Photo C/O Madeline Neumann

By: Ran Ren

It is strange how moving from a high school with 1000 students to a university populating over 30,000 can feel far lonelier. For how much high school is negatively tied with cliques and social hierarchies, there exists a certain stability in its tribalism in sharing classes and cafeteria tables with the same people every day.

The fact that you can choose your friends in university is liberating. But there is an inherent hurdle to tackle: an increased difficulty in meeting new people. In a lecture hall of hundreds, friends are no longer whom you sit beside. Gone are the arranged seating plans that forced friendships throughout high school. It is disheartening when after all the handshakes and exchanges of names, your newly-made friends are nowhere to be found the next lecture.

A 2016 survey by the National College Health Assessment found that 68 per cent of Ontario students felt “very lonely” within the past year.

For all the glitz and glamour of constant parties and freedom from parents, the reality of university can be lonely and depressing. With the known links between isolation and other health problems, it is unsurprising then that 61 per cent of students also reported feeling “things are hopeless” and a greater 89 per cent feeling “overwhelmed”.

Social isolation is fundamentally a personal struggle. But so long as it results in mental health issues within students and a resultant strain on campus healthcare resources, it is McMaster University’s struggle as well. With the amount of money McMaster spends on fixing what’s already a problem on counselors or therapy can they afford to ignore the root cause of social isolation?

Implementing stronger support networks can help students. Friends can aid with studying, edit assignments or share notes for missed lectures. Socializing also provides a much-needed outlet for feelings of stress, frustration and sadness. Students who take care of their relationships also take better care of themselves: they exercise more often, eat healthier and sleep better.

Above all, McMaster as a higher education institution has a vested interest in creating students who will become the next generation’s politicians, doctors, engineers, artists, teachers and many more careers which require soft skills, especially social skills. In our current market, workers need to be effective in dynamic group settings. And no one ever became charismatic by spending months studying alone in their dorm.

Of course, words are easier than actions, especially with such a difficult, pervasive issue. It’s not as though McMaster can hunt down lonely students and give them a pep talk.

So what can students do to expand their social circles? The easiest way to make friends is to be around people who share common interests. Every McMaster student automatically pays fees that support the McMaster Students Union, which hosts hundreds of diverse clubs across a wide range of topics including culture, recreation, academics or social issues. Finding new friends can be as easy as finding a club that matches your passion. Even outside of clubs, there are opportunities to meet others through athletics or volunteering.

McMaster has a responsibility to support, advertise and encourage new students to become involved in their community. They ultimately reap the benefits by creating students who are more engaged and with stronger soft skills. Most importantly, they’ll have a student body who are happy and healthy throughout their time at university.

Failing everything else, the simplest solution on the individual basis might be to merely introduce yourself to those sitting beside you during lecture or tutorial. In the end, we all need somebody to lean on.

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