USR set to combat loneliness among students

24 May 2019

Loneliness among students is an invisible yet major problem, according to the University Student Council (USR). This is why a campaign will start this week to facilitate contact among students. ‘The university culture has to change.’

Student wellbeing has recently attracted a lot of attention. Loneliness, however, has been largely overlooked, according to Lisa de Jager of the USR. ‘But it really is a big problem,’ she says. ‘The wellbeing survey held two years ago showed that one in five students feel very lonely. The USR wondered how this could be.’

According to Hannah Markusse, initiator of the community table (a long table at the Refter that students can join every Thursday to eat, talk or study together, eds.), loneliness is an invisible problem, making it difficult to tackle. In addition, everyone defines the concept of loneliness in their own way. ‘We all feel lonely sometimes,’ Markusse explains. ‘I myself mainly had the idea that people hardly feel connected to each other anymore, and that conversations tend to remain on the surface.’

‘Student participation in active student life also appears to be decreasing,’ USR member Nanne van Mil adds. ‘We definitely see the need for a solution.’

Cultural shift

The cause of the problem, according to De Jager, Van Mil and Markusse, lies in the individualistic university culture, where everyone does their own thing. ‘Your student days are supposed to be the best time of your life,’ says Van Mil. ‘That puts a lot of pressure on people.’

‘As soon as students move out of home, they are suddenly on their own,’ De Jager adds, ‘and will just have to find their way. This is not always easy, and some students find themselves wandering lonely in the campus crowd.’

Cultural problems also play a role within associations. Van Mil: ‘Once a certain “friend culture” has emerged, people may start feeling left out. This raises the barrier to become active, which contradicts the principle of an association. Associations by nature want to keep everyone involved, but in practice they are not always sure how to do this.’

Small-scale initiatives

But how do you tackle something that is so deeply rooted in university culture? This is a challenge, for the USR too. ‘The university leaves the initiative to students,’ says De Jager. ‘However, the USR has chosen not to formulate policy – that wouldn’t work.’

‘Instead, we try to focus more on small-scale initiatives, such as the community table that Markusse organises at the Refter every Thursday, and a poster displaying figures on loneliness that we will probably start distributing on campus next week. We want people to feel connected to each other and to know that it’s okay to feel this way.’

‘Associations need to step out of their comfort zone’

Associations will have to become more accessible and inclusive as well. ‘We want to discuss this issue with associations and offer them training material on how to get people involved,’ says Van Mil. ‘Associations need to step out of their comfort zone and become more aware of their culture.’

The ultimate aim, according to De Jager, is to make a shift from an individualistic culture towards collective thinking. ‘Real change is not achieved by simply saying: “keep an eye on this”. It will have to become the normal thing to do,’ Markusse claims. ‘But that is a long-term process.’ Van Mil: ‘It all starts at the university. People should not be seen as numbers, but recognised as persons.’

The community table is organised at the Refter every Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm.

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