When I left for my freshman year at a state university, bullying was the last thing on my mind. Like many others, I thought bullying was something that happened in K-12. When I thought about bullying, scenarios like Mean Girls and stereotypical middle school drama would come to mind. Besides the passing snide remark from other girls, I’d never had much experience with bullying. I was never the “victim” type.
Until I got to college, that is.
As a college freshman, I was driven, self-confident and an active student. I’m quiet, but I’ve never had problems making friends. I got good grades and joined campus organizations to help me achieve my ultimate goal of becoming an elementary school teacher.
I started school and moved into the dorms with the random roommate I was placed with, Stephanie*. We had talked over the Internet and met at orientation. We were both in the same teacher preparation program that required its students to live in the same dorm freshman year and take specific classes together throughout college. After the first weekend of crazy welcome activities and forced socialization, Stephanie and I became best friends. Throughout the whole school year, we were always together. Everyone knew us as a pair.
Looking back on that time, there were some warning signs. Stephanie always had to be in control. She loved to be in a position of power. Her personality was big, and she was very outspoken. She struggled in classes, but she would never ask for or accept help from me. She had continuous boy problems, but she said I wouldn’t understand because I was in a serious relationship from high school. On top of all that, she seemed to always walk ahead of people, making sure to strut. Occasionally, she would even get mad or upset when I got my period first that month, because to her it meant she wasn’t the “alpha.”
Since I am quiet and soft-spoken, I kind of enjoyed how different Stephanie’s personality was from mine. As a friend, I always tried to be there for her and offer her support when she needed it. She never accepted it.
Then, towards the end of spring semester, things started to change. Stephanie started acting cold towards me. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me I wouldn’t understand. She said every time she talked to me she felt she was being judged because I did things so differently. She was insecure, and she told me, “You have all your ducks in a row, and I like to move mine around more.” I didn’t understand why that would affect our friendship.
By the end of the semester, she was isolating me—hanging out with our friends without me, saying bad things about me to them and barely talking to me at all. My other friends began isolating me as well. I felt like I had to recruit people so they wouldn’t listen to the badmouthing. As I lost more friendships, I would hear them all together in the next room over while I sat in my room alone. All of “our” friends had become “her” friends. I was upset, but I also knew she could be dramatic. I let her have her time, and I figured she would come back around.
Summer passed, and I still hadn’t heard much from Stephanie. We had planned on living together prior to the spring semester, but now I was moving back into the dorm and she was moving in with one of her friends. We sent maybe five texts back and forth that summer—cordial, “how’s it going” type of greetings. Returning to school that fall, I was nervous. I didn’t know how things were going to be between me and Stephanie and the friends she had claimed as hers.
The first day of classes, I walked into a class everyone in the program had together, smiled and sat down next to them. Immediately they turned their bodies away from me and started talking to each other. That was when I knew they weren’t my friends. I went home and cried, but I had no idea how bad it was going to get.
Over the next two semesters, the situation just got worse. The change happened so quickly; I couldn’t begin to understand what I had done or what had brought on the hostility. In our classes together, my former friends and I ended up sitting on opposite sides of the room, but I could still feel their eyes on me. I knew them well enough to know they were making fun of me and talking about me behind my back. I became reluctant to talk in class because of the whispers from that side of the room that would follow. I started noticing that other friends and acquaintances from the program had stopped talking to me. Stephanie had completely isolated me from all of my friends. She started showing up to mutual classes wearing my clothes that had gone missing in the dorms, looking pointedly at me when she did. The whispering, the clothes—everything was all a big mind game she was playing in order to be in control.
During that time, I began feeling helpless. The isolation and lack of friendship were affecting my mental health. The girls who were once my best friends were turning on me in the worst way. I gained about 40 pounds during this time from the deepening depression. My once mellow, happy attitude was gone, and now I was crying almost every day about anything and everything. I went to classes, came home and just lay in bed. I felt like I couldn’t do anything about it besides keep going. I thought if I told anyone, they would just shrug it off as silly girl problems. I still didn’t realize I was being bullied. I thought bullying only happens to kids.
My depression hit its lowest point when I didn’t feel anything anymore. I cried, but I was numb. I didn’t care about anything. At this point, I went on antidepressants. This was also around the start of spring semester of my sophomore year. That semester, things still got worse. But I also found a friend.
Emma* was similar to me. She was smart, motivated and successful. She was also in the program for future teachers, and she only knew a little bit about what was going on. We had a class together, and one day, she came in and said to me, “Stephanie is doing the same thing to me.”
We talked over the next couple of days about Stephanie and how she was using her isolation of us for power. Emma told me about how Stephanie was telling anyone and everyone not to talk to me. She had even made a list on the front door of her apartment of people who were never allowed in. Of course, I was number one. I began feeling support from Emma, and we found refuge and understanding in each other. I was starting to feel better.
Emma agreed that there was nothing we could really do about the situation. We could tell the directors of our program, but even then we didn’t have any hard evidence, and they could still shrug it off as girls being girls. But then, Emma received a text from Stephanie that said, “We saw you talking to the sworn enemy.”
We hit our breaking point. Emma went and told the program directors about what was happening. The next day, I told them my story. They were sympathetic and apologized for what had been happening to us. They promised to talk to Stephanie and take action as needed. I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders.
What I didn’t realize was that nothing would be done.
The program directors talked to Stephanie, and she played it off as nothing, saying the text was a joke. They believed her. Emma and I were told to just ignore her and move on, and there would be no consequences for her. We were very hurt and mad. We felt as if they were doing exactly what we were afraid of. We had been ignoring her, and it was still happening. We asked for Stephanie to be removed from the program. Nothing happened.
Eventually, Stephanie removed herself from the program, citing a “lack of support.” She didn’t receive the grades to continue on in the education program, but she still attends the university. I see her around occasionally, and it’s always awkward. We haven’t spoken in more than a year, but it still stings a bit when I think about the whole situation.
I have reconnected with some of the girls in my program and tried to mend some of those relationships. Once I started speaking out, some of the girls in the program supported me. In some ways, I’ve become closer with some of the girls. With others, I know it will never be the same. I have learned who is positive in my life and how to shed the negativity.
I have found comfort in the people like Emma whom I surround myself with. I am disappointed in the program for the lack of support and action they took, but ultimately, I found what I needed. I’m still struggling with depression, but I know dealing with it will be a longer process. Finding and trusting friends is harder for me now, but I am also stronger and more motivated. I know this whole experience has changed me deeply, but hopefully it has been for the better.
I don’t think my story is that uncommon. That’s why I want to raise awareness for bullying at all levels. As a future educator, I know the importance of bullying awareness. But I also know the myths attached to it, such as the “victim” type, the age limit and the way bullying happens. I think the best way to dispel these myths is to share my story and encourage others to share theirs. I hope more teachers and school programs will see the need for bullying awareness training and learn how to handle similar situations. I hope that with raised awareness, no student will have to sit idly by as long as I did.
*Names have been changed.
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