Can I tell you how hyped I was to start college? I was so excited! I had the full “traditional” American experience at a four-year university and absolutely loved it. Yet, I would see some students around me who hated it and I just didn’t get it. What’s not to love? There’s so much freedom and new experiences and friends and parties and learning etc etc. I didn’t get how people could feel lonely or dislike college—and then I went to law school and was like oh. I get it. The loneliness and feelings of detachment that many students of color experience when they start college smacked me in the face when I started law school. This disconnect from campus is something many of us undergo during our educational journey.
For many Latinas going into college—especially if they’re moving away from home—it can be a shock to their system. You’re away from family and friends, likely in a very homogeneous campus, exposed to new norms and mores that you’re not used to; maybe even interacting with people from much higher socioeconomic statuses than you’re used to, and it can all feel like you don’t belong. And it seems almost impossible to explain what you’re going through to family back home because many of us are First Gen students and our families have no real understanding what we’re experiencing. Beyond not having anyone that really understands, we also don’t want to come off as if we’re complaining about what’s supposed to be a really awesome and fortunate time in our lives—and if parents are contributing financially? Olvidalo! The guilt can be too real.
If you’re a new college student and are feeling isolated and questioning your ability and right to be on campus, what can you do to feel more secure and positive about your time in school?
One. Build a community. I cannot express enough how important it is to get out there and meet new people. It can be intimidating, but the great thing about the start of school is that everyone is in the same boat so it’s not weird to go out in search of friends, because everyone is doing it. I really push for Latinas to make friends with other women of color and to join those student organizations that focus on students of color—but you don’t have to do that exclusively and if the politics or vibe of those groups aren’t for you—that’s ok too! Just find your people—that should be your big goal to help you get settled into college life.
Two. Don’t use family as a crutch. If you’re just one or two hours away from home, it can be so enticing to visit your family and friends more often than not. I get it—you go home to good food, your own space, familiarity, it feels good (or it lessens the guilt because you spend some time helping out at home). But spending a lot of time away from campus, can deter your ability to make connections. A benefit of American college is building friendships and a network for your future career. It’s hard to do that when you’re always back home. It’s easy to think that you won’t ever see most of the people on campus after you graduate (true) so what’s the use of connecting with them? But through acquaintances from college I have been given job leads and exposed to other opportunities—even more important, I have even been able to help clients because of those connections. Learning to network, building support groups, being an agent of change for most of us starts in college so take advantage of the time you have there.
Three. Recognize when it’s more than loneliness. Feeling lonely and sad is a common feeling. You’re in a new place, perhaps aren’t yet connecting with people and away from your home. But if these feelings last longer than most or your disposition has changed dramatically, then take a second to really consider whether it’s more than just a bit of the blues and what you’re experiencing is actual depression. Obviously, I’m not a doctor (duh), but I know what it feels like to feel like you’re in a constant fog and to not feel like yourself without any seemingly valid explanation. The end of my Junior year, I battled a bit of a depressive episode (which is totally normal) and it was hard. I thought I was better during my summer, but Senior year started and I was quickly overwhelmed. I would sleep late into the day, miss classes, and barely get assignments in on time—all under the guise of being “busy.” But the truth was that I was struggling a lot and if I could go back in time I would have sought out help to balance out all the negative emotions. It’s ok to be sad, it’s ok to need help, and it’s ok to seek mental health services.
Your goal in school is to excel so that you move on to your next goal in life, which is hopefully law school, right? But don’t dismiss the importance of making connections and mastering the college system. Finally, even when you feel like you don’t belong, know that you do. You belong in college just like the legacy down the hall. You will succeed and soon enough you will feel so comfortable on campus that this will be some of the best times of your life.