The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.
Wildcat Welcome is somewhat like a New Year’s Resolution: incoming freshmen are told so many times that this is it, the beginning of something wonderful, that they’ll get to have this entirely transformative experience and find happiness, love and a meaningful and fulfilling career at Deloitte, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs – whatever their gig is. Don’t get me wrong, the positivity is important. I don’t think we tell ourselves enough here that we are valuable and are here for a reason because when all your friends are out there changing the world, self-worth can be a hard sell.
The assumption that everyone's experience will be uniformly good is as flawed as the assumption that during the course of a single week we’ll simultaneously find our closest friends and figure out what we’re going to do with our lives, so it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing to have a little help getting there.
It would be nice to make friends with more of the people we meet during Wildcat Welcome, but considering how college is structured, it’s a lot to ask. I didn’t have classes with my PA group buddies, or even live close enough to them to wave while waiting for the walk sign to cross Chicago Avenue. The reality of college is that it’s hard to make friends when you aren’t, as in high school, forced to attend classes you don’t like for 45 minutes a day, five days a week with the same people. When you do go to your discussion section or to that excruciatingly long three-hour class on Tuesday, it’s hard to engage in vibrant conversation while your professor is explaining linear regression or singing Tolstoy’s praises (sidenote: take the class, the CTECs aren’t lying). I’d go to class, be physically (and sometimes mentally) present, go eat alone at Plex and seclude myself in my dorm to study. It was hard to find a whole lot of time for making friends.
Yes, sometimes it is about reaching out. It’s about not caring whether that person you met will think you’re weird for wanting to get lunch at Sargent, to chat and maybe make a new friend. The chances are good that they’d like to do the same, but taking the first step is really, really hard. It’s not like college students are actively looking for more things to worry about.
Last week, I had an opportunity to attend "Deep Dish Reflecting," an event co-hosted by Questbridge and SESP (#sesplove!), where the point was to practice listening to other people and think empathetically rather than critically. It took the form of partnering up with a stranger and spending 20 minutes each asking questions and paying attention to their responses without interrupting. First of all, it makes you realize how rare it is that we focus our attention span for an extended duration (I certainly haven’t in any of my classes). I got something else out of it, though – a kind of person-to-person connection that I didn’t feel was present during Wildcat Welcome, as necessary as it is. This isn’t to say that PAs don’t do fantastic work in trying to foster a sense of community. But drawing from personal experience, it would help if the university sponsored more events and gave Peer Advisors the resources and freedom to design their own, especially for mid-year TNDs that people don’t feel obligated to fit into their schedules. While it’s nice to have informal meetings, a lack of structure can sometimes inhibit our ability to engage in meaningful conversation with one another.
At the end of the day, the topic of loneliness is something we’re afraid of talking about. No one seems to be comfortable saying it, but who hasn’t at one point felt like they wanted to make friends? Who at some point on a Friday night hasn’t felt alone? As much fun as going to parties is, you can’t exactly walk up to a stranger and ask them whether or not they think people are inherently good or evil without raising a few eyebrows. It’s easy to dismiss structured social interaction when you’re in the company of your best friends, whom you can talk to about any topic, no matter how nonsensical or downright weird. But maybe you want to know the answer to questions like that and be able to talk about other things that mean a lot to you with people you’d really like to get to know better. And in figuring out how to do that, I think having events, such as "Deep Dish Reflecting," where people feel free to simply talk to one another and practice empathy, can do a lot to help. No matter what form that takes, I don’t think we’d be any worse with it.