The sun shines down from a clear, blue sky as palm leaves sway from the sweet ocean breeze. Walking backward, trying not to trip over her own feet, Leyla proclaims, “UC Santa Barbara has the happiest students in all of California!” The Arbor, a long stretch of pavement lined with tables in front of the main library, is bustling with students. Leyla tries not to bump into anyone as she leads her third and last tour of the day. Prospective students take in the hectic scene and stare inquisitively back at Leyla, waiting for her to follow up the impressive statistic. She looks out at the nameless faces of her scurrying peers, smiles, and lies... “It’s true! I absolutely love it here!”
College is not just for the education, it’s for the experience. Or at least, it was. Today’s college students’ experience is riddled with anxiety, hopelessness, and depression. Penn State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health published a study of 93 different schools which showed that 21% of students had a severe mental health disorder, while another 40% exhibited milder mental health concerns. There is an innate link between mental health and interpersonal relationships that likely dates back to the time of Neanderthals. In a study of over 270,000 individuals across the globe about the connection between social support and health outcomes, the results suggest that people who feel socially isolated experience adverse mental and physical health effects. However, walking around a beautifully manicured coastal campus, buzzing with thousands of intelligent and smiling students, it seems plausible that UCSB could be the exception.
UC Santa Barbara, bordered on two sides by the Pacific Ocean, sits atop coastal bluffs, making it one of the only public universities in the U.S. with its own beach. Aside from the breathtaking topography, the weather is generally heavenly (save for the occasional natural disaster). As stated on UCSB’s webpage, “Saying 72 and sunny is no joke around here. It’s a way of life...” The university’s physical appeal is apparent and matched academically with a dedicated and prestigious faculty, as well as highly active research centers. Outside of classes, students have over 400 campus organizations to choose from and an active Greek life system that comprises an estimated ten percent of the student body. Adjacent to the campus, the unincorporated beach community of Isla Vista (nicknamed IV), is a charming, densely populated square mile home to most students. The neighborhood's history and culture is rich and proudly boasted. It seems like the only thing UCSB is missing is a football team.
Despite UCSB sounding like the physical embodiment of Michael Franti’s “The Sound of Sunshine” and the impressive tour guide statistics, there are unhappy students. Enough so that CAPS (UCSB’s Counseling and Psychological Services) has wait times of over a month. And that only highlights the students who seek professional help. There are far more students experiencing diminished mental health who aren’t accounted for. “Week 5 I decided I finally needed to go to CAPS,” Whitney, a current student, recalls, “They didn’t have availability until the next quarter and it wasn’t an emergency. I just wasn’t happy and wanted to talk to someone.” If it isn’t challenging enough to confront poor mental health and ask for help, the lack of openings further disincentivizes students.
Rushali, a current student, recently started a Lean On Me (LOM) chapter at UCSB in the hopes of filling the gaps in the mental health services on campus. LOM is a platform-based service that anonymously connects users via text message with peer volunteers who provide support. While LOM doesn’t handle crisis-level situations (like suicide), users will have a place to feel heard and understood. Rushali was inspired to bring LOM to UCSB because “due to the large volume of students, it can sometimes feel like it [UCSB’s mental health services] isn’t enough and some students can fall through the cracks or get left behind.” She understands that the size of the school doesn’t just affect the capacity of CAPS, but can also make students feel like a small fish in a big pond. She remarks that large class sizes can make it feel “like you don’t matter or that your vote/opinion means little. It can seem like professors or advisors don't care.” In reality, Rushali notes, “you're one of a thousand students that need their help.” This can lead to students who are quiet, shy, or not proactive easily falling behind in their school work and mental health.
In addition to a large student body, Rushali asserts that “a lot of UCSB and IV culture seems to revolve around trivial things such as drinking, doing drugs, or partying.” She suggests that these trivial activities often lead to superficial friendships. A lot of students might argue that these activities bring people together, but as Whitney astutely points out, “Half the time they don’t even remember you.” Wade, a transfer student, discloses that centering his happiness and social life around substances is neither gratifying nor fulfilling. When Wade transferred, he joined the same fraternity from his previous school, hoping that the new school meant a different environment. He found again that when the focus was on using substances to have as much “fun” as possible, it didn’t “breed relationships built on empathy or caring about each other in an intimate way.” Wade is now a “geed,” short for GDI (Goddamn Independent), an acronym used by some Greek life members to delineate between themselves and the non-Greek.
