Before coming to Oxford, my desperate high-school brain thought college would be a utopia. I believed college meant that I would immediately find my people and be drawn into a friend group as if by a magnet. But, come second semester of freshman year, I felt adrift. I felt uneasy and unsettled, without having found such people. It seemed as if friend groups had sprung up overnight, leaving me out of place. Oxford especially lends itself to such appearances — in a school of a thousand students, it doesn’t seem implausible that everyone had formed friendships and left you in the dust.
And to complicate matters, a suffocating form of anxiety stifled me socially and left me unable to have normal conversations. I worried about my gaze and the appropriateness of my pauses and my body language like never before. The worry and anxiety was constant and daily. Frantically, I called my mom in the midst of panic, concerned that I was failing at college — not academically, but socially. I cried a couple times — I recommend the parking lot behind Seney at night or the shower — terrified by my inability to talk to people
But, between classes and between bursts of panic, some of the fog cleared. Maybe, I thought, it’s just freshman year. Maybe, the water is different and I haven’t yet learned to swim in the sea.
For many of us, there is a terrifyingly high expectation that we should be able to transition seamlessly into college life. But many of us have spent our entire pre-Oxford lives swimming in the same waters without thought. Admittedly, some of us haven’t been forced to make new friends for years. Some of us have immense external pressure. Some of us are poorly equipped for college life. Even those of us, like I, who have backgrounds that seem to set us up for college success, can struggle terribly with the transition. For the majority, It is not until you come to Oxford, that you fully appreciate and can navigate the depth and diversity on our campus. Although a small one, Oxford is still a sea.
And it was fear that induced my anxiety — fear of failure, of social rejection, of humiliation. My fear compacted my perception of Oxford, leading me to wrongfully believe that my opportunities for friendship were limited. In truth, Oxford is a sea I have yet to fully explore. Possible friends might reside in Dubai, or California, or Minnesota. At Oxford, I travel to experience a whirlwind of personalities, a whirlwind of ideas and people. The anxiety I felt subsided once I let curiosity drive my interactions.
I have always been hard on myself — many academically achieving, ambitious Oxford students are. But, it’s impossible to fight against the force of ceaseless waves. I can only be carried by a calmness and openness to new people and new experiences, rather than fear. And when I inevitably do flub something, maybe an interaction with a professor or friend, I might even forgive myself. I will give myself time to find my people and I will be okay if I don’t. I’ll let myself accept the water, and I’ll let myself float on, and I’ll learn to swim.
Photo courtesy of Emory University