As Weave: The Social Fabric Project has highlighted, there is a crisis of community in this country. More than ever, Americans feel lonely, disconnected, and lack robust relationships with their neighbors and coworkers. As a result, we are more distrusting of each other, stressed, and less likely to have support systems for life’s ups and inevitable downs.
At first glance, a modern-day college campus is bursting with community: Thousands — if not tens of thousands — of young people are gathered together. Campus is filled with “third places” like libraries and coffee shops. Students’ lives are woven together through overlapping classes, extracurricular clubs and activities, meals at communal dining halls, and (at large state universities like mine) a passion for collegiate sports teams.
Campus “third places” are where conversation, community, and social integration should flourish. But take a slightly closer look and you will find that the outward appearance of community is not quite what it seems, with real impacts on students’ well-being and ultimately the ability for society to function at large.
I am a rising senior at the University of Michigan, and after three years of school, I am deeply concerned about a lack of community among my generation. 63% of students reported feeling very lonely and that was before COVID-19 moved classes and extracurriculars online.
Why, despite all of the seemingly built-in advantages of a college campus, are young people struggling to truly connect with each other? Three reasons stand out to me.
(I should take a quick moment to say that I, of course, do not speak for all 40,000 young people at the University of Michigan or on college campuses elsewhere. There are many students who, like the individuals Weave has highlighted, are fighting against the current and developing caring relationships and communities.)
- A hyperfocus on career success and material goods: A graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree in business will certainly be prepared to analyze market trends and evaluate the economic impacts of inflation. But that is because, from the moment students step foot on campus, they are surrounded by a highly pressurized, competitive environment that rewards transactional relationships and temporary commitments. Academics and extracurriculars quickly become insular. Freshman students, at the expense of joining community-oriented clubs (the Michigan Backpacking Club, intramural sports leagues, or the Michigan Cooking Club to name a few), hop from investing/consulting club to investing/consulting club in hopes of padding resumes. By the time graduation arrives, one’s entire college career has been spent in competition with peers and in pursuit of a singular goal: analyst at fill-in-the-blank consulting firm.
- The omnipresent nature of smartphones and electronic device: Allow me to paint you a picture: a large college auditorium filled with 200 students in the few minutes before their class starts. Except, instead of the audible buzz of chatter as they talk about each other's lives or the course content, the auditorium is silent. Students sit alone as we ‘arm’ ourselves with electronics. Students open laptops, put headphones in, and take smartphones out of their pockets. The same phenomenon occurs in dining halls and residence halls. After being raised with electronics our entire lives, (devices that are optimized to take advantage of deep-seated human psychology to grab attention) even the shortest moment of inaction in the physical world triggers a knee-jerk reaction to grab the nearest screen. In the electronic world we are being raised in, as Anne Applebaum recently wrote in The Atlantic, “conversation is ruled by algorithms that are designed to capture attention, harvest data, and sell advertising. The voices of the angriest, most emotional, most divisive—and often the most duplicitous—participants are amplified.”
- A lack of counterbalancing classes, speakers, and spaces: University of Michigan students are passionate. They routinely fill auditoriums or Zoom rooms to hear from invited speakers and guest lecturers. Yet the vast majority of those speakers and lecturers, while discussing different topics, are speaking the same language of career advancement. We regularly hear from consultants about how best to prepare for case interviews, but not from local nonprofits about ways to get involved in our community. We hear from partners at law firms about how best to get a head start on preparing for the LSAT (early and with private classes!), but not about mentoring programs with local elementary school students.
Of course, a central goal (maybe even the primary objective) of higher education is to graduate with the skills needed to be an employable adult. But, of equal importance, is learning to be a compassionate and engaged member of society. The balance is off.
What is to be done?
As the Weave project has sparked nationally, we need an ongoing and extensive conversation about the best ways colleges can equip students with the skills to build community and repair our social fabric. Ideas can be directed at any level, from individual students reaching out to each other, to a wholesale, university review of curriculum requirements. I certainly don’t have all the solutions, but here are a few ideas to get that conversation started:
- Display discussion prompts at the beginning of class: As mentioned above, the few minutes before a college lecture are often completely silent, without conversation between students. But what if professors were encouraged to display a “discussion prompt” on the whiteboard for students to engage with? These could be related to course content, or not at all. Are you at a life crossroads? What is it? What is a talent that you have that most people don’t know? What historical figure would you most like to have dinner with? Students can, of course, choose to ignore the prompt and have the few minutes to themselves. But the presence of the prompt (and the underlying endorsement and normalization of sparking up a conversation with your neighbor) might encourage many to turn and talk to the student sitting next to them, behind them, in front of them, or maybe even after class — it might change a student’s habits and develop a skill for life.
- Foster common spaces at dining halls: Coming together for meals has long been a key way to build community. College dining halls could have designated “conversation tables” where another student — even a complete stranger — can sit down next to you and have a casual conversation. There might be discussion placards sitting on the table or themed tabletops (e.g., the outdoors, sports teams, book and movie covers) that encourage commonalities. Small changes to a student’s everyday environment will incrementally build a new kind of campus community.
- Connect students with local organizations and nonprofits: College students are a transient group, jumping back and forth between their hometowns and school. One activity that has provided me with an unconditional sense of community is volunteering with an Ann Arbor nonprofit — my only regret is that I didn’t discover this wonderful organization and make that outreach until the end of my second year. Beginning with freshmen orientation, universities should promote off-campus volunteer opportunities for their students. Starting this practice early on will build upon or further strengthen the habit of volunteering and community service — a skill that will serve us and our communities for life.
- Bring in speakers and organizations that speak to rebuilding our social fabric: Michigan students do not hesitate to attend speaker series or Zoom events. The University should make a concerted effort to bring in speakers and organizations who speak to building worthwhile relationships and resilient communities. We will always have career fairs for financial services and computer science, but we should also have fairs for nonprofits and community service organizations. In addition to job opportunities, these fairs would speak to weaving as a way of life.
This is a unique time to have this conversation and act. As students return from over a year of online school, many will be yearning to reconnect with their peers and to rebuild and improve their communities. Now is the time to try some new ideas and strategies to encourage students to put their phones down and see their peers for who they are. Just as students have gotten used to ‘6 feet for social distancing’ signs around campus, they might be more open to ‘Sit here to meet someone new’ signs. The ideas I have laid out might not be perfect or even the right answers… but let’s 'sit at one of those tables' and discuss.