Dozens of red balloons float over a group of 500 students gathered at a meeting of 4Boston, a community service organization at Boston College. A leader, standing tall in front of everyone, throws out a bunch of phrases. She asks students to respond by raising their balloons if they feel the phrase resonates with them.
“BC does not yet feel like home,” the leader says, her words echoing among a silent audience. Everyone in the crowd pulls their eyes from one balloon to another. They wait for someone to raise a hand and let their balloon break the silence about college loneliness.
But no one raises a balloon.
“I wanted to put up my balloon, but I looked around me and no one else did,” says junior Amanda Amorosi. “It is striking to me that no one wants to talk about feeling like you don’t belong at BC.”
Students say this is not because they aren’t lonely. They just don’t want to show that they are.
The university recognizes that a sense of isolation is common on its campus. It has started programs that allow students to participate in different activities to help them feel connected to their peers. But it admits it could be doing more.
“Loneliness is the worst-kept secret at BC,” says Reed Piercey, president of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College.
More than 60 percent of students across 51 college campuses say they have felt “very lonely” in the past 12 months, according to a survey conducted last year by the American College Health Association. Many students won’t talk about this, even though they are struggling inside, according to Piercey. In many cases, that’s because some think they are the only ones who feel lonely.
“There is an ever-present fear that if you bring this up, you are going to be the only one and no one will want to hang out with you. [But] in reality the majority of people are feeling this way or have felt this way,” he says.
For many students, the root of their loneliness is expectation. The difference between what someone wants in their social relationships and what they have can create a pronounced sense of loneliness, experts say.
“When there is a difference between your expected reality and your experienced reality, you experience loneliness much more,” says Craig Burns, director of Boston College’s University Counseling Services.
The prophecy of the “best four years of your life” foretells endless friendships and fun. But that doesn’t always end up happening.
“We live in a culture where you always want to put up a front and show people that you are very, very happy,” says junior Jian Zabalerio. “I think this is exacerbated by Instagram and Facebook. People are constantly putting things up online and showing off how much of a great time they are having.”
Loneliness is also associated with a feeling of not belonging, a lack of connection to a group of people. Research shows that belonging is tougher when someone doesn’t interact with the people around them.
BC is famous for a culture that considers busyness a status symbol. The more involved students are, the better it will make them look. But students say that many times their busyness contributes to a sense of isolation.
“Even if I'm in crowded spaces most of the time, on busy days I don't see my friends. I’m in class by myself, I have to get lunch by myself, I’m in O’Neil grinding by myself,” says freshman Andre Miller. “In times like those I feel alone, and it can get crushing.”
Talking about trouble adjusting and struggles with loneliness in a campus that honors perfection can be daunting, especially because there is a stigma about seeking mental health and counseling services, students say.
Although there is a relationship between feelings of loneliness and having depression or anxiety, sometimes loneliness can just be a feeling, according to Burns.
“Not all feelings that are difficult necessarily need a psychologist as a response, or medication as a response,” he says. “Sometimes, what they need are resources that can just be about finding connections and feeling heard rather than about mental illness.”
That’s why University Counseling Services teamed up with the Office of First Year Experience to send an email to all freshmen about the reality of students’ experiences, specifically during their first year, when things don’t always work out smoothly.
“We can’t tell you what your feeling is, how bad it is, or what it means. But we want people to know that there are a lot of ways to enter into the conversation and to have someone to talk to to get help,” says Ali Bane, associate director of First Year Experience.
The email lists campus resources students can use, such as the Office of Residential Life and Campus Ministry. It invites freshmen to put their contact information on a Google form if they want to talk to someone outside of counseling services. First-year transition can be challenging because of a longing for connections and friendships that students are not finding, according to Bane. But loneliness is not something that ends with freshman year.
Junior year at BC can be lonely too, students say.
“In junior year everyone is moving in so many different directions at a thousand miles an hour. People go abroad, and there is so much hustle and bustle that people get caught up on their own stuff,” says junior Pat McGrath. “This makes it harder to maintain my support network.”
Still, the university focuses resources on the group most likely to experience this struggle: freshmen. Burns says the more students can engage in different aspects of university life, the less isolated and lonely they are likely to feel.
“The strategy across the university is to address head-on the adjustment issue in the first year, and then build in other opportunities for engagement as their years and time at the university continue,” he says.
The university hopes that different extracurricular experiences students find on campus by the time they are upperclassmen will help buffer feelings of loneliness. However, Bane says that is not always the case.
“We spend a lot of intentional efforts in our offices to normalize struggle,” she says. “But to be honest, I don’t think we think about loneliness enough when it comes to our upperclass students. I do think that is something we could do better.”
Still, students agree that while loneliness affects students from all classes, it does get better as time goes by.
“The more time goes by, the more I get comfortable at BC,” says Miller.