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Advice from a former lonely first-year

| Monday, January 31, 2022

I admit, I considered writing a top-10 list or something. After all, this is my first Inside Column, and I’m nervous to share my feelings with the world. But then I thought about what I wish I could’ve read as a first-year picking up The Observer long before I’d ever written for it. So, hopefully this will help someone who feels like I did during my first year here. 

Months before I ever stepped foot on campus as a student, the day I was assigned to my first dorm, I purchased a Redbubble sticker bearing my new dorm’s insignia and placed it proudly on my laptop. I had it all planned out. I would befriend a group of four or so girls in my dorm on Welcome Weekend. We would go to the first football game together and all the games after that. We would have countless late-night talks, go to Newfs on weekends (once we were of age, of course) and go on a once-in-a-lifetime spring break trip.

We would take Instagram photos at the first SYR and the last formal, comparing how we’d changed while looking back on four years of memories. And maybe after that we’d even be bridesmaids in each others’ weddings and meet up annually for a football game to reminisce, catch up and, of course, visit our old dorm well into our forties. You know, living the perfect Notre Dame dream.

And surprisingly, my plan worked … for like three weeks. Sitting in the back of my mom’s car as I left for fall break, I sent the last text I’d ever send in the group chat my new friends and I had used to set up lunches, organize the walk over to the first football game and exchange pictures from the space-themed SYR we’d attended together. I wished everyone a relaxing break or something, but the frequency of texts being sent in that group chat had already been decreasing by the day for the past week or so. When I returned to campus, I learned they’d created a new group chat without me.

I felt something more profound than sadness after discovering this. It might be dramatic to call it grief, but maybe that’s what it was. Grief, not only over the fact that I — a first-year from a low-income public school almost 300 miles away who’d never known anyone who had attended Notre Dame — had not only lost the sole social connections I had on campus, but also the “perfect Notre Dame future” I had imagined and had naively felt the University’s residential life website had promised me.

For the remainder of my first year, I withdrew socially pretty intensely. I let my grades suffer. I took for granted the support system I did have, Running Club. While our post-run dinners were often the only time I’d speak to anyone all day, there was an amazing group of upperclassmen who welcomed me, guided me and treated me with profound kindness. 

I suppose it’s easy to wallow in your own self-pity when it feels like you have nowhere to turn to because you’ve been forced off the typical path to social integration at your university. No doubt, much more so than the vast majority of colleges, membership in a dorm community is a huge part of the culture here. It works so beautifully in many cases. I see that now in the student-led events, spontaneous get-togethers and Sunday Masses in my boyfriend’s dorm, Stanford Hall.

But I was wrong to expect that the universe or Notre Dame or even the residents of my first dorm owed me this type of community. Even more so, I was wrong to assume that this particular type of community would be the “be all, end all” that would “make” my college experience.

COVID-19 sent us home early the spring of my first year. Coming home in the middle of my isolation and self-pity allowed me to change my mindset for the better surrounded by the support of my amazing high school friends. (By the way, that’s a tip: Stay in touch with your old friends! Texting, Snapchatting and FaceTiming my friends from home improves even the loneliest of days!)

When I returned for my sophomore year, instead of mourning the dorm community I’d lost, I decided to focus on nurturing the seeds of connections I’d left behind five months ago before the pandemic turned the world upside down. I invited people I’d had a few conversations with at Running Club to come run with me. I reached out to people from my Moreau, computing and theology courses and people I’d met online in an admitted students group and asked each of them to get a meal. Unlike my first year, I actually took initiative and was intentional about getting to know others and forming genuine friendships.

Additionally, lacking that stable social foundation in my dorm, I was forced to be more independent and adventurous than I’d ever been. Throughout high school, I joined and stuck with activities largely because my friends were a part of them. I was lucky to find genuine passions in cross country and media production after joining with close friends, but I never did either one alone.

Sophomore year and the following summer, I tried a variety of activities from Bible studies to rock climbing to an off-campus silks class — all things I’d wanted to try for a long time but never had anyone to do with. In being forced to go out of my comfort zone, I discovered how fun and even liberating it can be to try things all by yourself. Plus, even if you attend the first meeting alone, you often come away with a few friends after a couple weeks!

By finding the joy in spending time by myself, I’ve been able to have some really cool experiences, like training for and running the Chicago Marathon, exploring off campus and hiking barefoot for 11 miles around the Indiana Dunes just because I felt like it. Sometimes, I do still wonder “What if?” about the conventional Notre Dame future I’d looked forward to, but I’ve found that experience I’d envisioned is actually far less common than many of us believe. I’ve also found many amazing friends in Running Club, the various activities I’ve tried, randomly in the hallway of my new dorm, in my classes, online and even in my hometown. 

So, keep your head up, lonely first-year, and go get a head start on finding the joy of living for you. I’m much happier for it.

Contact Claire Reid at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Claire Reid

Claire Reid is an associate news editor at the Observer for the 2022 - 2023 term. She is a junior from Madison, Wisconsin in the Journalism, Ethics and Democracy program.

Contact Claire