Finding a community
We've all heard the fable of the sticks: a single stick is easily broken, but a bundle is much harder to break. It's cheesy and cliche, but many cliches exist because they carry at least a grain of truth. For me, this fable succinctly summarizes one of the largest lessons I have learned in my past three years at Carnegie Mellon.
I've struggled with social anxiety for as long as I can remember. I think I can count with one hand how many times I left my house during my high school career for non-school or family-related reasons. Once I got to college, I hoped that leaving home and starting fresh in Pittsburgh could give me that extra boost in confidence. Everyone else is in the same position in a new city, so surely I won't be too awkward making new friends.
That thought was somewhat correct. I talked to new people during Orientation. I still remember my cheeks burning as I ran through Playfair and singing along to "Cake by the Ocean." This was the college experience that I hoped for and more.
Unfortunately, that rush was much shorter-lived than I had expected. The buzz of a new beginning faded, and I found myself falling back to my old habits and withdrawing from the world. I didn't have many close friends, and some of the friendships I did have faded. I was afraid to make new bonds with people; what if these new bonds I make in college disappear into thin air? Would the effort put into maintaining an relationship have been done in vain? Sure, I currently had friends who I would say hi to and maybe grab a bite with here and there, but I found myself unable to be myself or comfortable around others. I felt like an actor with a mask that would appease the audience and come off the second the curtain closes.
"You should come to The Tartan," a friend told me. She probably saw my political Facebook rambles and saw a potential writer. Maybe she saw The Tartan as an outlet for me. I was nervous. Me, a writer? I never thought of myself as interesting. What's so interesting about a small-town girl from Alabama? I didn't want to decline, so I decided to go to my first All-Staff meeting in my second semester of freshman year. I chatted with the editor of Forum and wrote my first article.
I thought that joining such an extracurricular activity would be isolating, and it was at first. I would come to All-Staff to pitch a topic to my editor, write it, and repeat. I didn't swing by production or talk to any of the other writers. Again, my anxiety had a vice grip on me and told me that nobody really cared. This cycle continued for that entire semester.
Entering sophomore year: the editor tells me that she wants an assistant. This doesn't seem too demanding socially, so I say yes. Little did I know how much this would change my life. I walked in the office thinking that I would just be typing away and dragging objects on InDesign, but what I got out of it was so much more. Being an assistant made me talk to more people and having people talk to me. My shell was being pecked at, and it was only a matter of time until I came out.
It's cheesy. I know. I won't pretend that being so involved in a club and being so close with a community magically cured me and pumped confidence into me. I still struggle with social anxiety and probably will for a while. However, I have never met a group of friends who I feel more comfortable around. The encouragement, love, and support that this group radiated helped me go through some of the hardest parts of my college experience and even inspired me to open up about my own experiences with mental health. If you told me in freshman year that I would genuinely be looking forward to being surrounded by people, I would have thought you went insane and throw a half-empty can of Red Bull at you. However, that's just what happened.
Perhaps your community isn't in The Tartan, and that's perfectly valid. However, I firmly believe that having any community that can vouch for you and support you is vital. Find your niche. It doesn't matter how long it takes to find it, but don't underestimate the power of a bundle. If I remained as a lone stick, I know I would have snapped. I might not even be here at all. College carries its fair share of difficulties; having the support from others can make all the difference. Sure, it may not stop the storm, but it can provide shelter that helps you stay dry.