LGBTQ+ history and genealogy has provided me with support and friendship during these more turbulent times, and allowed me to build connections with others from around the world. These are friendships I hope to maintain beyond my studies.
Similarly, making sure to keep up with friends from home after moving to university was particularly important, even if sometimes quite challenging. It's easy to drift apart from people when you no longer see one another five days a week, but despite the distance between us, being able to chat about our university experiences - even if that was usually a rant about deadlines or workload - was hugely beneficial especially in the first few weeks whilst trying to build those connections with new people in person.
Understanding that I was not doing university 'wrong', and those feelings of loneliness and isolation were perhaps more commonplace than I thought, really helped me during my time at university. It enabled me to relax and enjoy myself - even if that was often by myself. University taught me that being on your own is more than okay - I learnt to enjoy my own company, know when to reach out for help and support, and how far I can push myself without compromising my health and happiness.