Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

We’re all lonely here, FIGs should help

Sharon Chang

For most of my life, I haven’t had many, or any, friends. In high school, I attributed my loneliness to the limited social pool of my hometown. Coming to UT, I assumed that being in a class of nearly 10,000 freshmen would make it easy to find friends. Yet, I spent my first year of college only hanging out with a few people from my hometown. While I was grateful for the company, by the beginning of sophomore year, I wasn’t speaking to any of them.

Forced to confront my friendlessness again — this time with dwindling excuses — I realized that loneliness in college is actually very normal. A 2017 survey of nearly 48,000 students revealed that 63% felt “very lonely” in the past year. Our community must show first-years they aren’t alone in being alone.

In the School of Undergraduate Studies, first-year interest groups (FIGs) and transfer-year interest groups (TRIGs) exist to fulfill students’ First-Year Connections requirement. Because of this, FIGs are an excellent avenue to provide new students with resources to overcome academic and social struggles. However, leaders should also work to destigmatize loneliness itself.

Jeff Mayo, director of the First-Year Experience Office, said college students often struggle with a slanted perception of belonging. Young adults tend to falsely conclude that their peers have more friends than they do.

“It’s easy to think that everyone else has it figured out,” Mayo said. “Prior to coming to UT Austin, those conversations (about loneliness) may not have been encouraged, so it’s easy to think that you personally are weak or have a deficiency, whereas what we really know now from research is that we all struggle.”

When someone believes they are awkward or unlikeable, they are more likely to convey negativity in social situations, creating a cycle of rejection where lonely people deflect social opportunities. 

Although FIGs do present fun connection outlets, facilitators must also normalize the difficulty of making fulfilling connections. FIGs should also teach new students that friendships take time to develop and don’t result in instant closeness. In this way, temporary loneliness is almost inevitable. Mayo described this inevitable truth about loneliness as part of the “belonging mindset.”

Psychology junior Heather Kellum, who is in her second year as a FIG mentor, said leaders should share their imperfections authentically with interest groups.

“Show that you are a student just like they are, not just saying the highs of college, but also talk about challenges that you have faced,” Kellum said. “Be genuine and just show the students that you are human too and that you made mistakes, but you’re still here.”

Although an exhausted point, we must remember that students often subscribe to “highlight reels” of others’ lives on social media. It’s difficult to think of loneliness as normal while constantly seeing pictures of huge friend groups hanging out, tailgating and partying.

Studies have shown that students’ exposure to social media often worsens, if not causes, extreme loneliness. This epidemic of perceived isolation presents a responsibility to debunk unrealistic expectations about friendship that mentors and leaders must fulfill.

The First-Year Experience Office provides resources for group leaders to educate students on connection and, as Kellum said, “hold their hands” through socialization. However, it’s up to facilitators and mentors to humanize the transition by sharing their own experiences and presenting the facts on loneliness and a belonging mindset.

“The focus is on helping students realize that things do get better over time … and that everyone shares the struggles of fitting in and finding their place,” Mayo said. “Then, it focuses on not forcing a time frame or a particular way of combating that (struggle).”

As a sophomore, I don’t keep in touch with anyone from my FIG, and I only have one or two close friends. Rather than seeing this as a failure and joining more clubs, getting out more or groveling for friendship, I have found it more productive and less stressful to simply accept that loneliness is a part of being human.

Jackson is a Plan II and journalism sophomore from Boerne, Texas.

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