The Feeling of “All By Myself” In College (Special blog for our #NODA67 Friends)

by Tina VanSteenbergen

When teaching the message of Social Excellence with students, we have the privilege of sharing with them the key to enjoying their college experience—the key to being successful in their lives. We get to teach the power of relationships. We spread human connection.

As I teach these skills, share my stories about Social Excellence in my own life, there’s a natural process of reflection that takes place. When have people in my life been Socially Excellent? When have I? When wasn’t I making those excellent choices? How is Social Excellence relevant in my life? When would it have been the most helpful to me?

That last question is my favorite—primarily because it immediately brings my memory all the way back to my first day of college. I’m standing next to my residence hall in my distressed holy-jeans and layered tank tops, starring at my campus map and my orientation schedule. My parents had just pulled out of the parking lot with big smiles and well-wishes, and it hit me. I’m here. I’m in college. I’m doing this. I’m doing this all by myself.

…Oh crap. I’m all by myself.

I had never really been all by myself. Ever. I’ve always been a rather friendly, talkative individual. My mother always used to say I could have better conversations with walls than people, since the walls wouldn’t talk back. I’d always been involved—sports, band and orchestra, student government, church groups, and if nothing else, I always had my two sisters. I didn’t realize it until that moment, but I had never really been alone in my life. Ever. Until now.

That’s when it hit me. Panic. Sheer panic. I was a first-generation college student, with little-to-no exposure to or understanding of what college was supposed to be like. Or what on earth I was supposed to do. Sure, they teach you how to be successful in college—go to class, do the reading, participate, meet your academic advisor, get involved, make friends—but no one, and I mean no one, ever taught me how to do these things. Who do I talk to? Where is my academic advisor? When should I get involved, and in what? How do I make friends?

We all know what I didn’t yet know—that the next few days of structured first-year orientation would give me plenty of answers to all of those questions. I would be in a small group of students that have all of those same questions, with an orientation leader trained to help us acclimate. There would be meetings with faculty, involvement fairs, group meals and even service projects, all aimed at helping me assimilate seamlessly into that university culture. And with each of those sessions, each minute of my first-year orientation, I felt the stress disappear, the panic recede. My orientation experience helped me understand that I did belong here, in college, and made me feel like I was going to be okay here. I could do this.

But when I think back on my orientation experience, those three magical days aren’t what I instantly recall. My memory doesn’t go immediately back to the icebreakers we did, the sessions we listened to, or even the service that we did. I don’t even instantly think about the moment I met my best friend or connected with Laura, my Orientation Leader.

I go back to that moment of sheer panic. Of disconnection. Of isolation. Of loneliness. Of fear.

That is the moment where Social Excellence would have been not just helpful to me, but transformational for me. If someone, anyone, had told me that the relationships I build with the people I then knew as strangers would change my life forever, that if I stuck out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Tina,” they would shake it and tell me their name, that the key to feeling less panic, less disconnection, less isolation, less lonlieness, less fear, was the simple act of connecting with another person (and taught me the skills I needed to do so), everything would have been different. Not just different, but better. Exponentially better.

We know that my experience, my fears, were not unique then, and certainly aren’t unique now. In fact, when I started college in 2005, there were less people on cell phones, Facebook had just recently hit our campus, and there were no such things as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or Yik Yak. We had very few things to do other than talk to one another—face to face. But in 2014, we know that’s not the case. The feelings of disconnection, isolation, and loneliness are even more prominent, more problematic for brand new first years now than they have ever been before.

We also know that students who find a real connection, who make a true friend face-to-face in that first week in college are more likely to be successful. They’re more like to stay enrolled, attend their classes, engage in the campus community, and enjoy their experience. Students who connect, succeed.

As I prepared this week to head to Orlando for the National Orientation Directors Association Conference, that memory of my first day of college is more present than ever before. I think about how our message of Social Excellence would have changed my experience, changed my life, that day, and I feel called to change other students’ experiences, to change their lives.

We know that’s what you want, too, NODA. We know you do this work to help students. To help them succeed, to help them grow, to help them learn, to help them graduate. And we would love to help you help them.

Now more than ever before, our new students need this message, need connection, need Social Excellence. We’re on a mission to spread human connection. To share our messages and our stories with your students, to help them be successful, to help them connect. So let’s connect this week. Let’s meet, let’s share stories about our first days of college. Let’s spread human connection at #NODA67 with a little #SocialExcellence.