How to be Alone in College: An Introvert's Guide to Taking a Break
As a high schooler who just wanted a change of pace, I dreamed about how exciting college would be. I’d get to share a building (and maybe even a room) with all my best friends, I’d join clubs corresponding to all of my interests and attend every single meeting, and I’d meet and befriend as many people as I possibly could. In short, I’d never be lonely.
I wasn’t exactly wrong. College is a unique time for many reasons, and one of those reasons is how easy it is to access social interactions. Gone are the days of asking parents for rides, coordinating with friends who live on the other side of town, and figuring out who has to drop off who. Here, especially on a residential campus, the time between the “hey, wanna hang out?” text and actually being face to face shrinks to a matter of minutes. It’s so easy to see the people you want to see, whenever you want to see them. And for the most part, that’s great. But as a college freshman who initially thought that “healthy and fulfilling social life” and “never being alone” went hand in hand, there was a lot I had to unlearn about the college social experience.
My first week at Barnard was a whirlwind of always having something to do. I couldn’t help myself -- at home in Arizona, there’s so much open space that the travel time between myself and my friends was often too long for spur-the-moment get togethers. Plans usually had to be made days in advance and this sometimes resulted in me being home alone, cursing the distance. Without that roadblock in college, I felt like I had the world at my fingertips. My NSOP (New Student Orientation Program) was filled with meals with my roommate and the people we were meeting, attendance at pretty much every optional social event, excursions off-campus with new friends, and late nights spent talking about life and everything I’d done so far. Don’t get me wrong: I loved it. NSOP was exciting and fun and a complete validation that I had chosen the right school. But it was also a jarringly different experience than the 17 years I had lived as an introverted only-child. I didn’t think much of this until, a few days in, I found myself sitting alone in the Quad in a rare moment of quiet. Instead of enjoying what genuinely was first true moment alone I’d had since move-in, I felt like I was doing something wrong.
In only a few days at college, I had already forgotten how to be alone. And on a larger scale, college is so full of things to do and people to meet that taking time for yourself, and just yourself, sometimes feels like a waste. But in my past year and a half here, I’ve learned that those moments of quiet are an essential part of enjoying the rest of your experience. Take that first freak-out in the quad all those months ago, for example. I took it as a wake-up call that I needed to readjust. That night, I chose to miss an optional social event in favor of staying in my room and painting my nails. It was a small choice, but an effective one--those few minutes alone forced me to confront my fear of missing out on experiences and accept the idea that hanging out with myself was a valuable experience too.
Today, as a second semester sophomore with classes, friendships, and extracurriculars that my high school self only could have dreamed of, I certainly keep busy. But I also know that I need to spend some time with myself every once in awhile to ensure that I can take on those interactions. What I do depends on what I’m in the mood for. I love hanging out outside when the weather is nice -- last semester I would sit in Riverside Park during an hour break between two classes, and once during fall break, I spent the entire day wandering through Central Park. In worse weather, I love going to museums (they’re fun with friends too, but there’s something to be said for being able to go through at your own pace and only see what you want to see) or finding a new cafe to spend a few hours in. It doesn’t really matter what I’m doing, as long as it’s something I enjoy and something that lets me recharge.
I know that everyone is different. When I’ve told people about things I’ve done by myself, I sometimes get responses along the lines of “I could never do that!” or “How did you not get bored?”. Not everyone needs alone time after a lot of socializing, and that’s great. But if you’re like me, and taking some time off is a necessary part of enjoying the rest of your life, it’s important to know that there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, especially at the beginning of college, it can feel like being alone instead of going out with friends is the end of the world, or that you’re wasting your time unless you’re doing as much as possible every single day. But I promise that that isn’t the case. Take a night off if you need to — your friends and clubs and every other part of your life will be waiting for you when you’re ready. As it turns out, being alone sometimes doesn’t mean that you have to be lonely. It just means that you’re prioritizing someone who is just as important as everyone else you’ll meet at Barnard: yourself.