Saturday, October 26, 2013

The #LonelySAgrad: On the Myths of Rainbows & Happiness, and Loneliness and Cliques in SA Grad Programs

We’re spoon fed a couple ideas of what our graduate student life will be like in a higher education/student affairs program. We (as in most individuals) think it’s going to be all rainbows and happiness when it comes to our social life – everyone is besties and you’re going to totally have a lot of fun with these like-minded folks. Yay for cohorts!

Maybe that concept is derived from assuming that since we had awesome friendships in undergrad with similar student-leader types, we of course would click with our fellow SA grads. Or perhaps we attended a university with an SA program and noticed how tight their cohorts appeared to be. Regardless of where this idea originates, based on informal chats with grads in my program and friends who have graduated from other SA grad programs, it appears that many of us have this expectation.

And for many, it is not getting met. Not always.

It’s not intentional; it sort of just happens. The reason why I write about this issue now is that I feel this loneliness is a hidden truth within student affairs grad programs. The problem is that we don’t seem to realize this is happening to lots of different folks – it’s not just one person here and there.

I want you to know that you’re not going crazy. You’re not alone.

This post will present 4 examples of this loneliness that pervades many people’s experiences; as well as provide some brief speculations as to why this occurs and some tips for improvement. Mind you, this won’t speak to all experiences but hopefully will illustrate one you may connect with. Are you "The White Rabbit", "The Gollum", "The Left-Out Loki", or "The Doctor"?

1.) The White Rabbit
We all know The White Rabbit from “Alice in Wonderland” (or perhaps the newest incarnation in “Once Upon a Time”). He’s late, he’s late, for a very important date – just like you! You’re running from meeting to doing homework to attending class, and oh, you try to sleep also! In fact, I bet you don’t even have time to read this whole article! YOU ARE JUST TOO BUSY, GOSH!

Slow down, son. That's how you get high blood pressure.

Why do we feel this way?
Uhhh, helloooooo grad school? Seriously, we’re expected to spend 20 hours/week in our assistantship, probably 9-12 hours in a classroom, maybe do a 10 hour/week practicum, and then all of our studying – oh, and of course we’re mostly all overachievers who love nothing more but tacking on another endeavor. We look at our Outlook calendar and cringe. There are snacks in our bookbag because we’re not sure if we have time to eat today. I mean, if I barely have time to eat, how do I POSSIBLY have time to socialize and make friends! Even though I’m lonely and wish I had someone to hang out with…but that would just take up more time! HAVEN’T I ALREADY SAID THAT I DON’T HAVE TIME?!

Whoa, take a breath White Rabbit. Calm yourself. Here’s the thing – you’re always going to be busy. Not just grad school, but beyond. There’s always going to be responsibilities in your life. What you need to do is learn how to manage them. First off, you always have time. You just need to stop spending so much time on tumblr looking at #WhatShouldWeCallStudentAffairs or StudentAffairsGradStudent, or whatever else you do. Second, learn how to double dip. The two rules of grad school are: Everyone has homework and everyone has to eat. Create study parties. Plan out your meals and invite others to join you. After a while you may just find that “work/life balance” that everyone talks about so much.

2. The Gollum
So in JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” masterpiece, there’s this little hobbit-type fellow named Sméagol who gets corrupted by the One Ring, which forms a personality named “Gollum” that is wicked and false. Gollum’s a total jerk, always telling poor Sméagol that he doesn’t have any friends. We all have a Gollum inside us as well. Sometimes we feel like we don’t have any friends…even though we just hung out with a couple people earlier today and had lunch with a few cohort folks yesterday…but, yeah, we just feel like we are all alone…

Gollum is a total jerk.

Why do we feel this way? 
Although we may hang out with people and could possibly technically say we have friends, we still feel alone. One of my HESA friends and I reasoned it this way: We’re leaving our homes and moving to a new place, leaving all of our friends in the process. Even though we may hang out with people in our grad program, there is no way deep bonds can be built quickly enough to replace what we just lost. It takes time to build strong friendships. But at the moment, without a deep connection where we currently live, we feel alone.

Straight up tell your inner Gollum to “leave now and never come back!” You don’t need that negativity, preciousss. Work on building the relationships you’ve begun and continue to look for new relationships – whether that is within your program, another grad program, a ‘real’ person (aka non-student!), or OkCupid (lol don’t knock it; half my cohort has been on this). Don’t just give the process of relationship-building time, but actively construct your time so you have more opportunities to get to know people.

3. The Left-Out Loki
Loki, brother of Thor and son of Odin in the Marvel-verse, always feels left out. Even though Loki is adorable and looks incredibly good in leather (me gusta), the dude feels friendless. Everyone is always paying attention to his older, blond, muscle-y brother Thor while he’s the awkward adopted Frost Giant who can’t be king. While everyone in Asgard is partying, drinking their mead, and singing songs of mighty deeds, Loki just awkwardly sits in his room.

Admit it, sometimes you feel like a Left-Out Loki. You’re scrolling through your Facebook feed and seeing people from your cohort posting pictures with each other, smiling, while you’re wondering the Five Ws: “What? When did they do this? Who organized this? Where were they? Why wasn’t I invited? …Whatever.”

Aw, don't cry Loki. I'll hold you.

Why do we feel this way?
When folks are posting all their photos and people appear to be making friends, it is legit to feel left out. This scenario happens for a few reasons. Sometimes it is due to cliques forming, which is a natural response in any environment – as a friend said today, people like to be comfortable and it is more comfortable to hang out with the people you are closest too. There are other occasions where people simply don’t think beyond inviting more than just a few people – they may believe no one else is interested watching documentaries. Or perhaps it is a spur of the moment decision to head to a salsa dancing contest. Humans typically like routines and don’t like change. We fall into a pattern of inviting a few people out and then usually only inviting those specific people to hang out in future endeavors.

