Happy holidays? That’s not always the case for many freshmen. As the first college semester comes to a close, many leave classes with overwhelming feelings of loneliness and social isolation, far from their expectations of making new friends. Along with the pressure to adjust to a new environment, and anxiety over learning and connecting with their peers, some isolated students are away from their home cities for the first time in their life. But even those who stay face the challenge of forming new social groups.

Yet social isolation isn’t just a passing inconvenience—failing to make meaningful connections in the first semester can adversely affect your academic career.

It can also prove dangerous to health. In a recent study co-authored by Timothy Smith, Professor at the David O. McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University, researchers found that loneliness and social isolation (actual and perceived) pose a higher mortality risk than obesity, particularly to those who are under the age of 65.

Smith identified this as enough of a problem that he decided to tackle it in his class. He asked students to engage with one another by telling them to post their interests in a Google doc—then invited those with shared interests to get together outside of class.

In his Multicultural Psychology class, Smith also makes it mandatory for students to get involved in the community. His ‘service learning’ class requires students to volunteer in a “meaningful” way through organizations listed on the local United Way.

He explains: “When people encounter others’ difficulties and make efforts to improve others’ situation, they not only benefit those people but also improve their own sense of connection and purpose in life.”

Smith says that his research discovered that having individuals assist others was particularly useful in helping to reduce feelings of loneliness in isolated students, because people shifted their focus from themselves to others. “Classroom instruction is less effective than interactive instruction or, better yet, instruction that requires practice in the community,” he says.

Loneliness and isolation are not the same thing, and should be treated differently, explains Smith.

“Loneliness is a psychological perception. Loneliness does not automatically correlate with actual social isolation. So although increasing social contacts and interactions are important, an equally important aspect involves changing people’s perceptions and expectations.”

Some strategies to reach out to isolated students:

  • Normalize occasional isolation—communicate that it’s okay to be alone from time to time, but excessive isolation is unhealthy
  • Reduce fears of social interactions by using such cognitive strategies as relaxation techniques and mindfulness of negative emotional reasoning
  • Address unmet expectations, such as the idea that friendships are easy and come naturally
  • Encourage your students to develop a broader range of social interactions by getting involved with organizations or student clubs

Relationships with educators and peers are the most important factor in a student’s success. Register to watch our webinar, How to Dramatically Improve the College Experience, with author Dan Chambliss to learn some ways to help students make connections in the classroom. 

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