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Parents, first-years fear college isolation

National news and discourse have recently been full of discussion about on a widely shared concern: the loneliness that plagues so many college first-years.

Major news outlets such as the New York Times have started to explore the sense of isolation that so many first-years experience and the role that technology and social media may play in creating this environment.

Carleton is certainly no exception to this trend. One brief message on the Carleton parents’ listserv from a mother expressing frustration and worry that her daughter was having difficulty making friends sparked a flurry of diverging email chains from other parents with similar sentiments.

Many first-year students have felt the same. A number of this year’s first-years have reported feeling lonely, especially when they first arrived on campus.

Oscar Hernandez ’21 explained, “The minute I got on campus, I felt like I was really detached from everything, just because I wasn’t around a set group of friends or [the] people that I’ve seen all my life, so the transition from high school to college is very, very drastic and it was something that I needed to get used to.”

Martha Sudderth ’21, agreed, “There were times in the beginning when it just takes a long time to be really intimate with people, even though I’d be around people all the time that I liked. It’s not the same as a deep friendship connection” said Sudderth.

Even as the term continues, Mila Knezevic ’21 said, “It can be easy to think that everybody else is getting closer, and that you’re not involved enough, and that everyone else at their other colleges is having more fun.”

Joe Baggot, the Class Dean for First Years and Sophomores, has been observing and working with this dynamic throughout his 12 years at Carleton. “My sense is that [the loneliness] comes from a comparison of what closeness and friendship and companionship felt like in the setting they were in immediately before they get here” said Baggot.

Rather than suggesting the pattern of first-year loneliness is new, Baggot said it is merely receiving more attention than before. “I think it’s changed a bit,” said Baggot.

“I personally think [social media] has changed it a bit, in that this phenomenon of ‘fear of missing out’ seems to be greater now than it was in the past.”

In contrast to previous years, modern students “are more aware of what they are missing out on, and so I think that contributes in some ways to feeling a limited sense of the possibilities. It seems more intense, if not different,” said Baggot.

However, by some metrics, there has been virtually no change in student loneliness over the years.
Part of Baggot’s job as Dean of First Years is communicating with parents, a number of whom contact him each year with concerns that their child is feeling isolated.

Baggot stated that this number has not risen at Carleton over the last 12 years.

Still, Baggot believes that the loneliness first-years face today may just be “a newer version, a similar challenge with new features, [but] that [for] individuals who go off to new places and start meeting a brand new set of friends, it’s a little hard. That’s not surprising to me.” The new aspect, he said, is that “it’s become a bit more of a national conversation.”

Many first-years tend to use technology as a social crutch, though they acknowledge that this is not necessarily a healthy habit.

Matthew Watowich ’21 said, “I tend to go on social media when I’m not around people, or when I’m bored, and then that can almost make you more lonely because you see everyone else promoting what they’re doing. It always seems like, ‘Everyone else is having fun, why aren’t you?’”

On the other hand, social media in some ways facilitates communication and connection to others.
Watowich continued, “Part of me would love not to have my phone and only communicate with people face-to-face, but at the same time, I really do love having social media and feeling that connection, because it’s such an important part of our society now.”

Many first-years also pointed out that modern technology allowed them to keep in touch with their old friends, which could provide a solid sense of security and closeness when they were feeling more alone at college.
Knezevic said, “I think it would almost be harder to make friends and keep friends without social media, but when you’re on your own, I think it [makes] you more lonely, so it’s like a double-edged sword.”

While Carleton students may not be any more isolated than they were before social media, as Baggot said, the issue “is important, it’s not to be ignored, and it’s not just something you have to go through.”

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