When Your Friends Are Struggling
When I finished my first semester of college and packed up for winter break, I truly felt as though I was leaving a home, rather than returning to one. The previous three months had been filled with late night conversations, dinners with new friends, and fascinating courses. I felt the happiest at college that I had in years, and was reluctant to leave my new posse to return to my old house and friends. In short, my college experience was everything I had dreamed and more: I had great friends, a wonderful roommate, and exciting academic opportunities.
I spent my winter break catching up with old friends and swapping stories of our exciting collegiate adventures. One of the last friends I had a chance to meet up with was Katie, one of my oldest friends and one I had spoken to the least over the course of the semester. We ordered frozen yogurts and sat in my car to eat. I immediately began gushing about all the adventures I had pursued, the friends I had made, the delicious new foods I had tried. When I asked Katie to tell me about her experiences, however, I was surprised to discover a less than enthusiastic response: “It was pretty good,” she offered. When I pressed for more details, I was shocked to find Katie suddenly in tears.
It seemed Katie had been holding back quite a lot: she talked about how she couldn’t seem to find a group of friends, how her classes were either boring or too difficult, how she missed her family and friends from home, and how she wasn’t sure that she had picked the right college or career track. I was surprised to learn that she had not spoken to anyone about her difficulties; her parents, sister, and other friends believed that Katie was absolutely loving college, and she was planning to continue the charade and return to school in January.
When I returned to campus, I was still considering my experience with Katie. Her misery, and her shame in it, both surprised and saddened me. The love I felt for my school had already changed my life for the better in many ways, and I was heartbroken to think that instead of having the perfect college experience that all freshmen are “supposed to” have, she was spending her energy on trying to get through each day and on concealing her discomfort. The common misperception that all students do (and should) love college right away prevented Katie from recognizing that she was not alone in her struggle.
This became obvious when I shared my concerns with another good friend, Eric. I learned that he was having similar feelings about our own college. Like Katie, Eric felt that he had made the wrong choice of school. He found the environment too competitive, was frustrated by his lack of sense of self, and was quickly spiraling into a terrible pit of depression. Like Katie, Eric considered the idea of telling his feelings to his parents absolutely impossible. A combination of embarrassment over his perceived failure and hope for an improving situation kept Eric from looking at other colleges or considering taking time off from school.
My conversation with Eric brought me from feeling bad to worse: in addition to the sympathy I felt for my friends, I was also now experiencing hurt that someone might not love everything about the college that I had come to hold dear to my heart. I felt hurt that Eric did not consider our school (and, in my eyes, me) good enough.
As the next few semesters slipped by, I came to realize that Eric’s frustration with college was not a reflection of me or our larger friend group, but rather a clash between Eric’s personality, needs, and current situation. Eric chose to remain at school and fought for years to maintain his grades and personal health. Although treatment for his depression eventually made it possible for him to be successful, he was never happy with college. Communicating honestly with his family, taking a semester to take care of his emotional health, or even switching to another school might have made his college experience both easier and more enjoyable, like it did for my friend Katie. After a year at school, Katie finally came clean to her parents about her struggle and enrolled in a culinary school where she is currently training to run her own restaurant. Her happiness increased exponentially when she recognized that choosing the wrong school was not an irreversible fate; rather, it was a difficult first step down her path toward self-understanding that was eased through honesty with herself and the bravery to try again.
Although my college transition was generally smooth, there were moments over my four years of college when I, too, was overcome by homesickness, loneliness, and self-doubt. Having a solid friend group and a supportive family at home made it easier for me to move past these moments of discomfort and find the places where I felt comfortable and safe. I feel lucky to have chosen a college that was, overall, right for me on the first try, as well as to have learned from Katie and Eric’s experiences. Their discomfort in college showed me that not everyone has the perfect college experience – at least, not on their first try. I also saw that the primary block to their happiness was their hesitation to be honest, both with themselves and others. Adjusting to college doesn’t always come easily, but reaching out for help and being truthful about a college experience makes it easier to connect with others who are struggling with the same thing. Once Katie opened up to her parents, she was able to find a solution to her problem and pursue a successful college career. It is okay to be unhappy and feel out of place in college; no one can be blamed when a college transition is unsmooth or downright unnavigable. I realized from these experiences that a friend’s dissatisfaction with my school should not be taken as a personal insult; rather, I should be an advocate for a friend’s happiness, even if it is found in different ways than I found my own.