by Ellen Efstathiou
One of the first activities during my year’s on-campus orientation was to go to the Allen and look at art. This was supposedly a mandatory activity, although I don’t think anyone was taking note of who was there, so I’m not sure how they were checking everyone did this. We were also supposed to look at one particular piece of art, but I haven’t met anyone that actually saw that piece that day.
Anyway, my roommate had gone to something earlier and I didn’t know anyone else yet, so I showed up to the Allen alone. While I was standing there, someone came up to me and cheerily said, “You look lonely!” Looking back at this, I think they were trying to be friendly and offer themselves as someone to talk to, but at the time, I was startled. I hurriedly assured them I was fine and not lonely and they walked away.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, I was looking at some art and someone different said to me, “Are you okay? You look sad.” I assured them I was fine. I was not that moved by the art, and we walked away from each other.
I actually had been fine, but after having been told by two different people that I looked sad and lonely, I started to doubt myself. I began to feel sad, and I found myself getting choked up as I stared intently at the art so no one else would notice I was sad.
Luckily, I found my roommate a couple minutes later and was no longer alone. However, me getting choked up, almost crying, or actually crying happened every day for at least the first week I was here. Multiple times I showed up to an orientation event, didn’t see anyone I recognized, got overwhelmed by the possibility of having to walk up to a group and ask to join their conversation, left the event, and walked around Tappan and cried. Fun times.
So you might be saying to yourself, “Wow, Ellen, you seem like a lonely person. Are you the only one at Oberlin that’s so lonely?” And the answer, I’m pretty sure, is no. Let’s take a look at some various forms of social media. If you’re on Instagram, everyone seems to be hanging out with friends all the time. If you’re on Yikyak, everyone seems to be lonely and think that their friends hate them. So what’s the truth?
Part of why going up to people during orientation seemed so insurmountable to me was because it felt like everyone had arrived at Oberlin already having friend groups. Before getting here, people met on social media and made group chats and already had friend groups when they got here. Even in classes, people seemed to already be friends with the people they were sitting by on the first day.
Last year, we were also required to wear masks whenever we were inside. I know I personally struggled with communicating when wearing or interacting with people wearing a mask. I felt like my emotions weren’t coming across the way I wanted them to or I felt like I couldn’t understand the emotions other people were trying to get across. There was also a significant amount of the year where we weren’t allowed to eat at dining halls. This, in particular, really constricted socialization. Meals are a pretty regular time for people to just hang out, eat, and talk. At least in recent years, the pandemic has certainly affected how lonely we feel.
A lot of people in college are lonely, this isn’t something special to Oberlin. A quick Google search will tell you that. But sometimes it feels like everyone at Oberlin is an introvert. We walk around, avoiding eye contact as much as possible and being as busy as possible. People at Oberlin get so caught up in whatever they’re involved in (academics, clubs, etc.), that making time to just hang out with friends can go forgotten. And while many people have friends in those things that they do, they aren’t necessarily friends that they hang out with outside of that activity.
Maybe part of the reason why college feels so lonely is because the way you interact with friends is so different than in high school. If you had strict parents you had to ask to hang out with friends outside of school, and even if you didn’t see them outside of school, you were still going to see them pretty much every day. In college, especially if you’re in a single dorm, it is easy to go weeks without talking to anyone outside of class. To go back to the pandemic again, a lot of us had gone almost two years only talking to people online.
I don’t know if there’s a solution to this. I know firsthand how difficult “just going up and talking to people'' can be. However, if it’s any consolation, if you think you’re lonely you are not the only one that feels lonely. So in that way, you’re not alone.