Size and party culture aren’t the only characteristics of UCSB that affect people’s social experience at the university. “It’s something you don’t even pick up on at first until you realize how much it’s affecting you internally and that affects your social life,” Leyla explains. Born and raised in Sacramento, Leyla never paid much attention to her own race. Her high school had equally as many black students as white students. She asserts that UCSB’s lack of diversity in terms of black students and faculty has had a drastic impact on her, socially and mentally. With black students making up only 5% of the student population, Leyla often finds herself being the only black student in her class and rarely comes across professors that look like her. In her attempt to fit in and find people who share her interests, she joined Greek life. After two years it became evident to her that Greek life isn’t made for people of color. At events where sororities and fraternities came together, Leyla would look around a sea of white faces and think to herself, “Wow, I really don’t fit in.” Now, as an active member of the Black Student Union and Black Student Engagement, Leyla knows that she’s not the only person that has felt socially isolated or socially dissatisfied due to the ethnic composition of UCSB.
For Leyla, the first two years at UCSB were extremely difficult. Despite having a group of close friends who were in her sorority, Leyla didn’t look like her friends and she didn’t always share the same perspective. Homesickness mixed with feelings of isolation caused Leyla to spiral into a depression that lasted through the first half of her time at UCSB. “I rarely left my apartment the second year. It definitely affected my mental capabilities, especially pertaining to my school work,” Leyla recalls. Whitney remembers feeling similarly her freshman year, “It [lack of friends/community] made me not want to leave my dorm room.” Feelings of social isolation breed physical isolation. Once someone feels like they don’t belong, they are deterred from trying to find their place.
“Anytime I was feeling that this wasn’t the right place for me or unhappy, I would remind myself that this is my dream school. This is supposed to be paradise. I’m living right on the beach so I should be grateful for all these things,” Whitney shares. When asked during breaks or over the phone how UCSB was going, Whitney often struggled to come up with an answer that wouldn’t worry her listener but that alluded to what she was going through. After seeing quarter after quarter of her Instagram feed filled with blossoming Greek life friendships, Whitney rushed. Despite social media portraying treasured connections and close-knit friend groups, Whitney struggled to form those same relationships. She lasted a quarter in her sorority.
“I would say that a lot of social dissatisfaction is linked back to 2 things – 1) the societal “expectation that college is ‘supposed to be the best 4 years of your life’ and 2) social media perceptions versus reality,” Gladys Kosack of CAPS comments. “To feel like somehow this is the best it’s going to get sets students up for a lot of distress,” she mentions, especially when they are struggling to feel okay. The expectation creates an intense pressure to feel fulfilled, which is only compacted by social media. Gladys explains, “Although rationally many students understand that people will only post the best 3% of their life, it’s hard to shake the belief that everyone else seems to ‘have it figured out’ and is having so much fun.” While this perception of social media is prevalent on other campuses, and even outside of college, she imagines that there could be something unique about UCSB. Kosack acknowledges that others’ perceptions of UCSB, for example, the assumption that as a party school on the beach all students are having fun and are happy, definitely play a factor in some student’s desolation.
Many of the same attributes that make UCSB so lovable simultaneously can feel isolating. Even at a seemingly paradisiacal university a lot of students don’t feel like they have found their place or their people. Whitney explains, “Walking through IV when everyone is out and about, in their yards, or biking around, it does feel like a little community or utopia. But at the same time, when you’re walking around you realize you don’t really recognize any of these people. It’s kind of an outsider looking in thing.”
This piece was composed in a magazine writing class for a feature assignment on any topic. Part of the assignment was to conduct several interviews, with at least one being with a professional. I chose to write about social isolation and dissatisfaction at UCSB.
This feature demonstrates my ability to conduct primary and secondary research and compose a well-rounded piece with diverse voices and experiences. While I could have gone on and on with this topic, the assignment had a strict word limit, so this piece also indicates my ability to follow instructions and be efficient and effective with my words.