One memorable encounter I had in the first week of college started with the question, “Do you believe in god?” It was a genuine inquiry, rather than an accusatory one. I knew that this was a personal conversation rather than an impending sales pitch for the Jehovah’s Witnesses (not that there’s anything wrong with them). Many of the interactions I had during orientation cut through the opening questions that everyone hates—the ones no one is truly listening to anyway. Icebreakers become a wall of impenetrable white noise; there’s only so many hometowns and prospective majors I can remember, y’all. The beginning of the semester for first years—fueled by social anxiety and Usdan Late Night pancakes—cuts through the insufferable introductions and lends itself to faster-than-typical connections.
Perhaps it’s the mixture of adrenaline, caffeine, and undeserved freedom that makes orientation so memorable. Certainly, the jolt of a radically different schedule and lack of supervision contributes to the unique feeling. But of my memories of the first weeks of college, I remember an intimate atmosphere that fades shortly after. I remember people’s openness to others and desire to learn what others have to share.
It makes sense that my two best friends are someone I met during orientation and a transfer student. When I met both of them, we were in social settings that lent themselves to more immediate, stronger bonds. Many people I know have maintained tight relationships with people they met at the start of Wesleyan orientation.
As the initial pent-up excitement dissipates later in the semester, approaching people becomes more difficult. The shared “we’re all in the same boat” mentality is lost as people become more comfortable with campus. This must partly be due to the fact that people don’t feel the need to make friends outside of the ones they already have, but the student body sacrifices the welcoming feel that accompanies orientation.
While individuals may be a little more closed off, friend groups feel impenetrable. The groups of friends that arise from orientation frequently seem to be exclusionary. My high school felt less cliquey than Wesleyan. The exclusionary nature of friend groups at this college may not be intentional. Befriending individuals is much easier than fitting into a group of friends with an established social dynamic.
The price to pay for Wesleyan’s friendship model is that it leaves people scrambling to make friends in the initial weeks of school, and if someone has failed to make enough lasting social bonds, they may find themselves very lonely by the start of the spring semester. Worse yet, if you discover that your friends may be abusive or hold hateful beliefs, exiting that friend group could leave you abandoned.
Perhaps this explains why 60 percent of American college students reported feeling very lonely in the previous 12-month period. Thirty percent of the respondents said they felt very lonely in the previous two-week period. A Canadian study had similar findings. Speaking anecdotally, Wesleyan is no exception to these studies.
Last year, I made a post in a WesAdmits Facebook group expressing my own severe loneliness on this campus. Dozens of people responded saying they felt the same way. On the surface, people act like college is a joy ride of constant parties and friendships. This expectation of college doesn’t fit with reality for many people. Little did I know, as I was experiencing my own crushing loneliness, a lot of other students around me felt the same.
As a solution to the collective isolation at Wesleyan, we should extend the openness of orientation into the regular semester. If you’re feeling lonely, approach people knowing that they’re probably feeling the same way. Perhaps we should also try to make a constellation of friends from different social settings rather than one concrete unit of friends that must do everything together. Instead of friend groups, a diverse array of friends would connect Wesleyan as a community. Rather than feeling stranded in a sea between isolated islands of friends, maybe we would feel that we’re all in the same boat.
Connor Aberle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.