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Merry Band of Misfits

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I walk around campus during my second year here, hearing the background chatter of other students’ voices buzz in my ears. I’m focused, intent, on a mission. I need to get from my Point A to Point B, and all of a sudden I hear a sentence that stops me dead in my tracks, my determination blowing away like a napkin into a jet engine.

“UFV has no community. Everyone just comes to their classes and leaves.”

The voice of this student reverberated in my ears, and like a classic cartoon, it echoed through the building, the campus, the country, then exploded the world in an animated type of agony.

I was astonished! Alarmed! Aghast! How could someone say such treasonous words in my presence?

Starting university was a moment in my life I met at the crossroads of Mixed Feelings and Apprehension. For those who excelled in the small high school hallways that smelled like gym socks, rotting food, and faint B.O. mixed with the too-sweet perfume of teen girls, leaving that safety net can be a traumatizing experience. For me, well, I welcomed the new beginning with open arms, “From Here to Eternity” style.

But unlike the movies, my first day of university at UFV did not contain any similarities whatsoever to the norm seen on television, except maybe “Community.” Just not the typical Americanized version that usually graces the silver-backed screens on our laps (or rose gold, or space gray).

I lived with my parents at the time, so there was no awkward meeting of my new dorm mate, and I didn’t run into any cheerleaders telling me to come to a football game. I did find myself a little lost though the only true to cannon part of the “new to school” trope. Our school isn’t huge, but there are enough buildings to confuse the average newcomer.

Driving up to UFV, I assumed that I would find a subpar student body, chock-full of half-assed events, and lacking in any sort of community. I believed that since the university isn’t the same size as the University of British Columbia, or University of Victoria, that somehow meant that it’d be lacking in the communal vibe. I had visited each campus different friends attended both and found them teeming with students, all gathered in various locations, laughing together and enjoying life. Lounging by fountains, and on grassy knolls, looking brochure perfect. I was at UFV because it was close, and what my bank account could afford, not because I thought I would find lifelong friends.

I quicken my pace away from the voice, and continue on towards my Point B. As I walk, I picture myself as I was when I first started here, her ghost a pale figment to my left side. I was 17 the first time I attended UFV. My smaller, juvenile self trying to just make it through the hallways and find what building, class, desk, I needed to be in.

After my first year I left and did life for a little while in a different direction. I went to pastry school for a year, then changed directions again and became a nanny, while also volunteering with a youth group as an intern and simultaneously working at a candy store in Kitsilano. I went back to a different school to pursue theological studies, only to have that school close down, and then I oddly ended up being a parts purchaser at an RV dealership. But ultimately, I knew I belonged at university.

When I came back at 27, I knew I wanted it to be different. I no longer wanted to show up, go to class, and then drive back to my home, mourning the social life I used to have with friends I was familiar with. This time I wanted to engage.

As I walked through the halls the second time around, I noticed the poster boards littered with flyers advertising events, beckoning out to students to come and enjoy the festivities. It took a while to stop the bad habit of meandering past them with my headphones in, focused on making my way to the next class, while trying to remember which parking lot I left my car in. Eventually, I paid attention long enough to see one that struck my fancy.

I stroll now past the milling students outside Tim Hortons, toward the SUB. I see solitary people walking alone, noses buried in cell phones inches from their faces, thumbs rolling up and down on a screen, tap, tap, tapping away messages to unknown somebodies.

I enter the cement fortress, heavy doors banging shut behind me. The whir of the coffee grinders mixes with the chatter of people gathered around tables creating a pleasing cacophony. I start up the stairs and remember the first time I entered the building.

Stepping out of my comfort zone, about to enter the room advertised on the poster, intimidated and ready to turn tail and run back to my cat who doesn’t judge me for eating a whole box of Oreos for dinner while pressing the “next episode” button on Netflix, I walked past the wall of windows, feeling every set of eyes on me as I did, hoping against all hope that I could just observe and gradually ingratiate myself toward this room full of artsy, interesting people who were way cooler than me. I schlepped along, my arms dead weights hanging from my shoulders, and my feet two sizes too big. My tongue the Sahara, I attempted an introduction of myself, every word dynamite exploding in a library.

Eventually I figured out how to speak without sounding like my mouth was full of cotton balls, and through that encounter, I befriended people that make the school feel more like home.

While the bulk of students drive to this school, living anywhere but on campus, it doesn’t mean for a moment that there is no sense of community. The overpopulated bulletin boards should tell that story well enough.

There are clubs to be a part of: clubs about tabletop games, about caring for the environment, and creative writing, among so many more. There are on-campus jobs, volunteer opportunities, and people in your classes that are pretty dang cool if you are really adamant about not having extra curriculars.

The reality is that I try to cram as much as possible into the 24 hours in a day. Expectations of who I should be, and what success looks like are influenced by social media. I see people having side hustles, and working long hours, saying it’s all worth it because they now have this life. Often this imagining of the types of activities I should be involved in trump the ones that are actually important.

As I sit, having reached Point B successfully, I open my laptop and search “too busy” on Google, hoping to pull up some helpful, statistical, and properly factual articles. The results are more surprising than I originally guess. Everything from “too busy” quizzes, to lists of excuses for getting out of commitments, and even an article on the “American Express” website, which is a weird place to have an article on the topic. What is this world coming to if I need to take a Buzzfeed or Cosmo quiz to tell me that having panic attacks because I ran out of colours for my daytimer to colour code all of my activities isn’t ok?

