The Hidden Clique

University is supposedly the best time of our lives. There are a vast number of new people to meet, a wide range of new experiences and a chance – in many cases – for a first shot at independence from familial molly coddling. From the chaos of our first arrival on campus, to the ‘shock-and-awe’ approach of the ‘Freshers’ Address’ and the manic revelry of Week One, it is made utterly clear that university life is not merely career enhancement, but a life experience – and one not to be missed at that. But what if it turns into an experience we’d rather forget? Far from bathing in the Ocean, what of the students who spend their Friday nights marooned on dry land?

November, the second full month of university for freshers, is a pretty important time. We’ve been around long enough to realise that our courses involve far less teaching than we might have expected, to speak authoritatively about which obscure bar is the best in the city (despite only visiting it once) and to start thinking about who we’re going to live with next year. It’s also around the time where some start to ask why, in this much-lauded social Mecca, they’re starting to feel utterly alone in a massive crowd of people.

The bottom line, according to Loughborough University Counselling Services, is simple. “Loneliness is a chronic problem for 17% of students in Higher Education”, they say, meaning, “In a university of 10,000 students, 1700 of them may well be suffering long-lasting feelings of loneliness”. The University of Nottingham Students’ Union represents over 35,000 students, so the arithmetic isn’t too difficult to do. Equally, the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported in 2003 that “As many as 60% of first-year students report homesickness”. This is potentially a vast swathe of individuals, a hidden ‘clique’ of anonymous members, all of whom needlessly suffering in isolation.

The reasons for loneliness on campus are varied, but not entirely surprising. For many, attending university is their first time living away from home for a significant period, something to which every individual reacts differently. Equally, while the immediate creation of cliques is an obvious result of so many people suddenly living together, they can present a seemingly impenetrable front to outsiders. Many of us must go from being a big fish in a small pond to being a tiny fish in a giant sea – and, to overextend the nautical metaphor, a small fish is slightly lost without a shoal.

Equally, despite its great reputation, Week One is capable of being an incredibly discomfiting experience – never before, and arguably never again, are students ever subjected to such a cacophony of falsehood and effrontery (unless they are planning to enter politics, perhaps). For every story of a student who met their lifetime best friends in the first week of their university careers, there is a student who – while probably enjoying the week – is a little more circumspect about their experience. Considering the magnitude of expectations of university life, it’s hardly surprising that many students come away from their first few weeks of university feeling disappointed and disaffected – in the end, meeting the right people in the first few weeks of university can be entirely a matter of luck.

In the face of the unavoidably intimidating atmosphere of university, immediately forming friendship groups is the obvious thing to do. The problem, of course, is that while this ‘system’ favours the instantly confident and outgoing individual, it is not too difficult to find yourself totally alienated if you are not a member of this group.

University is also a place for some very serious soul-searching. As one student put it, “It’s the discovery that for everything you thought you were really good at, there is somebody who is better than you at it.” It is not uncommon for students to find detailed career plans failing to survive their first week of university, and the lack of a guiding motivation can take many off the rails.

As members of what can legitimately be called the ‘Facebook Generation’, university students of today are also facing an expanded definition of friendship – while some can boast friend lists of gargantuan proportions, studies suggest that no matter how sociable we are, our brains are only equipped to handle – at most – 150 friends.

Being alone does not constitute loneliness. Being alone can be a very good thing – it’s important for people to make time for themselves, whether it is to rest, recuperate or reflect. The peril of loneliness, however, is that while students may realise that they are suffering from it, they will not attempt to rectify the problem. The assumption may be that if somebody admits to loneliness upon arriving at university, they must therefore have something wrong with them, or have ‘failed’ in some way. Equally, the anxiety of whether to share concerns could compound the problem, leading to a downward spiral. If a student blames themselves for their loneliness, this can lead to a development of a dangerous self-consciousness that hampers any efforts to solve the problem.

The Students’ Union’s Equal Opportunities and Welfare Officer, Katie Mackay, notes that some students eventually reach the point where they do not even leave their rooms for lectures, and is working in collaboration with the university’s mental health advisor on an ‘avoidance campaign’, in the hope of convincing people to confront mental health issues. “The difficulty is finding people who just don’t leave their rooms.”, she said, “The avoidance campaign is to try and find those people who aren’t coming out – the idea is to go to them. It’s a publicity campaign which should be happening sometime this semester.”

