Return to campus: Desperate for connection

I was 18 when I decided I wanted to transfer to UBC and I was 19 when my application was accepted. I’m now 21 and I’ve yet to step foot on campus.

It’s an unusual position to be in, but it’s not a unique one. This week, students across the country will return to in-person learning, and it seems like the one thing we all have in common is an acute awareness of the time we’ve lost. Those who were in their first year in March of 2020 are now halfway through their degree, and the relationships formed during their brief time on campus may have faded due to their prolonged absence. And then there’s people like me: third-year transfer students, or second-year students who spent their first year stuck in Zoom calls. We’ll be on campus for the first time, trying to forge friendships without the help that first-year res life seems to provide.

Amidst all the horrors of the past year and half, this may seem like a frivolous concern, but I think it’s an understandable one. We’re told — by our families, the media and so on — that our university years are important and formative; it’s not only a time to shape our futures, but to create memories that we’ll look back on fondly when the future arrives. So, naturally, finding people to make these memories with is of the utmost importance.

Meeting new people on campus is daunting all on its own, but when it’s compounded with a long period of isolation that has shortened our timeline to do so, things get all the more stressful — and you can see this anxiety manifesting in online spaces.

If you’ve frequented UBC’s subreddit within the past year, chances are you’ve come across a plethora of posts that demonstrate this anxiety in action:

anyone else lowkey dreading school to start?

Upper year struggles

Little nervous and anxious starting at UBC

The worries expressed in these posts aren’t abnormal by any means — as I said, meeting new people always comes with some degree of stress — however, given the number of them that I’ve seen, and the intensity of the emotions expressed, it’s quite clear that for many students, dread has taken over the space where excitement should be.

I relate to these anxious students, especially because I experienced the kind of loneliness they fear during my first year of university at the University of Alberta. In hindsight, my situation wasn’t terrible. I chose to stay in my hometown, so I still lived with my family and saw my closest friends from high school nearly every weekend. But whenever I was on campus, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing out. Everyone around me seemed to have found their place so quickly, and to avoid the feelings of inadequacy brought on by the fact I hadn’t, I went out of my way to spend as little time on campus as possible. Counterintuitive, I know, but at the time avoiding the issue seemed preferable to confronting it— especially since avoidance was so easy. Anybody who’s dealt with some level of social anxiety (which I believe is the majority of people) knows how simple it is to throw on a pair of headphones, or feign profound interest in Instagram, in order to blend into the background. Unfortunately, it’s something I made a habit of in my first year.

I know this situation isn’t unique, but it wasn’t until this January that I saw a piece of media that accurately depicted it. It was a movie called Shithouse — I know, not a promising title, but trust me when I say it has more merit than the name suggests. The film follows lonely first-year student Alex as he struggles to make sense of university life and how it comes so easily to those around him. He values deep, authentic relationships and feels that when people arrive on campus they “turn their brains off” in order to form more shallow ones. This take is contested by Maggie, a popular second-year student, who tells Alex that what he’s really referring to when he says people “turn their brains off” is adaptability.

Four thousand people go here. 4000 people who go to school in the same place—”

“Four thousand people who don’t owe you anything, dude! You’re not constantly being stiffed by people!”

It’s tough love, but it’s true and I wish I could go back in time and tell myself the exact same thing. In the film, Alex admits that he keeps to himself almost entirely — he even avoids communal dining spaces, opting to carry his food up to his dorm room to avoid facing his peers. He copes with loneliness by self-isolating, and this leads him to the exact realization that I had at the end of my first year:

“I haven’t fully been here.”

It’s so cliché that it practically pains me to type, but university is what you make of it. Much like Alex, I was averse to trying new things and meeting new people in first year. I wanted everything to fall into place perfectly: to instantly find friends that would last a lifetime, and immediately discover extracurriculars that I felt passionate about. But now, I’m starting to think that embracing the impermanence of our university years is the best way to enjoy them. We all want to walk away from university with a better sense of who we are, and what’s essential to achieving that is the willingness to try. It’s doubtful that everything will stick — there will be friendships that last a semester, and hobbies that last a week — but really, isn’t that the point of university?

Despite my change in perspective, I’m still nervous for what's to come. As COVID-19 case numbers rise, it’s very possible that we may be doomed to another semester of eerily silent Zoom breakout rooms. But I have faith that we can make the best out of even the worst-case scenario — after all, if those Reddit posts demonstrate anything, it’s that we’re all desperate for connection. So long as you’re willing to truly try, I don’t think you’ll have to look too far to find it.