When I graduated from high school, I couldn’t wait to go to college.
I wanted to continue my education, of course, but I also wanted to move out my hometown. Growing up in a community of about 10,000 people, I was ready to expand my social circle.
My dorm room at Montana State University had a phone, but you had to call collect for any long-distance phone calls. Therefore, I only called my mother a few times in my first semester and I called her less and less over time. I couldn’t afford to make collect calls to my high school buddies so we wrote a letter or two and called it good. Thus, my mother and my high school friends weren’t connected to my daily life while I was in college.
That doesn’t happen today. Technology has connected us in new and profound ways.
These devices, an important tool in our everyday lives, have become our everything. They are our email inbox, our cameras, our notepads, our lists. They allow us to listen to music, geolocate, and even make phone calls. Cell phones connect us on a daily basis to the people who matter most and that’s a good thing.
But I suspect cell phones may also hinder our ability to make new connections. When I was in college, I made new friends through the dorms and in my classes. Walking across campus, I often see students buried in their cell phones and not interacting with people who are walking beside them or leaving the classroom together. And that makes me worry because I want every student at USU to thrive.
Robert Wagner, USU’s vice president for academic and instructional services, says that incoming students who meet one or two people they can do something with during their first two weeks on campus are twice as likely to come back the next semester as students who don’t. That makes sense to me. Who would want to return to a place where they feel alone?
National survey data indicate college students today experience higher rates of depression, loneliness, and anxiety than previous generations of college students. At USU, we have a multitude of services for students, faculty, and staff who may find themselves needing additional support. Aggies help each other—that’s what we do. So, if someone is struggling, I hope with all my heart that someone reaches out to them.
We’ve likely all heard advice to “Try something new every day” which forces us out of our comfort zone. But a person can still be lonely when trying something new. For today’s students, I think the advice should be to “Reach out to someone new.” So, this fall I am issuing a challenge to all USU students: Put your phone down and talk to someone you don’t already know. Ask them how their day is going. Ask them how they like USU. Ask them if they’d like to go to lunch. And in that way, be present with each other and expand the Aggie family.