Especially for arts students, a lack of contact with their home department can cause or exacerbate any problems they may be having with settling in – a mentality noted in a 1972 study of alienation amongst American college students, but which would surely find resonance among students of a university as large as ours: “Sometimes I think a student could drop dead or out and nobody would know or care.” I myself have met my personal tutor once, when I was considering changing to another course – it’s more my fault than his, but when I have a total of seven contact hours in a week, it is perhaps understandable that I – and many students like myself – could suffer a ‘disconnect’ from my department and any pastoral support it might offer.

This line of pastoral support is murky at best, and is a vital area to improve if the Students’ Union is serious about improving students’ access to welfare support. Faculty Coordinators, School Reps, Course Reps, JCRs, hall staff, feedback committees between students and staff and other such individuals and groups all combine to reinforce the idea of a university and a union that are far bigger than the individual – they create an unforgiving void in which it is easy for an individual to retreat into themselves and become totally alienated. Events like the Freshers’ Address fulfil a similar purpose – creating the impression of a massive and inaccessible Union.

The pastoral problem is made worse if, put bluntly, you’re white, British, able-bodied and straight. While various incredibly useful networks exist to support various different groups (such as postgraduate, black and minority ethnic, LGBT, etc), these do not cover a significant proportion of the university population – while nobody would ever seriously suggest the creation of a ‘white’ officer, it is undoubtedly the case that there is a disparity in the level of support offered by networks within the Union.

There are organisations that can provide support to all students – they key is people deciding to seek help. Nightline, for example (which can be found on 0115 951 4985), is a confidential and student run service which students can phone and simply talk to somebody without the fear of being lectured at, while the university also offers a counselling service.

Equally, the Students’ Union must ensure that, for all of the bombast of Week One and the subsequent few weeks, students know that their union is much smaller than it might appear. While there are a vast number of societies, Student-Run-Services and networks to join, all this does is make it much easier for everyone to find their place – they’re an excuse to get out of accommodation and do something interesting and worthwhile.

Self-help, then, is a key facet of coping with loneliness – as anybody who has suffered from loneliness can testify, while there are groups which can provide a friendly voice to speak to, they cannot find friends for you. There is a website which claims to be able to: Rentafriend.com, a website which has recently seen some increased news coverage, does offer friendship for $10 per hour – and there are some ‘friends’ available for hire in Nottingham – but this is hardly a solution.

As John C. Parkin points out in his self-help book ‘Fuck It’, “We are defined by the level of self-approval that we have…but anything that smacks of anything but approval throws you off. If it really matters to you that other people approve of you, you will inevitably come up against one hell of a bummer fact: you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Most people are “fucked up”, he says, “but their fuck-ups are completely different.” The solution to the problem, he says? Fuck it. Get out of that bedroom and take every opportunity – within reason – that presents itself. Risk taking the initiative, and at least you’ve tried.

University is not initially everyone’s cup of tea – it’s impossible for it to be. There’s nothing at all to say that university must be the same for all us, and the challenge isn’t so much to conform, but to discover our source of self-worth – to work out for ourselves that, yes, the space we are occupying counts for something. At the very least it can be reassuring to know that one of the most notable things about loneliness at university is, oddly enough, that those suffering are most certainly not alone.

Dave Jackson

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24 Comments on this post.
  • Naomi
    11 November 2010 at 22:49
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    Since starting uni this year I have found it incredibly hard. It’s not like it’s my first time away from home as I had a gap year where I travelled by myself but here I have found making friends incredibly hard. Not only that but the content of my course has left me wondering how I got a place here. Also, whilst I am aware that I am not the only person in this boat when you see people around you having fun and making friends and creating friendship groups it only makes the loneliness worse. However, I am doing as much as possible and getting out and I really hope that the situation improves. If anyone else feels the same then stay strong and get all the help you can get. If it’s there use it.

  • Dave Jackson
    12 November 2010 at 14:12
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    From talking to gap-year students in the process of writing this article, I’ve found that a significant number of them struggled a lot more than people who hadn’t been away from home before – the feeling was that they had spent their year out growing up and becoming more well rounded, only to then return to what can be quite an immature community upon going to uni.

    I didn’t do a gap-year myself, but certainly my first thought when I got to uni was “Aren’t we a little bit too old for this now?”

    Thanks for the comments on the article, you’re certainly not alone, and it does get better.

