Loneliness at University

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Words: Zein Oweis (She/Her)

We all deal with loneliness in our own ways. It comes in waves of different emotions, but is more common than anyone thinks. Some are good at hiding it, like chameleons blending into their surroundings without detection, whilst others are brave enough to conceal them like heroes who have returned from war, with battle scars tattooed on their bodies. 

I, for one, am not afraid to say that I have felt loneliness. Hasn’t everyone? It comes in waves. Sometimes, it creeps up on us from out of nowhere, but, at other times, it’s a heavy weight upon our shoulders. Even with a good support system – family, wonderful friends, social media, and an active lifestyle, I sometimes feel lonely. I have come to live with loneliness, and according to research that has spanned a long period of time, it is a ‘normal’ feeling to have. Studies show that students at universities really feel that pull of loneliness and, in my experience, this is true. Oddly enough, I’ve found that I have battled more with loneliness since I became a mature student.

Harvard University has stated that there has been a recent rise in this ‘loneliness epidemic’ in teens and young adults. As a mature student myself, I can tell you that it’s harder to make friends at university – you tend to stand out even when you have no intention of doing so. Add a pandemic to the mix, and you feel alienated. When you are a freshly undergrad student, it’s easier to meet new people because you’re on the same degree course. But, when it comes to postgrad, it’s a different story. 

I remember during my masters pre-pandemic, it was easy to make friends – we all met face to face, without a screen separating us.  It was easier to click and become good friends. To this day, I am still in contact with many of my friends from my masters and undergraduate programs even if it’s not as often as I’d like – but we all live different lives. However, once we got confined to the walls of our homes and accommodations, loneliness surfaced once again. 

Being confined to a small space was like being a mouse in a cage -usually an experience we’re  not used to. Whilst I was able to adapt to being indoors, surrounded by my work and my family, I still felt lonely, not able to hug your grandparents from fear of transmitting illnesses. Yet again, loneliness had crept into my life.

It was the same emotion I felt when I first moved to Glasgow. Having to go through mandatory 14-day quarantine was not an ideal way to start my doctoral degree – it took time to settle in. Days would blur into one another.  In the time that it took to gain a routine, I let loneliness fester in the air. Even with the company of my cousin, I still felt like I was the only one present in those moments. I feel like it was most visible with international students, who moved miles away from their country and had no one to talk to, only the people on their screens. This did not feel like a luxury. 

A recent study showed that 1 in 4 people in the UK experience loneliness. Another survey found that, out of 10000 students, 35% noted that they were feeling “good” or “very good” whilst 32% students noted they were feeling “poor” and “very poor.”  

Yet, student mental health is still being tested by loneliness and other feelings; worry, stress and depression. Students are constantly feeling isolated and miserable, and at times feel lonely because they are not meeting other students on their programs, not living in student accommodation, not having friends outside their study circle because of the aftermath of the pandemic, and suffering due to the current housing crisis – the list is endless.  

Being a person with a visual disability myself, I know that loneliness hits me the most when it is winter or during the long days where the sun sets at 4pm. Being night blind, I’m limited by the things I can do with my friends, and limited in the hours I can spend working on campus surrounded by my fellow students. We go to campus to put ourselves in that ‘studious’ mindset in order to accomplish our tasks. However, because of those waves of loneliness and being confined to my student accommodation, I lose my sense of purpose, and sometimes this affects my workflow – something I hate because I love working on my research and being around my friends. I am a social butterfly and hate how this feeling affects my life in many ways but, again, I need to remember that I am not alone in this war against loneliness.

Whilst I am always excited to be doing my PhD and bringing my research to life, it takes time to adapt to this new normal. I am a pro at adapting in new environments, but I keep on wondering if this icky feeling at the back of my spine is loneliness or worry. However, I am not going to let this feeling win.      




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