‘Am I the only one …’: On college, isolation and social media

Active Minds'

Active Minds’ “Send Silence Packing” display visited SUNY Oswego.

At first I thought it perhaps a rhetorical quirk. But as I saw it more and more in posts by incoming students in our Facebook group, it emerged as a pattern. And one that causes a bit of concern.

  • “Am I the only one who doesn’t have a roommate yet?”
  • “Am I the only one without a housing assignment?”
  • “So I’m the only person without a full schedule.”
  • “Looks like I’m the only person who doesn’t have a roommate yet.”

Beyond the fact that, no, they were never “the only one” in that situation — in fact, most of their peers were in the same boat — the wording is intriguing. Not “does anybody else have …” or “who else doesn’t have …” but about being the “only” person missing out on the fun. There’s a fear of exclusion pattern among these posts — sure, it’s partly concern that others have something they don’t, but the phrase speaks to isolation.

But then reading an outstanding, troubling New York Times piece, Campus suicide and the pressure of perfection, drove home the point that thinking you’re an outsider, isolated and lonely when entering college can make an already-stressful situation worse. Couple that with a social media where everybody seems to having more fun and fabulous lives than you, and it’s an issue that needs more attention.

Stranger in a strange land

I can identify with how students can feel isolated all too well. After finishing my associate’s degree at home, I went away to a college where I did not know a single soul (one place social media certainly helps). My roommate was a nice guy, but we didn’t click. Within a couple days, it seemed my suitemates were already making plans where I wasn’t invited. The dorm had an ice cream social in the lounge where I had ice cream but was too shy to be social.

The loneliest I’ve ever been and on the edge of despondency, I’d wander out to stare at the nearby canal. “College was supposed to be awesome, but am I the only one not having any fun?” I thought to myself. “Everybody else is enjoying themselves way more than me.” I felt homesick, isolated, unsure why what was supposed to be the best time of my life suddenly felt like one of the worst. But I was determined to make college work — I’d be the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree — and after two weeks of loneliness despite being surrounded by friendly people, I made my way to the college newspaper, quickly found a tribe and soon found college the enjoyable experience I expected.

Even in this supposedly more interconnected society, many students entering colleges across the country will feel the same way I did — wondering if they’re “the only one” who feels so lonely — but perhaps do not find their lifeline. Some may drop out, some may turn to drugs or alcohol … and some may decide they can’t go on at all.

The Internet is an illusion

The most famous poem from his engrossing “Spoon River Anthology,” Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” tells the story of a man who was “a gentleman from sole to crown” and “richer than a king,” a man everybody in town envied. But for whatever reason, he also was unspeakably unhappy, as the poem ends:

So on we worked, and waited for the light
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Yet that jarring conclusion pales in comparison with tales of real life, such as Penn State student Madison Holleran. Talented, pretty, a successful student-athlete and with seemingly plenty of friends, Madison’s Instagram feed showed a life many a lonely student would envy. But according to an excellent ESPN feature by Kate Fagan, Split Image, Madison was a perfectionist who could not deal with failure or disappointment — or her perception of falling short. A 19-year-old with seemingly everything to live for, Madison Holleran committed suicide in January 2014.

According to Active Minds, a group that attempts to empower students, change the stigma of mental illness on campuses and steer students toward healthier choices, some 1,100 students take their own lives every year. The New York Times piece references helicopter parenting — where students aren’t given the opportunity to solve their own problems — as a contributing factor. But it’s not the only evolution that has raised the stakes.

Is it a competition?

College once was for elites, then in the ’50s/’60s the Baby Boom, GI Bill and many other socioeconomic factors led to college systems offering greater accessibility. Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the cold war politics led to the U.S. government pouring money into higher education to produce scientists who could win the technological race. Suddenly college was more widely available, a rite of passage depicted in popular culture. When I went to college, probably about half of my graduating class did not, which was not necessarily uncommon.

Now, for most, college is an expectation of getting ahead. Private courses and consultants show high school students how to excel at standardized tests and make themselves more attractive to institutions. Cottage industries have emerged for both those choosing colleges and the colleges courting them, setting it up as a high-pressure matchmaking exercise. Parents and students make it not only about going to college but more critically about getting into the right school offering the right experiences. And not just any experiences, but experiences where students need to succeed and feel fulfilled. Getting one bad grade in a class can be a big blow; failing a class is devastating.

Put all that into a crucible that is young people coming of age and coming to terms with feelings and coming into a world where they feel they must do everything perfectly — and then project their way of seeing the world, social media, as a place where everybody is happy and successful and winning this perceived competition. So the student asking “am I the only one …” can start believing that they are the outsider, the freak, the failure because of how well everybody else appears to be doing.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. But here is the one thing I’d like everybody to take away from it: Social media is not real life. Don’t compare your daily struggles to the highlight reel you see online. We are all dealing with problems, but there are so many people also willing to help.

Be kind, the old saying goes, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. The start of college could be an important intersection with the future, but it’s just the start (we hope!) of a long journey that may have twists and turns and tribulations and triumphs. But it’s a road we travel together. You are never “the only one,” ever.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “‘Am I the only one …’: On college, isolation and social media

  1. Terrific post, Tim. The issues you touch on remind me of the writings of Ray Oldenburg (The Great Good Place) and Richard Putnam (Bowling Alone). Both of those books are a decade or more old now but still have much to say about the decline of “social capital” in our world. The great hope of the Internet at one time was (and still is?) that it could virtually replicate that “great good place” Oldenburg wrote about. (Howard Rheingold explored this idea in The Virtual Community, a book he wrote way back in 1993.)

    Our colleges and universities have the opportunity to be, or become, those spaces where connections can happen, and where our eroded social capital can be rebuilt. This gets to the idea of education’s purpose in a democracy, which is, I believe, to help us to become better citizens — more knowledgeable, certainly, for our self-government, but also more caring and more connected. The Internet, broadly defined to encompass social media, could be a tool of higher education to help these spaces thrive.

  2. Tim

    Thank you, Andrew! In my head (pun somewhat intended), I pondered a longer post that might have included “Bowling Alone,” which is a fabulous book about the decline of belonging specifically and community in general. Although I realize the hyperlocal movement is, to a degree, undoing the erosion of physical community, the implications of social networks that leave us feeling more isolated is something that has really caught my attention lately. Study after study finds how having connections with others at our fingertips paradoxically makes us feel more lonely, and I agree that college should have a place in the re-establishment of community as well as teaching how and why this is important.

  3. Very timely. Thanks for sharing it. Also Bowling Alone is great.

  4. Pingback: Social media looks like a winning weapon against stereotypes | Higher Ed Marketing

  5. Thoughtful post on an important topic–Thank you! One angle to add is irony. Our language on social media and everywhere is rife with it. I am sure I have said, “Am I the only one…” when prefacing some obvious or unoriginal observation or universal complaint. The trick is though, how do you tell whether it’s irony or true isolation and loneliness? Muddies the waters certainly.

  6. Hi, Tim. That was a great post. Good news, my publisher wants me to start a blog, so I’m starting off at one a week and hope to get to two a week. I’m at lynnvoedisch.wordpress.com . I see that you have filed your content under various topics and I’d like to know how you do that. Being at newbie, I have no real idea how WordPress works.

  7. Tim

    Hi Lynn! Cool! As far as categories, I just know they show up on the right side under a dropdown menu if I want to use them or add new ones. I did it so long ago I don’t even remember if that was a standard feature.

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