  • B C
    12 November 2010 at 18:19
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    Great article, addresses a big problem that’s never talked about. Week one is a travesty – geared solely towards the extroverted crowd, offers no structured events for the less outgoing to meet others

  • roflcopter
    12 November 2010 at 19:44
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    “The pastoral problem is made worse if, put bluntly, you’re white, British, able-bodied and straight. While various incredibly useful networks exist to support various different groups (such as postgraduate, black and minority ethnic, LGBT, etc), these do not cover a significant proportion of the university population”

    I agree, there is no such thing as the women’s network and Rosie does not exist.

  • roflcopter
    12 November 2010 at 21:55
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    B C- while I agree that week one is ridiculous, surely you be trolling. You are almost right though, this year there was nothing structured for the less extroverted people. Oh, apart from the pub quiz on monday. And the salsa on tuesday. And the debate on tuesday. And the hypnotist on wednesday. And the screening of the hangoverm on wednesday. And the pub quiz on thursday. And the coedy night on thursday. And the Festival & interhall tornement on friday. And theNew Theatre performance of the retreat on friday. And the day trip to Alton Towers on Saturday. And the New Theatre performance of Only One wing on the Saturday. And the Final Night Acoustic Mix on the Sunday. And various other events put on by a few societies throughout the week.

    So yeah, basically, if students aren’t extroverted and don’t like clubbing, there is literally nothing structured for them to do. And for those of us who feel that the amount of things put on is inaquate, the only way to bring about change is to comment on someone’s article on the impact magazine, rather than taking it upon ourselves to get involved and be one of the hardworking and brilliant people who organise the week one events.

  • Dave Jackson
    12 November 2010 at 22:18
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    I think the flaw in your argument is that you’re mistaking the phrase ‘less extroverted’ for ‘non-drinking’. You’re barmy if you think that somebody who is not a natural extrovert is going to go salsa-ing on their second full day of university.

    As for the women’s network comment:

    My point ——————————————–>

    …………………………..Your Head.

  • Anthony
    12 November 2010 at 23:29
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    Firstly, I’m hugely impressed by the maturity of this article, not only is it written with grace and style, it covers untrodden ground, which is desperately needed (I’ve never heard of Nightline before, but I will be volunteering, and trying to set up one for my uni next year).

    i took a gap year, and yes, it can be hard to take a step backwards a year. It is often impossible to find a way to develop in the Union set-up, but I was lucky enough to have a sociable course. Mainly because it was very small, I dread to think what would have happened if I’d been on an anonymous ‘big numbers’ degree.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that if first year is bad, then spare a thought for us that have decided to take part in the Erasmus program (or any other kind of overseas study exchange/work placement), where I currently am. I have the good fortune of having met, and got along with a quite large foreign community. However there is still a culture shock, myself finding I am constantly frustrated by the lack of dynamism from those around me. Getting bored at ‘parties’ etc etc, and when you’re so far from things familiar it is certainly difficult to see any chances to improve the situation. Still, foreign placements are right for some people, and I’m sure I’ll get used to it 🙂

  • Anthony
    12 November 2010 at 23:32
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    I think the whole article has passed roflcopter by. Shame.

  • roflcopter
    13 November 2010 at 01:50
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    Granted, some people may not feel that they wish to salsa. “Get out of that bedroom and take every opportunity – within reason – that presents itself. Risk taking the initiative, and at least you’ve tried.” :- I too think that it is important to make the most of your uni experience and get involved , however learning a new dance move is a step to far. But the point I was responding to was one not in the article, but in a comment, and that was there was “nothing” for the less extroverted. For me to show this point to be invalid, then there has to be at least one thing that fits the category. Will you accept the two pub quizes? (Of course, I suggested this because I know that not-extroverted means none drinking, and as far as I am aware no man in history has ever drank in a pub). Or the Friday festival?

    I get the point that for an article to appear in the Impact, it generally, unless it is an article saying how wonderful the latest New Theatre production is, should have at least one swear word, because thats big and clever.

  • Phil
    13 November 2010 at 12:50
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    Brilliant article Dave.

    Week 1 is one of the hardest things i think you ever have to deal with. That point when your parents have dropped you off and you sit in your room trying to get yourself to go down the bar and start talking to people you’ve never met before etc… Particularly when everybody for some reason seems to know each other already??? How does that work??? Id only just turned 18 when I started at Nottingham, still just a kid really. Overall had a fantastic time but was a tough (and lonely) at times as well!!!

