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“Enjoy college! This is the place where you will meet your best friends for life!”
Those words were ringing in my head last year as I hid in a bathroom stall in Warch sometime during the whirlwind of freshman orientation week, rapidly scrolling through TikTok in an effort to calm down and wondering what did I get myself into?
As a homeschooled girl growing up in rural Wisconsin, I related to Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” and Jo March from “Little Women” on a spiritual level. I grew up devouring every book in sight and scribbling stories on every scrap of paper in the house. I had very few friends growing up, but I rarely minded. While many people talked about how COVID lockdowns derailed their social lives, I found the distance strangely comforting.
When I first came to Lawrence, I was excited to meet new people because I wanted to find others who shared my interests. Many of my relatives said that college was a place to meet lifelong friends – the bridesmaids for my wedding, the godparents for my children. This was my last opportunity to socialize with people my age before the mundaneness of true adulthood set in.
But freshman orientation felt like getting thrown into a mosh pit of four hundred wide-eyed, eager teenagers who were just as clueless as I was. I made a few flailing attempts at conversation, but I suddenly related to Cady Heron from “Mean Girls” much more than I wanted to.
Still, I kept throwing myself headfirst into social situations because I feared missing out on valuable experiences if I didn’t go. It seemed like I had a narrow window of opportunity to find a friend group before everyone settled into their established cliques.
Although the COVID pandemic temporarily disrupted our approach to social interactions, many people were eager to fill their time with massive gatherings as soon as restrictions relaxed. For some folks, returning to in-person socialization was a joyous celebration. But for me, the heightened focus on socialization brought discomfort and uncertainty. Could the “getting-back-to-normal” party quiet down for just ten minutes?
Furthermore, I often felt like my number of friends would be perceived as a measure of my well-being and success at integrating into college. How is this animal reacting to its new habitat? Has it tried to eat its fellow animals yet?
Having struggled with anxiety for most of my teenage years, I was determined to establish a “normal” college life full of functional relationships. Maintaining healthy friendships would prove I was not crazy. But as I sought new friends around every corner, I began neglecting the things that brought me joy – reading, writing and enjoying an iced coffee in a quiet room. By the time midterm reading period rolled around, my sanity was rapidly deteriorating.
Thankfully, a few gracious upperclassmen reached out to me and provided much-needed guidance through that tumultuous first term. They never pressured me to hang out with them, but they always made me feel welcome. To this day, I’m truly grateful for their kindness and helpfulness. Frankly, I don’t think I would have stayed at Lawrence if not for their support.
As I learned to manage my schedule, I started making time for student organizations, and I thrived in these settings. Meetings often had clear agendas that guided the conversation. No one needed to fight to be included; if you joined the club, you were welcome. And there was always something to do.
Joining these organizations made me feel confident and bold, and I relished the realization that I was effecting change. I had found my power, and nothing could make me revert to that socially awkward girl who’d first arrived at Lawrence in September. Heading into sophomore year, I was determined to become the type of person who moved effortlessly around campus, changing the world one conversation at a time.
I applied to be a Community Advisor on a whim, thinking it would be a fun opportunity for career development. But when I showed up for the first day of training and the staff started telling me that making “lasting interpersonal connections” with every single resident in my area was a mandatory part of my job, I became that terrified freshman in the Warch bathroom all over again. How had I ever thought this was a good idea?
A few weeks ago, I reached out to a former CA who had always been friendly and kind to me during freshman year. Our conversations had rarely lasted more than a few minutes, but I had always appreciated our little interactions because he acknowledged me without pushing me out of my comfort zone. When I mentioned that his small actions had helped me feel less anxious in my first year, we soon found ourselves sharing our experiences as introverts trying to navigate the social culture of Lawrence.
Until that conversation, the term introvert always made me flinch. I had heard of famous people who identified as introverts, but their success stories seemed like an exception to the rule. I could acknowledge that I was not a skilled conversationalist, but calling myself an introvert felt like admitting some inherent weakness. At a small college where class participation is crucial, my intelligence is often measured by how quickly I can construct and deliver thoughtful responses to my professors’ questions. As a CA, my competency is judged by how well I can connect with my residents.
Furthermore, marginalized people often don’t have the luxury of staying silent. When you are a woman of color, people rarely pause to let you speak; you must shout until they hear you. We live in a society where Asian women get murdered, beaten and raped because people stereotype us as quiet and submissive. My voice is my strongest tool against injustice, and if I don’t speak, I fear I am letting my oppressors silence me.
However, my conversation with that student touched me deeply, and I began unpacking the subconscious biases I held about introverts. This guy was intelligent, compassionate and deeply involved in making the Lawrence community a better place. And for the first time, I questioned why I thought I couldn’t make an impact without denying my own nature.
I crave solitude, but I do not hate the world. In fact, I love this world so much that I am constantly pondering its questions, appreciating its beauty and dreaming of its potential. I sit in the corner because it offers me the broadest perspective of the room. Every word that I write alone is an ode to the wonders of our world.
Furthermore, introverts can still have great friendships. Too often, friendship is defined by inviting people to hang out. But the best friends I’ve ever had are the ones who know my limits, respect my boundaries and understand that I still adore them even if I need space to unwind.
I’m telling my story because I want other students to know that being introverted doesn’t have to be a tragic curse. I’ve been thinking about how many introverts are struggling to live in a highly sociable environment but never share their experiences with other introverts. We’re all programmed to work side by side in our own cubicles, unaware that the person on the other side of the wall is dealing with a similar situation.
If this article resonates with you, know that your college experience doesn’t have to be defined by the number of friends you have or how much time you spend socializing. The vigorous social culture of Lawrence can be strange and overwhelming sometimes, but college is a choose-your-own-adventure story where you can design your own definition of a rich, fulfilling life. Don’t be embarrassed to take time for yourself. Read that book. Doodle in that journal. Buy yourself that boba and spend the afternoon watching traffic. I am still in the process of finding that life for myself, and I hope you can find it too.