Part 23, “And yet we isolate students instead of connecting them” of Seth Godwin’s STOP STEALING DREAMS caught my attention this week. I felt isolated during my entire undergraduate program. I was lucky to have one or two friends in any of my classes. Like Godwin said, it’s because all assignments, tests, quiz, and homework are done individually for the most part. This is especially true for science disciplines, where everything is rote memorization, even the upper-level classes.

Biology, chemistry, anatomy, athletic injuries, exercise physiology, nutrition across the lifespan, even organic chemistry lab, whatever class you wanted to name, the course structure of the majority of my undergraduate classes was the exact same. We’d have our multiple choice tests, online quizzes, and homework assignments. If there weren’t homework assignments in a class, you would be expected to take tests every 3 weeks. This made it really difficult to get to know the other students in the class. If you weren’t able to make friends in your major, you likely wouldn’t have anyone to study with for the tests or anyone to ask questions about the homework assignments. You were isolated from everyone else who had friends within the major. I feel like the most successful students in my major were the students who had made friends early on, like in their first year, and continued through the program with the same set of friends.

“Oh but a solution would be to talk to whoever you’re sitting next to in class and make friends with them so you can study together.” That’s not easy. Especially if that person is introverted, shy about meeting people, or if everyone in the class is different from them. I was the latter. My career goals did not match any of my classmates, I wasn’t interested in the same hobbies, I didn’t participate in club activities that were related to my discipline, and I wasn’t interested in finding a physical therapist to shadow with. For the most part, students in my major (nutrition and exercise) were interested in a limited number of careers, becoming a physical therapist, physician’s assistant, or a dietitian. I wanted to do research in a public health setting. I thought I was in the wrong major because I wasn’t meeting anyone with similar interests.

I only had three friends who were in my major and I met them externally through my social clubs. Two of them were a year ahead of me so we didn’t have our core classes together. My major is the 5th largest major on campus and yet I had such difficulty making friends and meeting people through my classes. My friends in other majors, such as business or engineering, always had a solid group of friends that would study for exams together, work on homework assignments together, and, lacking in my program, do group projects together. We criticize our engineering and business programs for their issues with teamwork but we often overlook our science programs where there is virtually no teamwork opportunities.

I made my first in-major friend my senior year. She and I shared the same interests; we wanted to pursue a graduate degree in some sort of public health program and work in research. How did I meet her? We were two out of five students in a new class that our department was testing, Food and Nutrition Toxicology. The class centered around discussions and presentations. How did we both individually decide to take the class? We found that the course content was interesting and seemed applicable to our research interests. Also, we both struggled in traditional classroom formats.

12 thoughts on “Isolation

  1. Shannon Roosma says:

    Thanks for your post! I think what you shared is a great reminder of how having connections with peers can be beneficial to our learning and growth. I also really like that you pointed out that one of the things that drew you to an environment in which you met a friend within your major was a difficulty with certain learning environments. I think this is so valuable in reminding us as both students and educators that students have different interests, needs, and preferences and that these should be valued and explored rather than discouraged and ignored.

  2. mgbullar says:

    This was a really thoughtful post, and I appreciate you sharing! I wonder if implementing something in our classes where we ask students to “turn to their neighbor and share… *insert whatever thing here*” would help students find friends with similar interests in their own classes. There are some classes where it feels like everything is individualized where maybe the only thing we can ask is just a simple instruction to share something with the person next to us. As an engineer, I think I’ve been lucky to have multiple team-based classes. I hadn’t even considered that other STEM fields might not work the same way. We’ve talked a lot about incorporating problem-based learning and team tasks instead of individual ones. Do you think that if we changed the way we teach a class that students might find it easier to make friends?