  • Jasmin
    14 November 2010 at 12:27
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    The rules of syntax, grammar and punctuation seemed to have passed ‘roflcopter’ (why the pseudonym I wonder?) by.

    Anyway…. What exactly are you trying to achieve? Nobody said that ‘Week One’ failed – for 90% of students it hit the mark – we’re talking about those who don’t fit into that category, and what we can do to make their University experience equally as enjoyable. I agree that saying there is ‘nothing’ for the less extrovert student is perhaps hyperbolic, but how about using your list of events as suggestions rather than part of an immature, sarcy attack on an article that was intended to help people?

    Why the vitriol?

  • R
    22 November 2010 at 23:47
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    wonderful article!
    of course some people ease into uni and nottingham does a great job at giving a University experience to everything. However, highlighting the very common and natural response to coming to university takes the taboo off, not having the best time of your life at uni is possible.
    If people appreciate how normal it is to feel stressed at Uni, they can feel all the more comfortable in getting some help if they want it. It’s there because it’s needed. Nightline is a huge service, and the counselling service is used so much there’s a 3 week waiting list on average – that’s how many people feel talking to someone can really help them. to the lonely and stressed, you’re not the minority, you’re a university student


  • roflcopter
    23 November 2010 at 12:08
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    The rules of using your eyes to see what someone has written seems to have past ‘Jasmine by.
    Anyway “attack on an article” ? – “But the point I was responding to was one not in the article, but in a comment “

  • Joe
    26 November 2010 at 02:31
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    For someone called ‘roflcopter’ you seem a tad angry.

    Week One can’t cater to everyone’s needs, nor can the SU, but at least it treats everyone equally on arrival. Even the dancing introvert alcoholics. Importantly the reps (as far as they can) try to provide a safety net that would otherwise not be there, for both those homesick and who drink to much during the week. Without them people might die. BC you’re a murderer.

    Good article Dave, banging last paragraph.

  • Liz
    26 November 2010 at 05:32
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    Roflcopter has made a very valid point about the comment aimed at Week One but has unfornuately lessened its impact with the very poor humour. The claims that Week One is a “travesty” and offers no structure for the less outtgoing is simply unfounded, as already pointed out there was at least one if not more alternative events everyday during freshers week, advertised equally in the freshers books and posters. These events wouldnt be organised if Week One didn’t appreciate that not everyone wants to go out clubbing every night. Most of these alternative events are normally very well attended, but as the article states it is very difficult to reach those students who simply do not come out their room. There is little Week one can do about this short of knocking on every single door except organise these events. However there is no getting round the fact Week One is also about the “traditional” freshers week experience, as this is still what about 90% of students expect, want and enjoy.The reason it appears to be the focus of Week One is simply because that is what the majority take part in, and theres no denying or getting round that. But just because Week One aims to give those students a fantastic time does not mean that it does not care about and value the rest. It takes up the majority of the week because thats what the majority do. fact. But through the pub quiz’s, comedy evenings, acoustic nights, alton towers trips, film viewings, hypnotists….Week One tries to reach out to those isolated in the above article……it may not have succeeded just yet and does still need work to find the activities that can engage the most people, but it certainly can’t be knocked for trying. So calling Week One a “travesty” is really rather unfair.

  • dan
    26 November 2010 at 15:00
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    Re; Dave’s comments above.

    I can second that as a Post-Grad student, it is an eerie experience at times. It might also be linked to my vagabond outlook as well.

    BTW – there are 9000 post-grads here. Where’s the coverage ? 🙂

  • Alex Song
    26 November 2010 at 15:08
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    Taking a different approach…

    I think there’s too much emphasis being placed on Week One and the university here. The university is primarily an educational institution, its main concern is providing student with the higher education they came to get. University is not for everyone, some people take a long time to adapt to independence and being away from home, and so I think the main problem lies within the government initiative of getting 50% of people under the age of 30 into universities. Some people aren’t suited to the academic nature of higher education, some aren’t suited to the independence and many aren’t suited to it for a variety of other reasons. In my opinion, realistically, far less than half the population should be undertaking a degree. So many people waste 3 years of their life studying a course which has no bearing on their future career. The government should really try and encourage people to be more productive with their time so academic institutions like Nottingham would be less crowded and have more time to deal with those who really need it.

