Loneliness and Social Support at Sarah Lawrence

Credit: @sarahlawrencecollege on Instagram

Credit: @sarahlawrencecollege on Instagram

“The natural thing at Sarah Lawrence seems to be isolation. There doesn’t seem to be the need for friends. People here put up walls and it’s hard to climb over them.”  It was  October of  1966 when Judy Brin, an SLC student,  offered this observation in an article for The Phoenix entitled: “Do you ever get to feel at home here?” Now, 52 years later, how do things stack up?

In the SLC Student Satisfaction Survey, which was open from Oct 12 through 31 of 2017,responses were collected from 615 students, mostly first-years and transfers. The first six weeks of college are often considered to be the most crucial time for incoming students to transition to campus. The survey asked students questions regarding residence life, use of on-campus resources, and especially socialization. The results were remarkable. 95% of respondents said that they felt welcomed in the SLC community. 84% felt they belonged and were truly part of the community. 19% felt lonely. Compare this to a 2016 survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association, in which more than 60% of respondents said that they had “felt very lonely” in the previous 12 months and nearly 30% said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks. That difference is absolutely something to take pride in--though it should not overshadow the undeniable amount of students on campus who struggle to make friends, or feel lonely.

Sarah Lawrence may be largely unaffected by what has been described as an “epidemic of loneliness” across college campuses in the U.S., but many of the same problems are still as present here as elsewhere, and they need addressing. Dina Nunziato, Director of SLC’s Counseling and Psychological Services, notes that adjustment issues in the transition to college are a major contributor to loneliness.

“Adjustment to college is a huge transition for many students,” Nunziato said.“For many students it’s the most or one of the most significant transitions they’ve made in their lives to date.” Technology and social media may also play a role. “It can be difficult to make new connections when it’s so much easier to maintain the old connections from home.”While it’s good to keep in touch, with social media as a backup or buffer, people may have “less of an entrée to meet new people” and may struggle to “really connect to the people who are in [their] suite or FYS.”

So, what can people who are feeling lonely do to help themselves, and what can others do to help?

One way is to make use of the Health and Wellness Center counseling services, which offers individual and group therapy as well as outreach programs. Nunziato recommends group therapy especially, as these “can be places where students dealing with similar issues can meet and support one another.” Counselors have set up specialized groups for specific issues such as anxiety, depression, and ‘family drama’ or particularly difficult family dynamic issues. There are also groups that specifically coach students on socialization, dealing with social anxiety, improving public speaking, or simply ‘how to talk to people and how to be assertive and communicate.’

Nunziato further recommends the De-stress With Pets events, in which pets are brought to campus several times each semester to play and interact with students. An outreach program only recently started by the Health and Wellness Center, its results have been particularly successful in helping students who feel isolated. “It’s been amazing,” Nunziato said, “to see two people who might never have otherwise said hello to one another, because  there’s a puppy there, or because they’ve having some kind of common experience, start talking to each other and really bond.”

Beyond that, there are also health fairs and events hosted by Residence Life that might help with feeling connected on campus, as well as resident advisors that are always there to support students. According to the Student Satisfaction Survey, 70% of respondents said that their RA was an important resource and had used them for help, 94% considered them approachable and available, and 99% had been invited to an event by their RA.

As important as these resources are, however, it may very well be equally important to make a difference by taking steps towards reaching out. Nunziato encourages people to take a little risk, despite a culture that normalizes ignoring one-another so frequently that the action of it is named after the school itself. “I think that we need to put it on ourselves as a community of scholars, and a community of individuals at Sarah Lawrence, to see if we can encourage ourselves to reach out and just make a connection. Say hello. Say good morning. If you see someone walking by or if you see someone having lunch by themselves, maybe they want to be by themselves, but maybe you could say do you mind if I sit down or do you want to come join us.” She also emphasizes the importance of promoting face to face communication. At Orientation, President Cristle Collins Judd memorably made the promise to stay off her phone while walking across campus, and instead make eye contact and conversation. Nunziato recommends that other students to follow her example in helping people feel that they are making real human connections.

And finally: “I think that it would be important if we could help people who are feeling lonely to put it out there. It’s hard sometimes to say I feel lonely…but I think people would be surprised if they put into words that they’re lonely, I think they would be met with a fair bit of empathy from other people because I think just about anyone can relate to that feeling.” Easier said than done, perhaps, but feeling at home is very definitely within reach.

Chelsea Liu '21