For introverted minds, navigating a society which is very group-orientated is a challenge that takes a lifetime to come to terms with. Just as you thought you found solace with a tight knit group in high school, you’re forced to restart from square one at university. But the problem is, university is much bigger and far less predictable. More often than not, you find yourself teaming up to complete a short-lived project with a group of strangers whom you have no chance to forge deeper bonds with. You find yourself caught in an open discussion session, expected to volunteer your views in front of possibly judging eyes. You also find yourself wrapped up by invitations to gazillions of club activities or career events that make you feel like are severely missing out on the “fun” or the chance to be seen by your prospective employer. If any of these struggles hit home, I see you crystal clear. Even as a postgrad who has been through it all and made the call to travel abroad, these exact same scenarios still occasionally haunt me. I’ve come to accept that these bouts of jitters won’t just vanish over repeated exposure and mental practice, but there are ways to work around them without repressing your true feelings and personality. After four years of experimenting with my intuition, I found 4 tips particularly useful to crafting your own memorable university life.
You’ve got a friend in me
My first revelation hit before I even formally became a university student. Hear me out:
Dressed in the orientation camp tee my seniors gave me, I hopped on the shuttle that unravelled the journey of dread: four days of team-building games, running around and possibly pulling all-nighters with complete strangers. How did I fall for the fancy meaningless words of “fun”, “unmissable” and “once in a lifetime”? I growled as I curled up in one of the inner seats in the back row, eyes fixed on the window, my mind replaying how awkward my self-intro was during the ice-breaking round. Suddenly, I felt my seat sink. Peeking from the rims of my glasses, I could make out a girl about my height sitting next to me. My head sagged in fear as our eyes met. Dead silence. Engines roared as we motored up a slope.
“You’re so quiet,” a feminine voice rang in my ear, “even quieter than me.”
I didn’t know why but I felt compelled to look up. Our eyes met.
“Is it? I’m just not used to initiating conversations.”
Believe it or not, that’s how I met my first and best friend at university. Humans gravitate towards familiarity. A key reason why university screams unease for us introverts is because everything about it seems to run counter to our inner voice. But sometimes, we become so transfixed by that lingering discomfort that we forget just how many people around us are experiencing the same. You just never know how much a single “You’re not alone” or “Me too” would mean to the person who happens to sit next to you in class or take the same lift as you. Reassurance is such an understated magic potion for friendship. Don’t be afraid to use your intuition to read people’s energy and sync with them. If you need any more reassurance in your search for kindred spirits, American writer Susan Cain found in her bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, that about 1/3 to 1/2 of the world are introverts.
Sorting Emails and your priorities
Safe to say, university is where I developed a love-hate relationship with event invitation emails. They’re pretty much like people who show up uninvited at your porch on a daily basis but refuse to relent until you’ve given your word (COME or LEAVE). Of course, there’s the option to IGNORE but imagine hordes of strangers lodging in your front garden—a no-no for me.
Now that you’ve mustered up the courage to open the door (mailbox) after multiple attempts of spying through the peephole (notifications), chances are you clicked with their heartfelt speeches instantly; or the complete opposite—you don’t even need to hear an echo of their plea to evict them. In these cases, good for you! But oftentimes, things fall in between. You’re somewhat hooked by the adventures they promise, but qualms of doubt soon settle in. It might be an enriching challenge that celebrates outspoken qualities — but this is not necessarily your strongest suit. It might be an interest-nurturing group that bonds through pub gatherings —but this is not really your kind of social event. It might even be a golden portal to your desired career pathway that expects you to network with conviction— but this is not something you’re ready to embrace just yet.
Admittedly, getting stuck in a junction isn’t the most comforting circumstance in life but can be a vital reminder of things that matter to you. It is where the question of priorities finds its value. An enduring test to ascertain whether a sales pitch convinces you is like figuring out your affection for someone: how long is it capable of staying in your mind while you move on with life? If you still can’t shake it off after a few days, my advice is to go for it. But going for it doesn’t mean you have to seal the deal right away. A massive selling point of university clubs or events is that you can see for yourself first through their rafts of taster sessions and open events. Nothing beats first-hand experience when it comes to deciding what’s best suited for you. You’ll be surprised how much a congenial support network helps ease you into completely foreign territory and dispel any concerns you had at the outset. It’s what takes me from a dubious participant of a public speaking club’s open showcase to the very society’s president who relishes sharing my stories competitively and casually.
Count your baby steps
It took me way longer to reconcile with the fact that I’ll never be the girl who can instantly command the room with my presence and conduct. But it doesn’t mean introverts like me can’t make their voices heard. Cain from Quiet drew on the evidence-based “rubber band theory” to propose that extroversion could be a skill developed through moderately stretching our temperamental limits. In a class setting, it probably means you can learn to speak up and chip in during student-centred discussions, a particularly crucial element in Western classrooms.
My first lesson at the University of Bristol could be considered a solid cultural shock. Not once, not twice, but thrice, my course mates interrupted our professor just to raise a question. This level of assertiveness and curiosity was never seen in the classrooms I was familiar with, but the professor appeared to appreciate it dearly, preferring to allow the subsequent seminar to flow along a free exchange of student-led ideas. As a learner who leans on planning, observing and listening to formulate an opinion, spontaneity is pretty out of my grasp. But keeping the “rubber band theory” in mind, I started experimenting with my type of moderate stretch. It’s wise to look for alternative options to access answers to your unsolved queries. You can start by typing an email, posting on the discussion board, or like me, directly approaching the teacher after class. There’s no right or wrong spots to start cultivating that courage. The key is to find your closest comfort zone and inch further from that one question at a time. Maybe a friend is what you need to calm those nerves—in that case, ask for help. Most of all, don’t forget to reflect and document every step of growth you made in writing. You’ll be amazed to see how far you can actually shape your personality.
Leverage your (quiet) strengths
Just because society around us heroes gregarious personalities, it doesn’t mean introversion deserves to be in the dark. Maybe we aren’t the hare who embodies visible advantages of societal success, but what’s wrong with being the tortoise who treks slowly and steadily into the spotlight? While you “stretch” yourself to peruse the social landscape outside, don’t forget to look back at your in-built strengths. It’s easy to let extroverted benchmarks tamper with your self-appraisal, so sometimes, hearing from brilliant introverted minds helps.
“A man of few words will rarely be thoughtless in his speech; he will measure every word,” Gandhi wrote in Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Surprisingly, the Father of the Nation, as many Indians deferentially called him, is not only a proud self-proclaimed introvert but also an introvert who’s famous for his speeches. Who would’ve thought being measured with words could bring a reserved man who dreaded people to a national stage? It goes to show that a lot of our secret weapons are hidden in plain sight.
I had never thought that my smile (an internalised defence system to mask embarrassment) had the power to invite people to engage in an online club meeting. And I wouldn’t have known if there hadn’t been a feedback session after every gathering. Sometimes, you learn more about yourself through the lens of others, so don’t hesitate to ask others how they feel about you. Prepare to be amazed by your secrets to lead a quiet revolution in the world!