This isn’t Mean Girls and no one is going to tell you that you can’t sit with them. Remember that there are probably quite a few other people who get lonely and if they don’t feel lonely, they still may want some new friends! If you feel uncomfortable inviting yourself along to things (because, yeah, awkward), then be the change you wish to see! Think of a fun social idea (ranging from a study night to The Hobbit Midnight Premiere Outing to drinks & dancing), talk to a few others to see if there is general interest, and then work with others to make it happen! Invite everyone. If the community you live in does not exist as you believe it should, then work to create that community. Also, if you never feel like a “Left-Out Loki” then recognize that others may – be sure to expand your group and invite others to hang out.

4. The Doctor
The Doctor is a Time Lord, the last member of an alien species. He travels through time and space, generally hanging around only humans. It can be frustrating sometimes because they’re not from his culture. They don’t get that time is “a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey... stuff” or that you can’t just ask about what happened to Gallifrey, or that it is totally not cool to try to touch his TARDIS without asking. Now the Doctor often feels detached from people and it can take a while (poor Martha!) for him to trust someone. Sometimes he feels alone, because these humans that he hangs out just cannot understand…And there are some grads who get what it feels like to have the people around them misunderstand their culture or identity.

Jeez, can't I go someplace where I don't have to explain what a Time Lord is??

Why do we feel this way?
There are plenty of The Doctor’s in grad programs, according to the anecdotal reports and research (Gildersleeve, Croom, & Vasquez, 2011). Students who come from different cultures or have marginalized identities can experience microaggressions or less subtle forms of discrimination, which then can lead to difficulty forming friendships. While student affairs claims social justice as a cornerstone of the field, we’re all humans who have grown up in a sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, {etc} society. As one of my mentors said to me, “Impact > Intent”, meaning that someone may intend well but still say or do something highly offensive. Or really, maybe everyone is cool but they still don’t ‘get’ you – they don’t understand your love for big family dinners or church or RuPaul, they don't understand why you have to take medicine, and so on. Which, by the way, culture shock in this space doesn't have to mean these socially constructed identities coming into conflict with social norms. This can be as simple as being one of the few non-Greeks in a cohort, one of the few people who comes from a major city, and so on. At the end of the day, it’s all about culture shock means for you.

So how do you deal with this? Everyone will deal with this topic differently. As a white woman from a low SES background who’s also a first generation college student, my struggles are going to be different from other folks’. On the topic of microaggressions, I attended a great virtual conference presentation (Hayes, Morris, Rainey, & Davis, 2013) that suggested some of the following coping strategies: finding support with friends or fam, increase the knowledge of those around you, and minimizing experiences. It’s not on you to educate foolishness around you (or, at least it shouldn’t be), but sometimes we need to help our colleagues grow – at the end of the day, it’s all about students who these folks will be working with…but self-care is more important, so do what feels right for you.

When it comes to culture shock, the same coping strategies with microaggressions can apply.
Sometimes adaption needs to happen – I know I had to get used to HESA socials playing Macklemore instead of what I was used to and the concept of ‘social’ including way more sitting than dancing. Just the same, you can also share the things you’re into – food, music, dancing, cultural practices, spirituality, etc. But it can still be a struggle no matter how you cope - as a 'nontraditional student' serving as a caregiver for family, no one can 'get' my struggle; and this feeling can lead to increased loneliness.

At the end of the day, everyone is different and the way you deal with being “The Doctor” is up to you.

The adjustment to graduate school can be difficult. Not only do you have readings, papers, and group projects, but you also need some sort of social outlet. And when you are not finding that social outlet…life sometimes sucks. Of course, there are some students with partners or families who may already have their social outlet or there are some folks who really don’t care for lots of social time. However, for many this is a strong need. Just remember that you’re not the only person who feels this way. There are plenty of other White Rabbits, Gollums, Left-Out Lokis, and The Doctors. Solidarity!

If these tips don’t work and you’re still feeling alone, check out your counseling center. Talking your feelings of loneliness out in a confidential setting can really help. Or check out these tips provided by a mental health professional here.

Also, this was a brief list of only four types of #LonelySAgrad. What other examples have you observed/experienced? Leave a comment or tweet at me @NikiMessmore.

References & Resources!
Copeland, M. (2006). Are You Lonely?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2013, from

Hayes, J., Morris, D., Rainey, M., & Davis, J. (October 2013). A Thousand Paper Cuts: Students of Color Speak on their Experiences in the Academy. Conference session presented at the IUSPA Virtual Conference.

Flowers, L. A., & Howard-Hamilton, M. F. (2002). A qualitative study of graduate students' perceptions of diversity issues in student affairs preparation programs. Journal of College Student Development.

Gildersleeve, R. E., Croom, N. N., & Vasquez, P. L. (2011). “Am I going crazy?!”: A critical race analysis of doctoral education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 44(1), 93-114.

Tartakovsky, M. (n.d.). Highlighting mental health in grad students. Retrieved from

Turner, C. S. V., & Thompson, J. R. (1993). Socializing Women Doctoral Students: Minority and Majority Experiences. Review of Higher Education, 16(3), 355-70.

University of Michigan (n.d.). Overcoming Isolation. Retrieved from

Additional Resources (edited to include after hearing how similar the feeling of isolation is in other programs; I searched for similar writings outside of Student Affairs to let y'all know that we're not alone in feeling this way! Very common...)

Cantrill, S. (April 19, 2012). Speaking frankly: Emotional honesty. The Sceptical Chymist. Retrieved from

Unapologetically Female. (May 8, 2009). Graduate school: "An incubator for anxiety and depression". Retrieved from

Fogg, P. (Feb 20, 2009). Grad-School blues. The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from

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