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Opinion: Learning to navigate feelings of isolation as a new college student

First-year business economics student Tavian Williams (pictured) describes how the first quarter at UCLA presents students with new challenges and learning lessons. (Courtesy of Tavian Williams)

By Tavian Williams

Jan. 12, 2023 8:16 p.m.

The swift 10-week transition from high school graduate to integrated college student has felt like a lifetime to me.

Although it was only a quarter ago, I still remember the excitement of leaving the homogeneous, quiet suburbs to live in the bustling city of Los Angeles.

As I passed through downtown on the way to campus, I observed everyday people of all different backgrounds and communities living as their authentic selves. I vividly recall seeing a slender Black man in an orange suit and hat grooving to his own muse on an overpass. Cool and carefree, he looked to be in his own euphoric world.

It was then that it hit me that this was a city for dreamers – and now I was a part of that dream.

I have visited LA more than what feels like a million times, but I felt starstruck at that moment, like a stranger in a new city. It was my opportunity to hit the restart button. I was a small piece in a bigger picture, and it felt nice for once.

Or so I thought.

As with any first-year student, my first challenge at UCLA was making friends. As an introvert, I had grown accustomed to others taking the initiative in befriending me. I naively waited in my dorm for my entourage to suddenly show up at my doorstep. They never came.

Within two days, I realized they would only come if I put myself out there. For a whole day, I smiled, shook hands and pretended to be an extrovert. By the night’s end, I was exhausted but accompanied by various strangers as we paraded around Westwood looking for a party.

It may seem small in comparison to UCLA’s large student body, but each personality filled a missing piece in my college experience. Finding a sense of belonging was my biggest worry, but meeting people from across the country and world made me feel interconnected.

Weeks later, I have not seen many of them since that night. The fast pace of the quarter system led us to focus on our separate lives.

When classes started, a tinge of isolation began to set in – I still knew only a small number of people.

Part of it was because I felt underrepresented in my lectures and discussion sections. My biggest concern in choosing a college was finding an institution where I could discover a sense of belonging. I could have attended a historically Black college or university, where I would have found a guaranteed sense of community – but I didn’t.

In choosing UCLA instead of an HBCU, I knew what I was getting myself into, so I tried not to think about it too much. But the sense of creeping unease grew stronger each week. No party, friend or football game could shake the feeling of social isolation.

It reached a breaking point one day as I was studying at Powell Library. I looked left, then right, and felt like an impostor in my own school. I fell into the same space I tried running away from when I left the suburbs.

I knew I belonged at UCLA academically because my grades never slipped, even with the lingering thoughts of constantly being behind in classes and feeling marginalized rising to the surface.

I worked just as hard as any other student who was accepted here, but I didn’t look like the majority of the student body.

Before I could fall into a negative mindset of taking the conflict personally and growing resentful toward my new home and neighbors, I turned to my English professor, who sat and gave ear to my concerns. Speaking to someone I trusted was therapeutic, and my outlook on being a Bruin became optimistic again.

Being stared at when entering classrooms as one of a few or the only one in lectures and discussions is a part of my UCLA experience. I am still navigating the feelings of distance, but this time shall pass.

I have to remember I am a Bruin – I belong here. We all do, no matter what.

My first quarter as a first-year student taught me that college is a constantly evolving entity that will not halt for anyone. Keeping up with the changing academic, social and political spheres is the hardest aspect of college because falling behind is easy.

UCLA is a boot camp. It whipped me into adulthood in 10 weeks. I am not the same person who started this journey in September. None of us are.

But we are meant to mold ourselves and evolve through our successes, hardships and everything in between.

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