    And then there’s a second fundamental problem at uni… Unfortunately (for some), we are in the midst of an era where students expect to go to university and drink themselves silly most nights and freshers week is supposed to be one of the craziest weeks of your life. Maybe the more introverted people wouldn’t have such a problem if there was less of a ‘lad’ culture surrounding university. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting smashed all the time and I don’t plan on trying to change anything myself, but it’s not the best trend to be setting and doesn’t help those people who have come to uni to try and learn without getting wasted at crisis and ocean.

    ‘University is not initially everyone’s cup of tea’. Perhaps, in some cases, university is just not everyone’s cup of tea full stop.

  • Sam
    5 January 2011 at 21:27
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    I understand that coming to university can be a daunting prospect for many. Trying to make new friends doesn’t come easily to everybody and I’m sure most people become lonely or depressed at times.

    However, in my opinion it comes down to individuals forcing themselves to leave their rooms and meet new people on their own rather than hoping that somehow a group of friends will spontaneously appear around them. Although I agree that some events Week One provides can be crude and centred around drinking, there are a wide range of activities to cater to many different groups within the university populace and to expect much more from the Students’ Union would be asking a lot. I don’t intend to sound cruel when I say this, but surely the ‘less extroverted’ students should be the ones trying the hardest to create new relationships. After all, how much can the university really do if it is a person’s disposition that’s holding them back from making new friends?

    I know that it is a large step coming from the relatively sheltered community of a school to the cacophony that is university, but most people will be 18 or older when they get here and if someone cannot embrace the experience with an open mind and mature outlook then how will they survive when it comes to finding a job? There are far fewer support networks within the working population and we all need to take it upon ourselves to grow up at some point.

  • SR
    17 January 2011 at 16:01
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    Like Anthony, I’m also taking part in the Erasmus program this year and from my experience and listening to the experiences of others in a similar position (including a German friend who spent a semester at Nottingham), British universities far surpass universities in other countries regarding the integration of new students. When I arrived at Nottingham two years ago I was met with a week of incredibly varied events which even got the non-extroverted-non-drinkers-non-party-goers from my block out of their rooms at least one night out of the seven, one girl going to the Moonlighters concert and a guy going to the pub quiz and the comedy show. The French university I’ve been attending this semester seemingly made little effort to integrate even its own students, never mind the foreigners in a new country. Remember that France is a country where many uni students live at home and therefore probably find it harder initially to make friends and socialise compared to those who live in generally sociable British halls.

    No doubt there will be some students that don’t leave their rooms apart from going to lectures, but you can’t really expect the SU to plan activities to cater for every niche taste. In any case, there’s plenty of societies for that. We’re actually very lucky that the union makes such an effort to cover all bases so that the overwhelming majority of students can find at least one event to go along to.

  • Anonymous
    1 November 2011 at 09:59
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    Having just started my second year, this article couldn’t have summed up my first year any better. I found it really hard to make friends in the first year–the pressure on you to make a “best friend” and immediately find a group of people that you love going out with every night and can’t get enough of is so immense, and just didn’t happen to me until nearing the end of my first year.
    I agree, the pastoral help at university isn’t what I thought it might be: I Definately feel I would benefit from more meetings with my personal tutor, and particularly as I’m suffering from depression, to have the frequent and continual support really would have made a difference for me especially in the first term of last year.

    This is a really amazing article and for someone that felt every feeling described in this article, it’s a relief and a pleasure to read and to finally see that someone has pinpointed and presented it so well.

  • Dave Jackson
    1 November 2011 at 15:55
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    Thanks Anonymous – you’re exactly the person I was aiming at, along with the others out there who felt/feel the same way.

  • MS
    5 December 2011 at 19:12
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    Very very comforting to realise that im not alone-wish I could find these other people!

  • Jane
    13 December 2011 at 14:50
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    A good article but I think that you’ve missed out an important sector of people feeling isolated–those who live away from university and commute in. As someone who does this I’ve found it hard to attend social events even with a car. Perhaps there needs to be more of an online community at the university?

  • MS
    13 December 2011 at 16:51
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    If you’re lonely I don’t feel an online community would help. People need face-to-face time to alleviate those feelings of isolation. I’m sure when spending too much time online many people feel even more isolated. It is a lot more difficult to integrate when not living in halls, but most people know that when they choose not to live in halls (or for some reason are not given a chance to reside on campus).

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