According to Mayo Clinic, “… you undoubtedly face multiple demands each day, such as shouldering a huge workload, making ends meet and taking care of your family. Your body treats these so-called minor hassles as threats. As a result you may feel as if you’re constantly under assault.”

These assaults mean that our bodies respond in the same way as when we are under actual life-threatening attacks. Whether it’s a bear, or just a bear of a prof staring at us at the front of the class, our body responds the same exact way.

Being busy is associated with numerous health risks. Increased stress, susceptibility to anxiety, and increased risk of depression. Increased cortisol levels means bad news for mental health and for wellbeing overall.

The American Psychological Association lists eight different categories of how prolonged stress can affect different, and very important, parts of your body. From bone structure to the reproductive process, chronic stress can have prolonged and dangerous consequences.

When I returned, I knew university was a fresh start, and with the blank slate laid out before me, I needed to find people to connect with, and to live life alongside. I needed to find people who, at the very least, I could talk to and feel like I wasn’t continually shoving my foot in my mouth, ashamed at my own extreme awkwardness.

Finding those friends is the challenge. They don’t just fall out of the sky. They’re made in ordinary life moments.

I didn’t consider myself popular in high school. My grad class was just over 90 people, and I knew them all, and talked with most of them. I was a social butterfly and flitted from group to group. In my senior year, I decided to take on some extra responsibility, and became co-president of our grad council. Taking on various events, making speeches at prom, showing up to help decorate, and doing the minute details of event planning were now coinciding with doing homework, working a job, and trying to maintain a healthy relationship with my then boyfriend.

My co-collaborator in this bid for biting off more than I could chew became a lifelong friend. To this day, taking on the role of co-president was the best, and worst decision of my life.

It was by far the most stressful endeavor I had taken on at that point in my 17 years. Between the barrage of hormones, the unsettling reality of growing up and facing the many pressures of wanting to be liked, to accomplish every task put in front of me, and be this magic unicorn of a person who has all her ducks in a row, I was a whirling dervish of equal parts activity and catastrophe.

One of the events planned was laser tag, hosted in the school gym. This had been done every year by every grad class, and was an event everyone looked forward to participating in. Most of the grads were excited for an opportunity to shoot pretend guns at one another, exercising their prowess at hopping over benches in the dark to attack their friends. Me? I was having a panic attack in a corner due to the stress of it all.

But I wasn’t alone. My best friend was right beside me. Also having a minor panic attack. And as we sat behind the half glass, half metal doors, eating the snacks that we were supposed to be bringing out for the students to share, we found ourselves changing from being under siege by our anxiety to being overcome by a giggle fit, laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation.

Scientific research has shown that friendships greatly reduce stress. In a study conducted by the University of Nebraska, it was tested to see if the presence of a best friend in stressful situations reduced cortisol levels and increased global self-worth, which is the idea that one has value and a place in this world.

“Having a best friend present during an experience significantly buffered the effect of the negativity of the experience on cortisol and global self-worth. When a best friend was not present, there was a significant increase in cortisol and a significant decrease in global self-worth as the negativity of the experience increased. When a best friend was present, there was less change in cortisol and global self-worth due to the negativity of the experience.”

Having a best friend present at times when the homework has piled up, when your parents won’t stop fighting, when your boss is being a jerk, and someone scoffs in your general direction because you breathed the wrong way helps ensure that your stress levels stay lower than normal, and that you don’t get stuck in a cyclical torrent of horrendous self-talk. They remind you that you’re the best thing since sliced bread and no amount of spinach in your teeth will change that.

Jordyn Wieler, a recent graduate of UFV from the library tech program, spoke with me about her experience here, and how the friendships she formed have carried on now that she’s entered the workforce.

“I met a lot of my university friends through student associations (first English, and then library tech),” said Weiler. “In my experience, it was really nice to have friends going through the same classes and programs. Often it helped to be able to vent to someone who was struggling with the same assignment as you, or complain about a particular class.”

“When I was doing my library tech diploma, there were lots of us taking the same classes and progressing through the program at the same time, we would often have study parties together. We would bring snacks to share, as well as notes and study material. There was definitely a ‘community, not competition’ focus with this group of friends. We still get together for coffee or game nights (with snacks, obviously).”

These friends encouraged her to join the English student association (ESA) in her second year and through that she met a group of friends she continues to meet with post graduation.

“This was one of the best decisions I made in my university career. I joined the ESA as their secretary, and went to weekly meetings to plan student events. After I graduated we continued meeting throughout the summer for a ‘book club.’ I then went on to complete a library tech diploma. One of the first things I did was join the student association; again this was a great way to see people outside of class, and form lasting friendships.”

I recline back in my chair, resurfacing out of my Google rabbit hole. I hear voices amicably debating in the other room, laughter emits from the person sitting adjacent to me, and the ease at which I can sit amongst these people reminds me to be thankful for pushing through the weird until it became normal.

Yes, maybe UFV is smaller, and yes, maybe friends don’t come flocking to you, standing in a line, asking and begging to be a part of your life. And perhaps we aren’t situated in a city like Vancouver or Victoria, but you are here, and you can start to make a community around yourself. I probably won’t find the love of my life walking slowly toward a frat house, their teeth glimmering in the sun, their hair perfectly tousled. I mean, that’s only because UFV doesn’t have frat houses, and not because movies set up unrealistic notions about love or anything. But I can find friends, I can find an odd group of misfits that make my oddities normal, and people whom I can live life alongside. Take a chance, step out of your comfort zone. If you don’t look for it, you won’t find it. But that’s true of most things. Including community.

Image: Kayt Hine/The Cascade

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