Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Anonymity is often associated with mystery. An anonymous person can be anyone they want to be, at any time, anywhere. It can be associated with protection — a barrier behind which your comments cannot be traced back to you, a wall between your identity and your spoken thoughts or beliefs, a mask to hide behind should others wish to find you. Anonymity, in the age of the internet and social media, has taken on new meanings and new importance, with upsides and downsides. Generally, anonymity is good for the one being anonymous, because in this day and age that is a choice. Yet what happens when the choice to be anonymous is taken away from us? What happens, say, if we are forced into anonymity?
My first few months as a freshman at Brown University have taught me more about the dangers of anonymity than the benefits. After attending a small high school, I was used to knowing the names of everyone in my grade. My classes were usually less than 20 people, my teachers playfully bantered with us in class, and if I didn’t show up to school, someone was bound to text me to ask if everything was okay. I had a flexible curfew, but my parents were home most nights — if I didn’t show up at home, I got more than a text; I got in trouble.
College is a different story. We are all living on our own. We are taking large introductory classes, sometimes with as many as 300 people. I would say the majority of my professors don’t know my name, know my face, nor have any idea whether or not I’m actually attending their classes. I have been lucky to be assigned to two roommates who I actually call close friends — if they weren’t ever back in the dorm, I would have no one making sure I come home at night. Even a school as small as Brown felt overwhelmingly large at the beginning of the year, when I went to one of our very first ice breaker socials and saw nearly the whole of the freshman class laid out in front of me.
When you first get to college, you’re told to throw yourself out there. Get involved in clubs, Greek life, student organizations, affinity groups. While originally I thought this was touted as advice to meet new people and make new friends, what I now realize is that it’s a chance to make the school smaller.
We all need that, and most of us find it in our own ways. For those of us that don’t, however, college can be an achingly lonely experience. It can feel as though we have no one looking out for us, no one caring about if we eat enough or sleep enough or come back home at night. Without teachers who know us, at least in the beginning, it can feel as though no one cares whether or not we succeed, whether we achieve our goals, whether we matter at all. It feels like we could slip through the cracks. In this case, our anonymity is not a protection or a shield; it is an unforgiving barrier that walls us off from the rest of the world. We feel trapped in our own inability to breach the gap.
All of us want to be known, to feel recognized, and to form connections with one another. We all want to thrive in our time at college and to live “the best four years” of our lives, as so many have proclaimed to us in the past. So to all of you who feel small at college, for all those who struggle against the bonds of anonymity, I encourage you to make your school smaller. College is the chance for us to pursue ourselves in the way we’ve always wanted to but maybe sometimes been afraid to. Put yourself out there. Join those clubs or organizations, even though it may feel silly at times. If you’re struggling in a class, go to your professor’s or TA’s office hours to speak with them in a smaller setting. Talk to your friends, both old ones from home or the tentative new relationships you have at college, about how you are feeling. It may bring you closer than you would think.
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