How I am learning to live with loneliness at a Jesuit college

Photo by Joshua Chua on Unsplash

So far, college has been lonely. It is the loneliest I have ever been, in fact. Lonely in a “what if I’m always lonely” or “I don’t think I’m cut out for this” way. My mom was the first in her family to graduate from college, and I have found that when going to college is not the norm in your house, it is hard. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for my mother or for first-generation college students today—to have that drive and to know that this is a small step toward elevating your family, your culture and yourself.

I was the friendly girl in high school. The girl who knew everyone’s name. The girl who did not really have a friend group, but it didn’t matter because I was always smiling. I entered college with one of my very best friends from high school, so I figured I was set. Even in the worst case scenario, I would go all four years with her as my best friend.

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But it was selfish of me to assume she would be at my beck and call. After a difficult day of texting her constantly and receiving few responses, I realized that she needed her own space to grow and settle. It has been three days since I have talked to her, which does not seem like much, but when you are just a five-minute walk away, it feels like an eternity. And yet I am indescribably proud of her.

I believe some people are built to belong immediately. And I believe that some are not.

I am constantly told that “everyone is having a hard time,” but I don’t believe it. I see kids from orientation at parties and spending time in each other’s dorms, and I admire their confidence and ability to acclimate. I do not believe that everyone cries in their room every day. I believe some people are built to belong immediately. And I believe that some are not.

I am not built to belong. I do not say this as a sad sentiment—truly, belonging is not my gift. If it were, I would have probably gone to college back home where most of the kids from my high school went. I would stay close to my family. Belonging makes life easier. I truly believe some people belong everywhere they go. What a beautiful gift that is.

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On Sunday morning of my first week at school, I walked. I walked because I could not stand to be in my room anymore. When I came upon the chapel, I sat there and cried. I cried for two hours. I could not clear my mind, but I sat there until I could clear my eyes. I prayed, and then I walked back. I tried reaching out to a few friends, but I was not surprised that they were busy.

The next day, I decided to go to morning Mass. Five elderly women, all of whom were religious sisters, were the only other people in attendance. I cried all throughout Mass, feeling absolutely mortified. Afterward, one of the women, Sister Evelyn, hugged me and asked what was wrong. The easiest way I could sum it up was that “I’m just a little homesick.”

“Homesick is good, love. It means you have a good heart,” she says.

And I am homesick. For foggy mornings, for my parents, for a sense of purpose. For the people who know my name and the people who know my soul. I am homesick for the days when I fantasized about what college would be like.

My grandmother called the following day. Coming from a Mexican background, faith and patience have always been at the core of our belief: Good things take time, and God has a plan for you. Growing up and struggling with anxiety, this was the last thing I wanted to hear. I wanted answers and a plan. Until now, I have generally been able to come up with something—some remedy in the face of the unknown—but here I feel stuck.

I have gathered that college is just as much about learning to be alone as it is about making friends.

My grandmother asks if I am all right.

“I’m just homesick,” I tell her.

“This is what you need to do,” she says. “This is how you grow.” I know my grandmother wants more than anything for me to be home with her.

“Up. Always up, mija,” she says.

Some of my older friends encouraged me to give it two weeks. Others swore that come Halloween, I would be settled. A few told me the whole first semester was rough and some the whole first year. One friend even told me that you might never feel settled, but one day you will get your degree and remember why you pushed through all those lonely days.

I have gathered that college is just as much about learning to be alone as it is about making friends. Learning to rely on yourself but knowing your limits and when to ask for help and better yet, who to ask for help. College is about learning what it means to belong.

For now, I feel like I do not belong here. Maybe a few more months will confirm this. Maybe my place is somewhere else, or maybe not. My fear is that “my place” is not anywhere. But my faith is my ally. I will keep my faith and remind myself that I am here to work hard, get a degree and make the world a better place. I am here because my great-grandparents were strong enough to leave their country, my grandmother was strong enough to learn English and my mother was strong enough to go to college. Every morning I wake up and tell myself in prayer: “It will get better.” I leave my dorm. It is pretty empty here in the morning. I walk and tell myself I am here to build upon the legacy my family has left. I am here to make it that much easier for my kids to go to college. I am here to make the world more just.

