Declan Molony is a 2021 Cal Poly graduate. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
My senior year of high school I attended the Cal Poly Rodeo. It was filled with horseback jumps, obstacle courses, drunk college students stumbling about the ring, and an incredible half-time show with motorcycle flips off of massive jumps.
I thought to myself that day, “I can’t wait to attend next year with my new friends!”
However, that never happened. I graduated from Cal Poly in the spring and, without a doubt, the most difficult part of the last four years was the chronic, painful loneliness I felt transitioning into this new college environment.
After riding high on the wave of novelty that is WOW orientation and moving to a new city, I, like many students, was constantly trying to put my best foot forward. You never know when you’ll run into the stranger that’ll become your best friend for life or a potential romantic partner. Needless to say, expectations were high for everyone entering college — and I believe it’s the mismatching of expectations with reality that causes people anxiety.
For me, I established one clear expectation going into college: find a good group of people to regularly hangout with.
As the weeks wore on, and with each passing quarter, my expectations grew as I repeatedly tried new experiences and clubs. Yet I just couldn’t connect to the people in the organizations I was interested in joining.
As my freshman year was coming to an end, my anxiety increased quickly. I was particularly attached to the idea that people find their niches during their first year of college and I didn’t want to be left behind. This rising tension culminated in what was both my lowest and highest moment of college.
In the weeks leading up to the rodeo my freshman year, I asked everyone I knew to go with me. First I tried asking my friends. Then I reached out to my old WOW group chat (which was pretty much dead after my first quarter) and classmates I’d recently gotten to know. I even asked this cute girl I’d been talking to if she’d like to go with me, but she, along with everyone else I asked, already had plans on the day of the rodeo.
I was at a breaking point both emotionally and spiritually. My expectation of what college would be like was exploding in my face and, in my short-sightedness, I also believed my network of friends was falling apart. This may all seem a little over the top. In hindsight it really wasn’t the end of the world — but at that time, it seemed like it.
This growing pressure I felt wasn’t acute. Since I was never able to find my niche or a solid group of friends to hangout with, my weekends relied upon reaching out to individual friends to see if they were available.
Too many times did a weekend begin where I didn’t have a single fun thing planned. Every time a solitary weekend commenced, I turned to self-destructive behaviors like binging Netflix in order to not thinking about how painfully lonely I felt. The rodeo was the one event I wanted to attend the most and, when that fell through, I felt all alone in a crowded university.
But remember, I said this was both my lowest and highest moment in college.
While I was experiencing this continuous pain, one thing I maintained was my love for long-distance running. When I was out in the hills of Poly Canyon, my frustrations would temporarily recede.
On the day of the rodeo, as my roommates were leaving one-by-one to go attend their fun activities, I was suddenly left all alone in my apartment — silence. Then a thought occurred to me (one that would be recurring for the next three years of college): if I’m stuck all alone, I might as well do something good for myself. That’s when I started running.
I fled my apartment in haste and began running up Poly Canyon. I was feeling a mixture of negative emotions — frustration, contempt, depression — and I swallowed this chemical cocktail and used it as fuel to run faster.
Most of my run was a blur up until I looked down at my watch and saw I’d already ran nine miles in seriously fast time. I realized if I kept up this crazy pace, I might be able to run a half-marathon in under two hours — a goal I previously assumed was unreasonable in my current running shape.
Then, when I made it back to campus, I heard the rodeo. Even a mile away, the roar of the crowd echoed across Cal Poly. I glanced at my watch and, based on some quick math, I believed I still had a shot at squeaking by in under two hours.
When I reached 13.0 miles, I sprinted from the red bricks to the UU to finish that last 0.1 miles and collapsed on the lawn in front of The Avenue. I checked my watch and realized my math was way off. I didn’t just barely complete a half-marathon in under two hours, I did it in an hour and 42 minutes.
Drained of all my energy and Spanos Stadium within my line of sight, I began laughing — almost crying. In spite of all my suffering, I was able to transform my pain into this beautiful and pivotal moment. There were two opposite paths I could have taken that night. I could have fallen into my typical hole of self-pity — feeling frustrated with the cards I’d been dealt and wishing things were different. Instead, I decided to take responsibility for my own happiness.
I realized it’s normal to feel lonely or sad — everyone feels that way from time to time. What’s not okay, in my experience, is self-pitying — which I believe comes from a place of not loving who you are and what you do in life. You can’t control the outcome of life, but you can control the amount of effort you put into making it better.
Once I made that realization, college got so much better for me. For one, I no longer feared going to events by myself. I loved watching Cal Poly sports games and if I couldn’t find anyone to go with on Sunday afternoons, I’d sit in the stands of the baseball games, do homework and treat myself to fried chicken and a soda.
Another thing I realized was that I wasn’t the only one who felt isolated. When I began opening up to my friends about how I felt, a lot of them confessed they were having the same feelings of loneliness and anxiety. While I never did end up finding my niche or a group of friends to hangout with, I was able to create strong bonds with a small number of individual friends for whom I am extremely grateful for.