College is generally assumed to be a highly social time of life. After all, you’re surrounded by people 24-7. What’s unexpected is the number of college students who report feeling chronically lonely. According to the Student Academic Experience Survey of 2022, about 25% of university students experience loneliness on a regular basis, despite living in close proximity to hundreds, if not thousands, of their peers. If you’re feeling lonely, you’re obviously not alone.
Given the fact that college can be stressful academically and financially, that you’re away from home for the first time and that you’re often in a season of trying to figure out who you are, the loneliness makes sense. It also makes sense because forming meaningful relationships takes time. I remember feeling lonely as an incoming freshman the day my parents dropped me off at my dorm for the first time. This loneliness made a bit of sense. What caught me off guard was when the feeling resurfaced halfway through my sophomore year. After turning the emotion around in my mind I realized that, though I had met a ton of new people, I didn’t yet feel fully known and the deep trust I longed to form had not yet taken root. So what are some practical things you can do next time the unwanted emotion of loneliness makes its appearance?
Look back. This may be a time for reaching toward familiar relationships. There is nothing wrong with texting or calling a parent, sibling, grandparent or friend from back home and admitting you’re having a hard day. Chances are your family and friends miss you too, and they’ll welcome the sound of your voice. (Or the drop of your funny meme-language). There is something comforting about the familiar–the relationships that have stood the test of time and born the weight of your trust! If no one is available for a Facetime chat in your hour of need, try writing an old-fashioned letter, documenting the new experiences you’ve had including the random but somewhat interesting facts you’re learning in your Fermentation Science class? (Look it up—it’s a real thing)! It’s possible that in “looking back” you may also need to re-tap some tried and true interests or hobbies that bring a smile to your face. Whether its exercise, reading, art or exploration of nature—a healthy distraction can be a much-needed diversion. So get busy doing something you love!
Look forward. While there’s nothing wrong with finding security from the anchor of the past, it’s definitely important to keep taking strides towards new relationships. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes making new friends is a system of trial and error. You won’t necessarily be great friends with the first people you meet on campus, and you may not find “your people” right out of the blocks. Be patient with yourself and the process! Keep taking risks and forging new territory. Sit at a new lunch table and strike up a conversation. Initiate a study session or movie night with someone on your floor who seems to have similar interests. Go to a dorm-sponsored event, join intramural sports or a campus club. Find a place to volunteer or somewhere to serve. Get an on-campus job. All of these steps bring about social interactions that naturally ignite relationship.
Look inward. Our human need for connection is a God-given, normal part of our wiring, and needs to be honored. In fact, it reflects God’s glory, because His very nature is communal; we see it in the unity and intimacy of the Trinity. However, sometimes in the midst of our loneliness, stuff surfaces that’s not so pretty. Take time to think about this question: what is this loneliness saying? Perhaps an idol is surfacing. Have I idolized my comfort, my security or my social status and now I’m shaking because the idol is teetering a bit? Maybe I’m experiencing a fear that needs to be confronted, such as the fear of being alone or the fear or rejection. Or maybe what’s surfacing is just plain and simple insecurity, and you’re grabbing at people (any and all) to make you feel better—only it’s not working. Take some time to thoughtfully journal or pray. It could be that this season of loneliness will turn out to be refining as God does a deeper heart-work inside of you.
Look up. This last one is an important extension of looking inward: invite God into whatever emotions you’re experiencing. Psalm 62:8 says, “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” Put it all out on the table with the Lord, and press into knowing Him more. There’s no denying loneliness can be horrible–but it can also be an invitation to move into closeness with Jesus, which is a relationship that will last even beyond the most secure family connection or deepest friendship. It might be so obvious you overlook it, but ask God to provide for you in the area of relationship. And then watch to see how He answers; it might be unexpected. Don’t be surprised if He meets the need, first and foremost, through Himself! Rest assured that He has good gifts for you in this area as you surrender your loneliness to Him and trust His heart to guide you through (James 1:17; Psalm 103:5).