Up. Always up.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Julie A Miller
4 weeks ago

I would like to suggest to the author that her fellow students- who seem so "happy" and well-adjusted- are going throught the same difficulties she is: adjusting to independence and dislocation. In addition, many of them did not have the same warm and understanding home life she now misses so keenly. Growing up is hard, she is not alone. Perhaps less time spent assuming others are better off, and more time throwing herself into academic challenges, or even volunteering to help others would help with adjusting to the sacrifices she has made to attend college, away from her family.

Maria Swill
4 weeks ago

I believe these are valuable points. However, in the spirit of not assuming, perhaps we might extend the same courtesy to the author, whose service endeavors and academic vigor we can know little about.

michael koh
3 weeks 5 days ago

Thank you for sharing your thought, Julie.

Lee Allen
4 weeks ago

Have courage, Gabriella. My first born daughter had exactly the same experience that you are going through. On her first night away she cried herself to sleep. But it does get better, and you will find your place. The important thing is to stick with it. The sun will break through.

Maria Alderson
4 weeks ago

I want to suggest that moving away from family to live in a dorm on a strange campus in a strange town is not for everybody, and if you decide dorm life at a faraway place is not the educational path God wants for you at this age, it won't mean you've failed. Sure, give it a bit more time, but then listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. My daughter came home after three miserable weeks. She's graduating in May after a happy four years. I will keep you in prayer!

Robert Castagna, J.D.
4 weeks ago

Gabriella, Congratulations on being in college. You are very special to enter the world of higher education. Pat yourself on your back for getting there--not everyone did. Did you meet any fellow frosh during orientation? Any in your classes? Has anyone suggested a study group in any of your classes where students discuss the class materials and assignments? Can you invite anyone to join you in a study group? Are you attracted to any student groups, clubs or activities where you can meet other students outside of class on the basis of common interests? As you well realize, your college education is more than the classes you take and the credits you earn. The first semester in college can be confusing and challenging, but you're not in that situation all alone. Everyone is trying to fit in and make friends. Getting together with other students can help break the feelings of homesickness. Is there anyone among the dorm's resident assistants, or the Dean of Students office to speak with about your interests and ask for their advice as to what organizations or student groups may align with your interests? College offers a buffet of choices in majors, classes, student activities, extracurricular opportunities, etc. You're not expected to know all this in the first month in college. Keep praying and searching. The doors will open for you. Blessings in your search and education. Peace of mind, body and soul during your college years. Wishing you the best for your future path. Blessings on your efforts. Pax et bonum.

Sandra Foy
4 weeks ago

This is a beautiful reflection Gabi. Sending love and strength your way.

Sue Harvey
4 weeks ago

Your expression of your feelings is so heartfelt. Know that this grandma is thinking of you and will pray for comfort in your new adventure. Change is so hard..you will figure out what is best for you

Jeffrey More
4 weeks ago

I wish this young woman all the best - hang in there, be strong, and things will eventually get better.

John Mack
4 weeks ago

This may be obvious, but here it is. Join one or two activities. Perheps something of community service through the chaplain's office. Introduce yourself to the othe rstudents there. Maybe join a Latino student group, or start one if there isn't one. You can get help in this at the Office of Student Services. Go to the club fair. They are there because they WANT recruits. Introduce yourself, your year, your home town and ask what being in their club would involve, in and out of official activities. Whatever activity you join, just be friendly and involved for a few meetings, activities. Then ask other students if they have any suggestions on things to do, parties to go to. Ask, Don't expect others to read your mind. Do not stay wrapped up in yourself.

Christine Coleman
4 weeks ago

Gabriella, although it was 35 years ago now (oh my goodness) that I was in your situation as a freshman away at college and feeling very alone, it did get better. I won't lie -- it took a while -- but it was all very worth it in the long run. Most of my best friends now are those I made in college. Prayers for you!

