The Lonely First-year
March 13, 2017.
My first day of Spring Break was about to be memorable.
I had spent my Christmas vacation in front of my laptop writing essay after essay, filling out college applications quite literally from sunrise to sunset, so I was deeply convinced I needed that week of March to be relaxing, especially considering this was my senior year of high school.
I was playing the piano when my phone vibrated, indicating to me that I had received an email. I immediately felt forced to open it as soon as I read the sender: Columbia Undergraduate Admissions. I was about to receive an acceptance letter a couple of weeks later, it said.
It’s hard to describe the blend of emotions I experienced that evening: excitement, disbelief, amazement, and of course, an enormous sense of accomplishment. A few months later, these feelings reemerged in a different setting. This time I found myself at their very source, New York City.
I had moved countless times throughout my life, so when I came to Columbia I expected nothing less than a smooth transition. I had once lived in Puebla, Mexico, a city with a population of about 5.8 million, so rather than being intimidated by the social chaos around me, I was thrilled by it. Already in my first week, I planned to reinvent my introverted self by starting lifelong friendships.
As time would demonstrate, I was being too idealistic.
As soon as classes started, reality hit me. Students that I seemed to connect with during orientation suddenly disappeared. I would walk past them on my way to class and never notice a single head or hand movement as an attempt to greet me. Nothing.
“Here you need to be intentional with making friendships,” an upperclassman told me a week later.
I was so used to my friendships back home in Florida that I failed to value their easy accessibility. I was called the “busy guy” in my old circle of friends—how was I supposed to create new friendships if everyone was that “busy guy” now?
The term “intentional” was novel for me. Now if I wanted my friends to have study sessions, outings, or even meals with me, I needed to schedule everything. There were no spontaneous plans anymore.
Whether my friends were available or not, I tried to make sure my emotions weren’t affected. However, I did sense fear within myself, which was bizarre. While I was growing up, I was known to be that kid who sat by himself or with only a friend or two at lunch time and who felt comfortable, even content, with the fact that no one was joining him. At college I was surrounded by dozens of people in the subway, the dining hall, the classroom, and the library… yet I still felt lonely.
I couldn’t understand my own thought process. Just a year ago, my dream place to spend the weekend was in the middle of the woods reading “The Things They Carried,” a Vietnam war novel. Now I perceived a deep need to socialize as if my happiness depended on it.
I started to realize that even when I got involved in clubs to pursue my passions with others who shared my interests, I still went to bed unsatisfied. I started to be hard on myself for not making friends and considered whether I was the problem. I am too boring, I can’t relate to them, I am just antisocial— these were some of the conclusions that invaded my mind when I closed my eyes and reflected on my day.
This obsession with finding “the squad” led to self-loathing, low self-esteem, and an unstable mood.
I sacrificed the little time for sleep I had in order to not miss out on being social. I thought that if I didn’t initiate conversations, didn’t go to every social event my friends attended, or stayed in the library studying on a Friday night, my life was somehow going to crumble. In a way, it did crumble. A vicious cycle of self-demeaning thoughts made me consider using the psychological services on campus after I received one of their cards. Going to counseling was an idea I had never considered because I was never compelled to. Eventually, I feared I was depressed.
In trying to find reasons for my behavior, I noticed I had also put my spiritual life as the last of my priorities. I had forgotten how enjoyable and satisfying prayer was. I had forgotten how relaxing it could be to escape society once in a while to meditate on some of life’s biggest questions. I had forgotten how important it was to set apart a day of the week to simply rest. I had forgotten that, even when I refused to acknowledge it, I did have friends.
It was discouraging to see how my high school friends had changed after graduation. As soon as I stopped communicating regularly with them, I heard that some of them had dropped out of college. From what I saw on social media, others had changed from being genuine to pretentious in a matter of weeks. They were also struggling with new friendships. By acting tough like I did, they hid their insecurities. I empathized with them.
My high school friends were not the only ones showing signs of loneliness; one night, after I showed my vulnerability to a college friend, he admitted to me that he also felt lonely. Although I was surprised by his confession, considering no one had opened themselves up to me since high school, I believe the sincerity of that conversation helped to strengthen our friendship.
Like most freshmen, I can’t say that I have the rest of the school year figured out. I still struggle to develop friendships, but I do know of a constant, reachable friend: Jesus. I know that might sound like a classic Sunday School lesson, but it’s true. God always desires to connect with us, to talk to us. Sometimes we don’t give Him the time He deserves or don’t value His company, but He is the only one who understands isolation, for humanity rejected Him. Whether or not we attend college in the Big Apple, God promises to turn to us when we are afflicted 1, carry our anxieties 2, and ultimately bring us friends who become closer than brothers 3. This comforts me.
Benjamin Jaimes (CC ’21), Chicagoan third culture kid, is majoring in Political Science. When he is not in Butler Library or JJ’s Place at 3 a.m., he enjoys exploring the city and taking pictures, writing poetry, and researching his complicated background on ancestry.com.