  3. Heather Kissel says:

    Susan, thank you for this post–it truly resonated with me! Though I went to a small liberal arts college where pretty much everyone knows everybody else, I was also a student who did not necessarily fit in with those in my major. I was Psychology and Pre-Med. I was the only student in the Psychology program doing Pre-Med, and the only student in Pre-Med who majored in Psychology (not Biology or Chemistry). Neither set of students quite understood what I was doing or why. Furthermore, despite having labs with hands on activities, up until junior year, all those activities were to be completed individually. In my Gen Chem lab, you weren’t even allowed to talk to a person sharing the lab area with you! Regardless of whether we are training health professionals or researchers, increasing the isolation of students by limiting group and peer interaction is ridiculous–no health professional or researcher works alone in real life, so why should they do so in training for those fields?

  4. I have a friend who is going through Microbiology right now and she would echo this sentiment heavily. The courses she takes really hits on the homework assignments and exams. Recently, she has shown me the poor quality that goes into constructing the exams. I think the good, yet sad part of the story is that it had classmates bond over the fact of how terrible it is. Altogether this approach is becoming stale and outdated in an era of technology and pedagogical change. For instance, courses are leaning towards a project center approach rather than complete lecture and exams only. As we saw earlier in the semester there are creative ways to have rote memorization courses be taught with an engaging manner. I empathize with your prior experience and hope that changes are coming sooner rather than later as the next generation of professors come about.

  5. Maha says:

    Nice post Susan! I completely agree that teamwork is so important in a learning environment. However, not necessarily, teamwork will let you make friends. I took many project-based classes in Virginia Tech. I had many meetings with my team, discussing the project and the tasks. But after we finished the final presentation, I don’t see them anymore and we don’t even contact each other. Many of my friends, though, are my lab mates, we see each other everyday, we know each-other families and we meet sometimes outside the lab.

  6. stephanie gonzalez maldonado says:

    Susan, I really appreciate your post! I tend to be on the more introverted side, so it can be difficult for me to just reach out to classmates. I found that in my undergraduate studies, group work and group discussions helps to break the ice and find common interests with fellow classmates.

    Your post made me think about the classes I teach. I always want students to work together and be friends…at least in the class. But what am I doing to encourage that? Perhaps I should be more mindful of that in the future.

  7. Connor Owens says:

    This was a really great post, Susan. Having changed majors in the middle of my undergraduate career, I can relate a lot to this. Everyone seemed to already have friends they sat with, studied with, and helped them during labs. I think your post brings to light the importance of creating GOOD, EFFECTIVE group projects for these large majors. A poorly designed project seems to actually isolate students, making more enemies than friends. However, a well constructed one throughout these large majors would help create these study groups and external support for students like you. Thank you again for sharing!

  8. pallavi raonka says:

    Great post! I agree with you that most of the work we carry out push us in social isolation which is really difficult to fight. I personally have had a hard time to make friends at Virginia Tech. As you said, it was because of having different interest and politics. Indian’s, Iranian’s and other international students have had big and strong groups. I could never fit in.
    My coping mechanism was to travel. I travel a lot and have made several new friends while traveling. By default, I have become a pro with budget traveling.

  9. Thanks for the post! This gives me a different perspective, I have always been big on groups study for assignments and exams. I have always learnt and performed best when we have worked in groups. But none of the courses (science) that I have taken have “required” group work. It never occurred to me that there maybe students willing to work in a group but being left out for various reasons. I think including group assignments and activities in our teaching curriculum is a must!

  10. Nayara Faria says:

    Nice post Susan. I went through the same as you during my undergraduate career. Even though my classes size were about 50 students, i was never able of making many friends because my career goals were completely different from them. Besides that, all my classes assignments were sorted into two exams (80%) and one project or homework (20%). In this sense, i did not have many chances to work on groups: “And yet we isolate students instead of connecting them”

  11. angelicaw says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I completely agree with you. It is sometimes difficult for students to memorize all of the information being thrown at them. Faculty should make sure the student is connected with what is being taught along with the people in the class. Throughout my education, I have dealt with imposter syndrome and faculty should find a way to make everyone feel connected.

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