Bill Van Orden
4 weeks ago

Gabriella, your sensitive comments remind me of a previous millennium when I went to a college a long way from home and felt lonely at times, especially at the start. To the many good comments below, I would simply add: Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s normal to feel lonely when we are alone, not just by ourselves but without the support networks we’re used to. Loneliness can be a goad to pray more, to look for new connections, and to experience solitude, the reality that God is always with you. Whatever your future is, you are with God.

J Jones
3 weeks 6 days ago

I love this.

I would add only these two thoughts:

One) I stuck it and it was just right. My best friend from high school didn't go back to her school after Christmas, went to college at home and has never moved away since and that was just right.

Two) I encourage you to explore your thinking about "belonging". I think there may be really rich spiritual stuff there. My experience is that we all have different ways of belonging in the world. For that friend I mentioned, the belonging that fulfills her in every way is belonging to her family. I am most fulfilled by finding and offering belonging with strangers, that connection between "the Other" in each of us. I have deep, old friendships --- and, still, Jesus is most accessible in and to me when I am the Other with Others, each befriending each. Just a thought. There might be great richness in that thought you have about "belonging" and I imagine a Jesuit campus would be a fine place for locating mentors, professors, spiritual directors who could help you explore it.

Elizabeth Drummond
4 weeks ago

Hi, Gabriella. I'm a faculty member at LMU, in the History Department. I'm in my office a lot, so feel free to stop by if you ever just want to talk -- about anything. College can be an overwhelming place, but we're here to help you navigate it.

Shannon Seay
4 weeks ago

Thank you for sharing your experience. I think it will help other college students to read it and know they are not alone. Freshman year is the hardest trying to find your people. Praying that our Lord meet you in your loneliness and that you will find a good friend.

rose-ellen caminer
4 weeks ago

Hi Gabriella; Try talking to whoever you sit next to in class, before class starts or after. Sit next to someone who seems nice and talk to him/her." How do you like it here", you can say. Or comment about the subject matter, or the teacher. Do your studying in the cafeteria; people may come sit next to you if they see you there often.If it does not get better; if you are still feeling so isolated, and alone then if possible perhaps you should transfer to a college you can commute to from home. But you have friends here on this blog.You express yourself beautifully and have all our empathy.That your best friend is distancing herself from you must feel not just jarring but like a kind of betrayal; just when you need confidence and a sense of self esteem in this new situation of a college campus.It's that, her unexpected sudden distancing from you,what you won't say is abandonment, that could be what you are reacting to and experiencing as loneliness.

Todd Witherell
3 weeks 6 days ago

Your story is moving and well-written. Hang in there. And good luck to you on your way Up.

Patricia Fox
3 weeks 6 days ago

Gabriella, I have no words of wisdom for you. But, I am sending you virtual hugs and the hope that if you are able to stick it out, until it gets better, you will enjoy this experience. If you reach the point where you decide this is not for you, head held high, go home and get your degree and be with your family and friends. No earthly reason to apologize for the decision which is right for you. I am confident that your grandma will welcome you home and continue to support you because she loves the stuffing out of you! xoxo

Swan Lake
3 weeks 6 days ago

While some are giving you the possibility of going home, I say, “Stay, stick it out!”
You are not alone in your feelings. Believe me, every freshman is just as apprehensive as you!

My advice is, SMILE, to others as you walk along a walkway and say, “Hi!” SMILE, to the students next to you in class as you take your seat and say, “Hi,” first. Later, you WILL see those students in the library or in the cafeteria. They will become familiar faces and that can lead to a more relaxed vibe for simple conversation.

Robert Castagna, J.D, and John Mack gave you a plethora of ideas! All of them are viable. But, you have to make the first move just as any freshman wanting to join an organization, for example, has to make the first move.

What is real loneliness? It’s Christ abandoned in the Garden of Olives. It was there that He was thinking of you, Gabriella. He has already connected to you in a very real way. He knows your heart so know He is sending you strength to get through these difficult days. Be hopeful. Be fully Gabriella!

