Updated: May 13
Are you feeling lonely and out of place at university? You are not alone! Did you know that according to a 2018 survey, nearly half (46%) of UK students admitted to feeling lonely at university. Research has also suggested that as many as one in six students feel they have no ‘true friends’ at university. If you are feeling alone at university it may help to know that you are not the only one and more often than not it gets better with time.
I am now in my third and final year at the University of Bristol. My experience so far has been somewhat of a rollercoaster. As well as some significant highs, I have also experienced my fair share of negative feelings and emotions at university. In my first year, the feeling of isolation and loneliness was definitely one of my biggest mental health battles. I joined university, after taking a year out to travel, with the expectation that it would be the best three years of my life so far. While on my gap year I saw the social media posts of my friends from school, which looked like they were having the time of their lives at university. I later began to realise that social media only portrays what the person posting wants you to see, normally being the best parts and usually only being a tiny proportion of that person's life.
After seeing these posts and talking to friends who were already at university I was so excited to start. However, I quickly discovered that being a student wasn’t all fun and games! After having such a great school experience, I expected university to be the same. When in actual fact, I have never felt more isolated and alone. I found it difficult to bond with others one to one. Going out and drinking was the main attraction to being ‘a fresher’. In first year I felt obligated to go out nearly every night, even when I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. Nonetheless, even on a night out, surrounded by other students I felt totally alone. I continuously wondered, does anyone else feel like this? Who would be there for me if I really needed them? No one wanted to admit to others that they were struggling, it was hard to even admit this to yourself!
Attending university in the face of a global pandemic
Things were made worse when right in the middle of my first year Covid-19 came about. However, after talking to friends more recently, I found out many of them also felt a feeling of relief when we all had to go home (not realising at the time the severity of the pandemic). My time at home gave me a much needed break. University can be incredibly exhausting and I was glad to be home with my family, where there were no social expectations.
Then it was time to go back in September for my second year. I cannot even put into words the panic I felt. I had spent six months at home and had not seen anyone from university, I felt even more estranged. With a number of lockdowns, limited socialisation and almost no chances to meet new people, my second year was tough! While this is true, it also gave me the opportunity to bond more with the people I already knew, finally finding out I wasn't the only one who felt lonely! Just knowing I wasn't the only one, made me feel far less isolated! I slowly began to build my friendships and create a support network.
If I could give any future university students advice, it would be to give it time! Making friends as an adult is a slow process and is more tricky than when you were at school. Some friendships may not work out the way you thought and some can appear out of nowhere with the people you least expected you would bond with. Give everyone a chance. It is definitely worth it! If you are feeling negatively impacted by certain people, cut them out! Not everyone will be true friends to you, but it is worth giving your time and energy to the ones who are!
Do not panic if you do not make great friends in your first week, or even your first few months. You have years. I guarantee if you want friends, the right people will want to be your friends, you just have to find them. Once you begin to find the right people, that feeling of isolation slowly starts to fade and at some point seems to completely vanish. Remember, this takes time! It was not until my second year that I began to feel included and wanted. Now, in my third and final year, I don’t want university to end! I have made some amazing friends who I know I can rely on and who will support me because they know I will do the same for them.
I have had some incredible times, I have laughed more than ever this year and my confidence has massively improved. Everyone at university is capable of feeling this way. Just take it one step at a time. Start by asking a course-mate to have a coffee with you or joining a society. This may appear scary at first but could result in a lifelong friendship. If it doesn't work out the first time, try again! Remember everyone is in the same boat and most people (the right ones) will be delighted that you are making the effort to be their friend!
In my opinion, the key to having a good time at university is having a good balance between work, socialising and relaxing. It is easy to forget to take time for yourself amongst the stress of work and the social pressure. Everyone needs some down time, whether that's having a duvet day with some Netflix or taking a book to read in the sun. It is incredibly important to recharge your social battery so that you can actually enjoy and look forward to spending time with your friends.
The same goes for your work. You will only produce good work if you are in the right mindset. Put your mental health first. As important as it is to try your best, it is far more important to feel safe, secure and happy at university!
My top tips for anyone starting university, currently at university or knows someone who is, would be firstly not to put too much pressure on yourself. You do not need to exceed everyone else's expectations, your happiness is the most important thing!
Secondly, if you want to make new friends, put yourself out there! It will pay off! I promise there are people out there who want to be your friends just as much as you want them to be.
Thirdly, be organised! Make time for yourself. Make time to have fun. Make time to complete your work in time. This will reduce your stress and give you more time to focus on your relationships and wellbeing!
About the author
Lucie Hawkes is a third-year student studying Psychology in Education at the University of Bristol.
Share this with others starting uni or at risk of feeling alone in their loneliness.