If you’re reading this, I’ve been there too.
You may feel like I did about 6 months ago – when I first started college and was on my own, alone, for the first time in my life.
Most kids grow up craving independence - all they want to do is grow up and keep moving forward - Not to be critical, I was this way too when growing up. Ever since I got my first tastes of freedom all I wanted was to have more of it, and college was always the light at the end of the tunnel for me and my independence. Every time I got grounded, lectured, or yelled at the thought was always, “college is only so far off.”
Now, finally, that day had come. Move in day 2016 for the brand new Wahoos at the University of Virginia. My liberation day was finally here, and I couldn’t be more excited for it. I spent the last four years of my life serving my purpose in high school, paying my dues with leadership, resume builders, community service, and all the other college box checking that was necessary to achieve my dream of attending this university. I was finally where I was meant to be, at my dream school, with absolute freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted, with no repercussions from my parents.
Everything was just how I had dreamt it to be in the years leading up to this moment, it was amazing – all of it. Until the moment came where it was time to say goodbye to my family. It was then that I realized that I was saying goodbye to the only familiar faces that I had around me. We said our goodbyes on the curb next to my dorm, hugged and cried, then they pulled away…
And I was completely alone.
All my life I have had my family and friends right by my side. I never moved as a kid, I went all the way from kindergarten through high school graduation with most of my friends. Now I had literally no one for the first time ever in my life. The excitement of college and my newfound independence faded into a fear of change and instability that was all very new to me.
Most of my life I always had an identity. In elementary school, I was the kid who loved hockey and always rocked the Washington Capitals jersey to class. In middle school, I was that same kid who loved hockey, but also had the class clown personality who wasn’t afraid to crack that joke that everyone was thinking of but no one wanted to say. Finally, in high school I became the jack of all traits. I played varsity hockey starting freshman year, became the president of our National Honor Society, and lead our DECA club to multiple national conferences. Teachers and administrators knew me; they knew that I was reliable and an example that could set a tone in the class room. Even our principle asked me personally to do favors for him from time to time. I know that this all may sound very narcissistic, but my point here is, that people knew me. They didn’t just know my face, they knew who I was, what I did, and what kind of a person I was. To put a cliché to good use, I was a relatively big fish in a small pond for a community.
But here I am now. Standing on a curb with tears in my eyes as I watch my last bit of familiarity drive off. I am nobody now.
Life went on like this for almost the entire semester. I tried to hide the loneliness that I felt – put on a fake face for most of the day when everyone was around. I tried to escape myself by doing stupid shit like partying and getting drunk on the weekends. That only made things worse as I pissed off a lot of people and made more mistakes that just packed on guilt to my internal misery. The fact that I was at an elite university didn’t help either, as the worked forced me to confide to the depths of the library until 2am most nights of the week.
I had made some friends, but they all felt superficial. Nothing compared to the community I had back home. Worst of all I felt as if I had no purpose. I was now a really, really small fish in what seemed like a sea full of sharks and for a community. I didn’t join many organizations or clubs, and with the work load and pace that I was trying to run, I dropped most of the ones that I did join. I didn’t know who I was anymore – for the first time in my life I had no identity. I was known for nothing, and I felt as if I was worth nothing to the community that I so longed to be a part of for all those years.
This empty feeling of waking up and feeling as if there was no reason to leave my bed went on until thanksgiving break, so about three months. Finally, at that break I took time to be with my family and opened up to them about how I felt. They helped me do some much-needed inflection on my situation and how I was handling my problems. I asked myself what was working for me, and what wasn’t. More importantly I asked myself what role did I want to fill in my new community.
Now, it is the halfway mark of my second semester at the University and life is starting to look up again. I decided to reach out to a bunch of organizations at school: student council, the professional business fraternity, the student finance comity, you name it. I didn’t end up getting into most of them, and the ones that I did get accepted to didn’t necessarily work out for me – but is okay, I’m still me even if I’m not part of one of these organizations, and most importantly I’m still happy.
I finally realized that I don’t need some fancy title to be who I am. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be for a while too. Right now, I’m not supposed to be Joe the president of whatever, or Joe the leader of that club – I think right now I’m just Joe who is still figuring it out, and I’m proud of that. Instead of frantically trying to find an identity I’m more focused on making sure that I’m happy, and that I don’t waste this dream of a college experience frantically searching for my next leadership role or my next big accomplishment.
Instead I’ve spent more time hanging out with guys in my dorm hall. I’ve stopped going out and getting wasted to solve my problems, now I just go to my friends on the hall for their advice. UVA is finally starting to feel like a true home to me, people know me around grounds, I’m focused on making the most of my time here, I’m not comparing myself to everyone around me anymore, and finally after a semester of struggling I feel truly happy in my environment.
I guess the moral of my story is this: I know that change can be hard, and it can be even harder when you are entering a community where you feel like you are just one in the crowd and nothing special – but it gets better. Stop focusing on what you are not, and focus on who you are right now in this moment. So, what if you don’t have a fancy title, or are in charge of three different organizations. Instead, reach out to people and make new friends, stay in contact with the ones you already have, call your family, play a sport – just spend your time doing something that will make you happy, and the rest will eventually come to you.
Joe R., University of Virginia