By Kerstin Hall
Rhodes has a reputation for academic excellence, liberalism – and drinking.
The student body consists of just over 7000 students, making it the smallest university in the country and a minnow in comparison with giants such as UCT or the University of Pretoria. It is the home of a vibrant and diverse social scene, with students known for the ability to party hard – or “mare”, in the local vernacular. But for some students, this is not enough.
Alexis*, 20, is a third-year student studying English. Despite spending the last three years in Grahamstown, she has been unable to make friends.
“I’m simultaneously awkward and opinionated. I don’t think this is the best combination,” she says. “I’m also very independent and I don’t rely on other people.”
Alexis is not alone in feeling isolated; there are a number of students who struggle to fit into the social scene at the university.
In 2013, the Rhodes Counselling Centre identified “loneliness/feeling isolated” as the sixth biggest problem among students who visited them.
These students were usually either first-years or postgraduates. There are a considerable number of older students who still have not found friends.
According to Samantha, 21, another student, this can be attributed to the “drinking culture” at Rhodes.
“Rhodes is not for everyone,” she said. “Unlike the typical Rhodent (Rhodes student), I don’t party or drink- I’m rather dull and innocent by comparison.”
Samantha completed her undergraduate BA degree at Rhodes, but decided to continue towards her LLB at a different university because she was tired of feeling lonely.
In the future, she hopes to be a High Court judge. She has been much happier since she moved.
Failed starts – why lonely students stay lonely
A study conducted at North Illinois University suggested that “establishing peer relationships during the transition to college may be more difficult for shy students due to their propensity for social withdrawal”.
The study said failure to make friends soon after arriving at university or college can have long-term negative effects.
In the case of Sisonke (a Philosophy Honours student) and Alexis, the initial inability to connect to new people led to states of chronic loneliness, that is, a “state that results from the inability of the individual to develop satisfying social relationships over the years.”
Both had difficulties making social connections during their orientation experiences at Rhodes, though for different reasons.
Sisonke, 22, was not placed in the residential system at Rhodes University. “Having been in digs (off-campus accommodation) since day one, I never got to experience things like Serenades.”
Serenades are song-and-dance routines prepared by Rhodes students in residence. They are performed in front of other residences, typically with audiences of the opposite gender.
In 2012, much controversy arose after a number of female students dropped out of the University during the first week because of their Serenade experiences. This was due to the highly sexual nature of both the lyrics and dance moves that were employed at this time. Following this, the University administration introduced new measures to moderate the routines.
Alexis was a first year in 2012 and took part in the Serenades. “If I’m honest, I have to say that I hated them,” she said.
“Everyone else seemed to be having fun, but I just felt disorientated. I felt like I couldn’t keep up; everyone else seemed to know what was going on, but I was lost.”
Although Alexis became lonely because she felt socially inadequate, and Sisonke failed to capitalise on the Serenades experience because she was not in the residential system, both girls were deeply affected by their initial experiences at Rhodes.
Now, both senior students, they suffer from similar feelings of isolation.
“The ones who have been here a while often feel their relationships are superficial,” Nomangwane Mrwethana, a therapist at the Counselling Centre explained.
“Students sometimes just don’t know how to start a conversation,” she said.
Family, loss and loneliness
Sisonke describes herself as reserved. She would like to be less awkward and prettier, because “I’m the ugly one in my group and I’ve noticed that conventionally attractive people get treated better.”
Sisonke also has a strained relationship with her family.
The study from Northern Illinois University found that “high levels of parental support were related to high levels of psychological adjustment in college students”.
So students who were supported by their parents were more likely to adjust to their new lifestyle at university.
Sisonke’s father passed away last year. “My dad was the one person in my life who I felt loved me unconditionally,” she said.
She says that she is not very close to the rest of her family because she went to boarding school, which she believes has made her an “outsider” in her own home.
Her mother and sister are “polar opposites” of Sisonke and the relationships between the three of them are not good.
A study conducted in Turkey in 2010 found that the use of the internet and social media exacerbates problems of loneliness. “Non-functional” use of the internet – in other words surfing the web – can be addictive and damaging, it found.
In a world where communication is so easy, with a Facebook message or Tweet merely a few taps on the keyboard away, some people are losing the ability to actually engage in a conversation.
Both Sisonke and Alexis admit to using social media more than they think is beneficial.
“Social media, in general, tends to make me feel lonely. Hardly anyone communicates with me and if they do, it’s because of administrative stuff,” says Sisonke. “I virtually never get a message just saying hi.”
“When using Facebook, I can feel kind of empty or irritated, but I still feel like I need to know what everyone else is doing and saying,” says Alexis.
They also exhibited similar styles of social media usage; neither of them are active contributors.
They are more likely to read other people’s statuses and updates than to add their own.
A 2014 study, published in the Asian Journal of Communication, identifies this “non-active” internet usage as being typical of people with chronic loneliness.
University is seen by many students as an ideal place to find a romantic partner, or simply to experiment with different people.
Unfortunately for some of the lonely students, love just does not seem to be on the cards.
“I’ve always been single,” said Alexis. “I don’t really talk about it, but it scares me a little. I’m twenty and I’ve never been in a relationship. That doesn’t seem normal. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life like this. I mean, people I know are getting married. I haven’t even been kissed. How sad is that? It’s not that I need anyone else, but it would be nice.”
Another study from Turkey, published in 2005, found that “loneliness levels of students who have no romantic relationships are significantly higher than the loneliness levels of others.”
Furthermore, an article from the University of California claimed that “as people pass through adolescence and enter early adulthood, many transfer their primary sense of attachment from parents to romantic or marital partners.”
It also suggests that certain personality types may find it harder to initiate or maintain romantic relationships. Particularly if the person is insecure, they might exhibit either anxiety (fear based on the idea of being rejected or abandoned) or avoidance (where the person shies away from intimacy or interdependence).
Taking steps forward
But, as Samantha has discovered, chronic loneliness is not necessarily a lifetime sentence.
Sisonke and Alexis might be lonely now, but this could change at any time.
They might make friends at Rhodes.
They might make friends at a new job or at a bar or at a supermarket or in the park or while waiting in a queue or hiking up a mountain or…
There are 7.046 billion people out there. There will be someone for them.
*The names of students have been changed to protect their privacy.