At a big university surrounded by the sounds and lights of a city, there was nothing unusual in the air. College students were being let out of their classrooms, and droves of relaxed voices resounded throughout the massive, marble-encrusted hallways, filled with everyday conversations. In classroom 432 of the university’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance building, students were packing their backpacks and striking conversations with their friends. One figure at the middle-front desk was also packing her backpack. She was one of the few not talking to anybody.
That figure was an ordinary girl named Rachel, who happened to be in a musical theater course that day. She finished packing and began a brisk walk towards the doorway, looking forward to taking a bath and crashing into her bed for the night. Nothing about her physical appearance indicated that there was anything weighing down on her mind, until she stopped dead in her tracks.
She had heard a voice in her mind, invisible but insistent, whisper the phrase, “I’m a failure.” It hit her like a rock when she realized that the voice was louder than all of the voices in her classroom chatting frivolously!
A distressed Rachel murmured to herself: “No, that’s not right! I know I belong in the musical theater community here! It must be the imposter syndrome I get when I’m waiting on stage for the curtains to rise; it doesn’t mean anything!!” Her instincts overwhelming her, she carelessly tossed her bag onto her back and pushed through the crowd, walking through the doorway out of classroom 432.
Now past the doorway and standing a few feet away from the entrance of the classroom out of which people continued to exit, Rachel still felt overwhelmed. She had thought that the voices of her classmates talking inside might have had something to do with the poisonous voice she heard, but leaving the classroom didn’t change her fearful anxiety. Her mind suddenly whispered, ”Do you have any friends yet, Rachel?” The force of this question drew her inner attention to a deep cut in her heart, causing her to briefly clutch her now-rapidly beating heart.
Rachel forcibly shook her head and looked around, desperate for somewhere to sit down. She noticed an ornately-carved wooden bench across from where she stood. She dashed over and collapsed onto it sideways, gradually pulling herself upright. Removing her backpack, Rachel took a moment to recompose herself. She knew that the voice probably came from her insecurity about not being able to make many friends. However, she also knew that she needed to go easy on herself. It was only her third week at college, and she was a freshman! With this in mind, she rubbed her temples with her hands and began to slowly take deep breaths, one after another.
All the while she was calming her agitated mind, people flew by her in pods of two or more down the stairway a few feet away from where she sat. Every pod was either laughing or talking pleasantly. Sometimes individuals from a pod would glance at Rachel before turning back to their conversation.
As all the friend pods descended down the lustrous wooden stairs, they began to forget that they saw a girl sitting near the top of the stairs. They also forgot the sight of her lonesome self breathing erratically. And they forgot that they themselves had briefly entertained the notion of seeing if she was okay before the voices of their friends dragged them away.
On the bench, Rachel had buried her face in her hands. She was no longer breathing slow and deep, but now fast and strained. In her mind, she had succumbed to the voice in her head. She had begrudgingly accepted that it was telling her to admit to herself how lonely she really felt instead of burying her loneliness in working.
So far, Rachel had devoted most of her energy towards her ambitions to become a Broadway star. However, Rachel now realized that this habit of favoring her dreams over her emotions was self-destructive. She was indeed struggling with what she had assumed to be an easy task of making friends. Rachel had assumed that it would be no hardship at all to make supportive, good friends in the musical theater department at her school, which she believed was a warm, collaborative community as advertised on a brochure her senior year. This belief had brought her to this university in the city, far away from her high school friends, seeking to meet more fellow musical theater students as serious about making it big as she was.
Fresh tears began to pool in Rachel’s eyes, wetting the palms of her hands. Rachel realized that the voice was right. She had failed so badly at making friends and was still failing. It was the third week of classes, the third week of her eyes skipping over the endless faces of strangers on campus. And she didn’t understand what had happened, or didn’t happen, during all of the time that had passed since the day she arrived on campus.
With her first steps on campus, Rachel had felt like a star moving into a new constellation. She came from a small town several states away, with a decade of performing memories to prove that she loved musical theater and enjoyed bonding with her fellow cast mates. Rachel had believed that college, especially the university in the big city she was attending, would provide her with more opportunities to connect with new friends with a lot of diverse interests
At every event across campus that she could attend that first week, Rachel took the initiative to strike up a conversation with strangers whenever she could. Their personal interests varied more than she could have ever imagined! There was someone by the name of Olivia who loved working with their hands on machinery but also posted watercolor sketches of pastoral landscapes to their website weekly; another person named Alex loved reading and reviewing old-timey romance novels on their blog but also found joy in solving every complicated math problem in their textbooks whether it was an assignment or not. Most intriguing was someone who loved talking about classic Broadway ballads as much as she did yet also was passionate about learning all the avenues through which one could invest their money. Rachel barely understood the latter half of her conversation with this person, but she enjoyed becoming acquainted with some individuals in the massive community of her university.
Still, each conversation never went beyond the basics. “What classes will you be taking?” and “What do you think about campus?” were the most common questions, and sometimes the only questions the other person asked her.
At the end of the first day, Rachel felt incredibly disheartened. She didn’t sense that spark that she dreamed would ignite with the individuals who were to become her friends. People seemed to be unreceptive to her personality and did not bond with her through a potential shared love for the ins and outs of musical theater hits, or even Celine Dion! Even the few classmates from her mostly musical-theater related classes she ate with weren’t interested in getting to know her better; they gave her side glances in conversation that suggested they viewed her as competition, not as an individual who just wanted to be friends. She ended up not finding anyone who expressed interest in hanging out with her. However, she decided to keep her hopes up and to keep connecting with new acquaintances until she found the right people.
And now, in Rachel’s third week of classes, all of the shared dinners at the campus dining halls she had initiated with her peers over Instagram seemed to have led nowhere. No one texted her back, and Rachel felt like it was all up to her to make and sustain contact with the few individuals with whom she had felt that spark. Why hadn’t any of them reached out to her?!
Rachel was still alone in college, with no one she could connect with. She missed interacting with people who she trusted, the kind of people who she knew would unconditionally love who she was and support her when she shared her insecurities and needed encouragement. More than that, she missed the comforting warmth of her parents back home and the familiar ease of spontaneous conversation with her high school friends …
At the thought of her parents and the friends she left behind to chase her dreams, Rachel couldn’t stop a loud sob from erupting from her throat. She anxiously clasped her hand over her mouth instantly, afraid that other people would hear her. But Rachel had reached her breaking point: she began sobbing openly with her face pressed tightly against her hands.
She had thought that college life wasn’t going to be any trouble for the strong and ambitious performer she was, but it had turned out that college life was harder than she could bear, at times like these. And far away from the people she knew loved her, Rachel felt her confidence finally breaking into pieces.
Her tears rained onto the stoic porcelain floor of the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. The voices of the friend pods faded out of earshot, with only the piercing sounds of Rachel crying ringing throughout the hallway right outside of classroom 432. She was a small town girl, chasing her dreams at a college in the big city. And so far, she was failing miserably at just the first step of making friends.