Yes, stick it out. Don’t retreat and give up. If you give up now, it will only make you weaker to give up on other things along your path. You do not want that to be your Modus Operandi.

Be brave. You are braver than you think, Gabriella. I promise you, things will brighten up for you. You just need to give yourself more time to adjust.

Gerard Mortensen
3 weeks 6 days ago

I would like to know what motivated you to select this college in the first place. Was it academics or was it because your friend was going?
As for loneliness, you say you are a friendly person. Do you have a roommate in your dorm? Are there any groups or fraternities you can join? Can you strike up a conversation with a classmate?
It may take some time but I hope you can give this college a chance. I’m sure you will be able to find a connection or comfort group that will end your loneliness.

Judi Diaz Bonacquisti
3 weeks 5 days ago

Thank you, Gabriella, for sharing your heart and story which is not unlike my experience at a large, public university 30+ years ago. My dissertation topic was on the sense of belonging of Latinx undergrads at a Catholic Univeristy and the cultural engagement of the university. Your experiences are reflective of the Latinx undergrads I interviewed and a strong reminder to those of us who work at universities of our responsibilities to create welcoming environments. Yes, please get involved and take advantage of the opportunities available to you. AND institutions must better support the beautiful and talented students we are accepting into our university communities. Approx. one third of US Catholics are Latinx and will continue to be our future students. Institutions must contemplate, and especially act, how to better serve our students. Adelante.

rose-ellen caminer
3 weeks 5 days ago

I may be barking up the wrong tree regarding Gabriela in what I am about to say but your comment Judi, has prompted this response. Perhaps it is identity politics that has Gabriella in this bind.If she is in the minority as a Latinx at this school and does not feel she can connect with someone who neither looks like her or has the same life experience as her, implicit bias may be what is holding her back from relating with others. Conversely if Gabriella is one among many Latinx in this school,in contrast to her previous school, then she may be feeling that she no longer is being validated and supported as an individual belonging to a vulnerable marginalized group. She no longer stands out and that may be what is unsettling her.Whether the situation is one or the other, if either,my advice to Gabriella would be to be a bull in a china shop! Ditch any preconceptions towards others based on their apparent ethnic background, and regard everyone you meet there whether their granny calls them "mi hija" or honey, or if they have no family,and see them as a human being just like you .The whole ethnic identification thing could be what has imprisoned you in your loneliness.Community is a beautiful thing but don't let it be a trap.
Sorry to be talking about you in the third person Gabriella, and disregard the comment if it does not apply to you.I was responding to Judi's take.

Judi Diaz Bonacquisti
3 weeks ago

I am unclear how Rose-Ellen defines "identity politics" or believes why a Latinx identity would be to blame for any student feeling "imprisoned." If Maslow is believed, a sense of belonging is a basic human need, right after safety, housing, etc. Catholic universities, and others, would do well to embrace Latinx students and their culture rather than believing it is something to be overcome in order to be successful at our institutions. Cura Personalis.

Renee Florsheim
3 weeks 4 days ago

Gabriella, I work in the College of Business at LMU, and like my colleague Dr. Drummond, I invite you to stop by if you need to talk. Your essay struck a chord. Some of us never quite fit in with the existing social groups and structures, and we need to make our place in the world instead of trying to fit into existing places. That can be tough, but it can also be rewarding. You aren’t alone, although I’m sure it feels like you are.

Elissa Cutter
3 weeks 2 days ago

Gabriella, I just spent three years teaching at LMU as a postdoc and I am happy to see the comments from faculty members there inviting you to come and see them. Another person that I would suggest that you get in touch with is Cecilia González-Andrieu in Theological Studies who was my office neighbor for the past couple years (and also writes for America Magazine). She is very involved with the student community and would be a good resource for help finding your place.

Van Nguyen
2 weeks 6 days ago

Hi Gabriella, I am a current grad student at LMU. I'm on campus every Monday, maybe we can walk together on the bluff near the Chapel? I find sitting in the Chapel helpful to let God know our struggle, but we also need the concrete human connection element to live. Thanks for sharing your story.

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