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The loneliness thing

A message from the Interim Vice President for Student Affairs

Frank Shushok Jr., Interim Vice President for Student Affairs
Frank Shushok Jr., Interim Vice President for Student Affairs

Dear Hokie Families,

Just a couple of months into my first year of college, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I was lonely—so much so that I seriously considered transferring from the college of my dreams. But over the course of that first year, budding friendships slowly nurtured feelings of rootedness. Honestly, I was rescued just in the nick of time. By graduation, campus felt like home. But when I was in the depths of despair, no one could have convinced me that such a turnaround was in my future.

Since my college years, almost everything has changed for students. But there is at least one thread that continues—loneliness.

This semester, like many previous, I have encountered a steady stream of students who have found their way to my office suffering from feelings of acute isolation and sadness. One common denominator in each conversation is a prevailing belief that “I’m the only one struggling.” Then I share a reality that brings a palpable sigh of relief—others feel this way too. In fact, Virginia Tech recently participated in an American College Health Association study of 28,000 college students at 51 campuses that found that 60% of students had felt “very lonely” in the past year, and a whopping 30% had felt that way in the previous two weeks.

Sometimes I share with students a four-and-a half minute film, My College Transition, that went unexpectedly viral after Cornell University student Emery Bergmann created it for a class. In the video, she describes her struggles with making friends, sharing, “You can be surrounded by people, and still feel alone.”

When I listen to our students at Virginia Tech describe similar feelings, I acknowledge that building meaningful relationships is hard—really hard. And there is no substitute for time. The roots of friendship can’t be hurried, but they can be cultivated. I work with students to strategize about ways they can put themselves in positions to find relationships and develop community.

I also recognize that our students are growing up in a culture that, while more connected than ever before, is often lacking in the kind of deep emotional ties essential to human flourishing. The healthcare company Cigna recently conducted a national study on 20,000 American adults to explore the impact of loneliness of different generations. Not only do almost half of Americans report feeling lonely and left out, but Generation Z—those between the ages of 18-22—scored highest for loneliness. Similarly, according to the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a score of “43” is the benchmark for official loneliness: Generation Z scored 48.3, Millennials 45.3, Gen X 45.1, Baby Boomers 42.4, and the Greatest Generation 38.6.

Still more troubling, American adults report fewer meaningful friendships; studies on empathy at the University of Michigan suggest we’re losing ground; and most startling of all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the suicide rate is up 33% in the last 20 years. We’re clearly going in the wrong direction.

This is where we come in. Student Affairs at Virginia Tech is doubling down on our efforts to build community, strengthen the capacity to build meaningful friendships, enhance mental health resources, and build a culture of well-being. For this spring semester, we’ve established a “loneliness research team” to better understand ways we can help turn the tide.

We also know that families are a critical part of our effort. As I shared with a fellow parent this week, there are a few practical things family members can offer students in solidarity when loneliness strikes:

  • First, we can acknowledge that loneliness is a natural and common experience, signaling a deep and normal need we humans have for companionship.
  • Second, we can encourage our students to “hang in there” and walk toward relationships, not away from them. Many of them have grown up alongside lifelong friends, so those initial tenuous connections with new people may feel awkward and unfamiliar. We can remind them simply to be intentional and courageous about building meaningful and sustaining friendships.
  • Third, we can listen with hope and empathy, instead of panic or rescue, because empowering them to foster genuine community is the only way they will find it. We can avoid the temptation to encourage them to come home often or to visit high school friends—pushing them gently, instead, to lean into the discomfort of a new place among new people, knowing that their investment of time will help them create “home” where they are.
  • Fourth, we can remind ourselves and our students that social media tends to have a deleterious impact on our well-being. In her class video, Emery Bergmann acknowledged that social media fostered a habit of comparison from a curated unreality that made her feel much worse. And a recent University of Pennsylvania study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that undergraduates who limited their use of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to 30 minutes a day for three weeks had substantive declines in feelings of loneliness and depression (when compared to a control group that did not alter their social media behavior).
  • Finally, we can learn how to become their community in new ways, even as it means sometimes hanging up our role as parents and trying on an additional role as their friends. And, never underestimate the power of a thoughtful question offered in an unhurried and undistracted moment. One of my favorites: What is your life teaching you right now?

I’m not naïve: I know that this advice is not always easy to follow.

As I write this note, we’re covered up in teenagers in our house—three, in fact. Watching them traverse so many cultural landmines that seem to lead straight to loneliness has me backed into a corner some days, and I’m dying to come out swinging with advice, research, data, and helpful hints. But then I remember that what all people need most is love and community, especially when they feel alone. And so I come out of my corner, and try to listen some more, because I believe that listening is so close to loving, most people cannot tell the difference.

With hope,

Fran Shushok signature

Frank Shushok Jr., Ph.D.

Interim Vice President for Student Affairs