What’s Normal, People? Love and Loneliness on Campus

Written by Liv Capelin
Graphic by Abbie Holbrook

C/W: anxiety, self-harm, depression, suicide, mental health.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.” – Sally Rooney, Normal People

For many people, university can be both an intensely rewarding experience and a lonely and isolating one. 

With everyone cooped up at home, there is one show that has everybody talking. Stan’s recently released TV show and Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, Normal People has sparked discussion on class, domestic violence, first love, BDSM, mental health, amongst other topics. Based on Rooney’s highly acclaimed novel, the 12-episode series follows the lives of Irish teenagers Marianne and Connell; two young people who find strength in each other whilst overcoming challenges of moving away from home, falling in love for the first time, working through trauma, and coming of age. The pair move in and out of each other’s lives, both in their late high school years and throughout their time at university, as the audience witnesses their tumultuous relationship of miscommunication and heartache. 

Within this wider tale, there was one particular story that spoke to me. That was the story of lead male character Connell, who moves away from his small town in the County of Sligo to Trinity College University in the capital city of Dublin. In doing so, Connell struggles with feeling like an outsider as he tries to find his way amongst new friends of a different class, culture, and intellectual life. Although he is physically proximate to his small town in Sligo, Dublin still feels a world away from his own life experience. Connell finds himself struggling to afford rent and match the lifestyle of those around him, bristling at the intellectual arrogance and snobbery of his Trinity peers. He grapples with self-doubt as he finds himself surrounded by people who can articulately argue a political point in an English tutorial over a book they haven’t actually read. 

This is a story relatable for a lot of people moving away from home to come to the Australian National University (ANU), and one that perhaps we need to acknowledge. One in four undergraduate students drop out of university and never finish their degrees[1]. It seems that, although there’s a lot of talk about how moving to university can be one of the best and biggest moments of your life, this is clearly not the case for everyone. It is common to crave home, miss your old friends, or find yourself struggling to adjust to a completely new environment and peer group. I talked to Emily, who went to the ANU and lived in Canberra for five years, about how her university experience differed from the conventional expectation. Here is her story:

Emily

When I was accepted to the ANU I was ecstatic. Ever since I had learned that I could, I have wanted to escape my rural hometown. I couldn’t wait to trade my tiny town of 2500 for the “big smoke” of Canberra. At the time, my idea of a big city was anywhere with a Westfield (and Canberra has three!). I had never felt more connected to the world before. I had access to stable, unlimited internet for the first time in my life. A lot of internet culture had passed me by while I was in high school. When I moved to Fenner Hall, I was suddenly able to access music streaming sites and YouTube without fear of racking up hundreds of dollars in internet bills. I think in that sense, I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. I’d also found that such a range of services from public transport to home-delivered take away had never been so readily accessible before. My family lived on a property half an hour away from anywhere that would offer these services.  Being able to be more spontaneous with my plans – being able to get up and go shopping or go out to dinner with friends – was very freeing after years of having to carefully coordinate with my family whenever I needed to go somewhere. 

My sister had warned me that making friends can be difficult at university, but my confidence in my first year surprised me. I was outgoing and thrived in the new social environment, quickly making a very tight group of friends who lived just down the hall from me. I’d also never been exposed to such a variety of people and ideas before, and I did a lot of personal growth in the first 6 months. I will admit that the social aspect probably took precedence over my education at that time. Overall, I enjoyed my first year immensely and was enamored with my new-found freedoms and opportunities. 

Second-year could not have been more different. In the summer between first year and the second, my time at home revealed how much I missed about it. I missed my family and friends, my karate dojo, the open space the countryside could offer. I missed the simplicity of home. 

I chose to continue to live in the dorm for my second year and it was around March that I realised that I was not at some big summer camp, and that these years would determine the course of my life in the coming years. Late in my first year, I had formed a very co-dependent friendship with another student that consumed my mental and physical energy like nothing I had ever experienced before. When you grow up on a farm 30 minutes drive from your closest school mate, it is easier to retreat from relationships like that. I didn’t have any experience in building boundaries that weren’t naturally created for me due to inaccessibility. I was failing my classes and I found that I resented the course I was studying. My motivation was at zero. I was called into meetings with university staff a few times because of this and felt chastised instead of supported. I had never struggled academically before in my life and my decline in grades and love of learning, as well as my exhaustion in my personal relationships, culminating in a complete mental crisis. 

Anxiety and depression took over my life and I struggled to find the energy to leave my small dorm room. I relapsed into self-harming – an issue I thought I had left behind in high school. Eventually, when thoughts of suicide began to creep into my mind, I realised that even though I had dreamed of the day I could move away, I needed to return home to recover. I took 6 months off and returned to complete my third year. Though third-year was still a struggle, I had learned to be more selective with my friendships and was lucky enough to be surrounded by wonderful, supportive university friends and a boyfriend who were able to keep me going. My greatest achievement to date is the Bachelor’s degree that I now hold.

They tell you that university will be the best years of your life, and I expected to breeze through the time on a cloud. Whilst the years I spent in Canberra were not easy years by any means, I learned the best lessons I think that I will ever learn in life. I learned resilience, I learned strength, I learned to cultivate healthy relationships, and I have gained a confidence in myself that I have never had before.

I think both Connell and Emily’s stories have a lot to take away from them. The more aware we are of those around us, the greater we can make each other feel less alone. ANU is often championed for its diversity. But in order to truly celebrate such diversity in our student body, we must recognise that everyone comes from different places and is made up of different life experiences. 


Remember that Connell was lucky enough to have a friend refer him to help. If these stories have raised any issues for you or someone you know, please reach out to either:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

ACT Access Mental Health: 6205 1065

ANU Counselling: 6178 0455 


[1] https://www.sbs.com.au/news/one-in-four-uni-students-drop-out-report

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