If my college experience has taught me anything, it’s that social media is fake. Not everyone has millions of close friends they party with every weekend, but that’s all you’ll see on Instagram. The reality is that some of us have five close friends or less than that, and the COVID-19 pandemic only made it harder for college seniors who don’t have friends, or a steady friend group to rely on.
Gen Z’s social circles have shrunk in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic, and in some cases, weren’t established at all, BBC reported. School, internships, and jobs are great traditional ways for Gen Zers to make friends, but the shift to hybrid, distributed, and remote working models has limited that interaction.
Given that, for many of us, our first year of college was the opposite of what it should have been, it’s ultimately (and unfortunately) normal not to have any friends as a senior in college. However, I spoke with two mental health experts — Caitlin Weese and Dr. Julia Heavner — about coping with loneliness in college for anyone worried about entering senior year without friends, and here’s what I learned.
Get involved through volunteering.
College is the land of opportunities, especially for volunteering options. So many universities have different volunteering options for students, like spending time in a community garden or participating in community service.
While volunteering might be a nice place for you to meet friends with similar interests, it isn’t required. Besides, you’ll be so busy with whatever your assignment is, it’ll be a good distraction from any loneliness you may be feeling.
“See if there are ways to contribute to the community through volunteering with local organizations or support you can provide to younger students who need help acclimating to campus,” says Caitlin Weese, a therapist with Intuitive Healing & Wellness. “Being of service will help you to meet other people and get out of your comfort zone.”
Volunteering has so many different benefits in addition to being able to give back to your local community. For example, the benefits of volunteerism include reducing stress, increasing happiness, developing confidence, and finding purpose, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.
This is a great way to get creative with the activities you love, like volunteering at a local ASPCA for animal lovers or looking into Big Brothers Big Sisters of America for future teachers. The opportunities are endless, and you’re helping your community in real ways in addition to coping with any loneliness you feel.
Step outside of your comfort zone every day.
Comfort zones look different for everyone, but one of the biggest aspects of college is having the power to challenge that comfort zone. Because you’re there to grow, you should try to challenge yourself at least once a day, every day.
“Find one small way to get out of their comfort zone per day,” says Dr. Julia Heavner, a clinical psychologist. “This can be smiling at someone as they walk by, complimenting a stranger, asking a question to someone that they don’t know in class, or asking someone in a group project to get coffee or lunch with them.”
For some, this may seem daunting, and others might not want to make long-lasting friendships in their last year at college. Not all of these interactions will lead to a lifelong friendship, but rather small fulfilling interactions, Dr. Heavner says.
Challenging yourself every day can seem insignificant at times because your risks aren’t going to be high-stakes; however, stepping outside your comfort zone can help you gain new insight and self-confidence by refusing to let fear hold you back, Forbes reported. Instead, you’re learning and acquiring new skills to help you achieve whatever your ultimate goal is.
Creating challenges for your comfort zone can be as simple as trying to start a conversation with a classmate. It doesn’t have to be a conversation that leads to a lifelong partnership, but you still stepped out of your comfort zone, and that’s something to be proud of.
Build relationships with mentors or professors.
College is definitely about the relationships you build while you’re there, but that doesn’t have to be limited to just students; you should also look to forge relationships with your professors or mentors.
“A college senior can get involved in their community by making use of their strengths and skills to find like-minded people,” Dr. Heavner says. “They can also seek out mentors, professors, or other students who have similar career or academic interests. It will help them to build a community with similar interests so that they can seek ongoing support as they launch from college into the career world.”
Your professors are the ones who have real-world experience in whatever field you’re looking at and can provide great insight as to what steps you should take to achieve your goals.
Additionally, research has shown there are multiple positive effects of having a relationship with your professor, like increases in achievement, motivation, and learning, according to Columbia Health.
It doesn’t have to be a long and complex process toward that relationship either; just have meaningful participation in class and show genuine interest in the subject before reaching out. You could also think of this as your first step into the networking world.
It’s important to remember that “friendships feel so high stakes in college, so you’re not alone if you’re struggling with [loneliness,]” Weese says. “Remember, this is just a season of your life and make the best of the situation.”
College may look like it’s just about partying every single day, but that isn’t the reality for everyone. It’s okay not to have many friends as a college senior, and there are plenty of other ways to make the most of your last year by yourself.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.