Group of students plugged into their devices. Alexandra Scandolo/THE VARSITY

When it comes to atmosphere, U of T receives its fair share of complaints. Many students describe being treated merely as ‘ a number’, isolated, and feeling alone. The claim is made often that with its cold attitude, the university makes its students feel inhuman because they are not treated like individuals. Contempt for U of T litters blogs and message boards. Social networking sites are rife with accusations that claim it is the institution’s fault that students are so lonely.

I will admit I was one of these people. I found it easier to hate the school that gave me so many opportunities, rather than look to myself for the reasons behind my unhappiness. We’re all guilty of misplacing blame – denying our flaws is an integral part of human existence. So, it’s easy to look at U of T, see approximately 80,000 faces, and say that the institution is stealing our individuality and our sense of community.

But what many of us don’t notice is that, as we’re walking down St. George street with our headphones in, trying to avoid awkward eye contact with the people walking past us, we’re guilty of exactly what we criticise our school for. We don’t see the people in our programs or our classes as individuals.  We take their images at face value and bury our heads in our overpriced textbooks or laptops, hoping they don’t decide to strike up a conversation.

How many of us have stood outside a lecture hall on the first day of class amongst a group of a hundred students, all tapping away on their smartphones? I know how futile trying to initiate conversation is: as soon as I introduce myself to the person beside me, I see their face twist in horror at the unspeakable social crime I have committed. Why is it that we’re so scared of a few minutes of uncomfortable small talk that we refuse to so much as smile at the person walking beside us?

Growing up abroad, I always heard about the unmatched kindness of Canadians. While I’ve caught some glimpses of it since moving here, I’m starting to fear that it’s beginning to fade as we progress through our university careers. Perhaps we forgot it while rushing out the door to a 9 a.m. lecture, lost it amongst our overdue papers, or dropped it in the abyss between the bed and the wall while Netflix-and-chilling.

As cliché as what I’m trying to express may sound, I’m willing to risk sounding like a broken record: we are getting so lost in the quickening pace of our increasingly digital lives that we are forgetting what it means to form connections with people. This doesn’t feel that important, because we have enough going on on our screens to keep us occupied.  But this means that when we look up, there’s no one beside us, or if there is, they’re absorbed in another world altogether.

The isolation we feel sitting alone in our dorms or our library cubicles isn’t just a product of the university we chose. It’s up to us whether we decide to introduce ourselves to our professors, TAs or just the person next to us; join a club, participate in the community that only exists if we all choose to be a part of it.  With a school as big as ours comes the advantage of being able to create the experience that we want.  You can find all kinds of people and seize as many opportunities as you want. It all depends on your outlook, and what you want to make of what’s presented to you.

Ayesha Adamjee is a second-year student at Victoria College studying English and philosophy. 

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