Typically, freshman year of college is an exciting time twinged with nerves and anticipation.
The excited chatter and buzz on campus as freshmen unload their cars and decorate their dorm rooms, say goodbye to their families and hello to their new roommates, wandering around campus and signing up for group activities and making friends.
Jasmine Halley wasn’t nervous about the grades she would make, how much homework she’d have, or finding her way around campus. She was comfortable reading books in the library and getting some cardio in by running through the maze of sidewalks around the property. All of these things she could do alone.
Anxiety filled her mind when she thought about grabbing a lunch tray in the cafeteria and scanning the lunchroom, wondering where to sit. Her heart leapt at the thought of group projects and how conversations between her groupmates usually rambled to what weekend parties were going on, leaving her to complete the project on her own. She picked her fingernails and bit her lip, dreading the thought of living in a small room big enough for twin beds, two desks, and one giant closet shared with a stranger. She felt exhausted just thinking about the fake smile and polite small talk she’d have to make every single day to this unknown girl in their room. She wouldn’t even be able to completely relax and unwind in a room of her own.
Stop it, she told herself sternly, gently slapping her palms flat against her thighs. She glanced over at her mother, who was chatting with her best friend Cathy over the Bluetooth in the car. You are going to make friends this year. You will fit in. There are 18,295 students and you’re bound to make a connection with at least one of them.
When Jasmine received her admission letter to Appalachian State University, she felt a wave of joy. Boone, North Carolina –home of App State— was the polar opposite end of where she lived in Whiteville. She wouldn’t have to be surrounded by Whiteville High students that treated her like a shadow. No more throwing her lunch tray away and hiding in the library because her ‘friends’ forgot to save her a seat at the cafeteria table. No more group projects where she did all the work and put everybody’s name on the PowerPoint slides. No more walking to class with a bowed head, letting her thick curly black hair hide her face.
Then she was immobilized by fear when the thought crossed her mind: she wouldn’t know anybody at all. She would have to meet new people. She would have a roommate, and a whole dorm building full of girls she didn’t know and would have to talk to.
That’s when she looked up the stats of the school. 18,295 students. Almost 1,000 student organizations she could join. Three of her classes averaged at 400 students for the last 3 years. The odds were in her favor, considering Whiteville High only had 702 students and anywhere from 10-15 students in each class. She could literally meet people and if she messes up bad enough, just shrug it off and go to the next group of people. You can’t do that at Whiteville High. You mess up once, and everybody knows who you are.
“Oh Cathy, you wouldn’t believe the traffic on I-74! Insane!” Mom whipped a strand of hair from her face, “but totally beautiful driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains. I can only imagine when the leaves start changing colors how magical this place will be….”
How does mom do it? How does she just talk about nothing, anything, and everything all at once? What was the secret to having a conversation and making it flow?
She tried to study her mom the past few months, like a science experiment. Everything from who she talked to, to what they discussed and how she moved her hands.
Jasmine practiced in a mirror. She looked and felt awkward, her body rigid as she tried to move her stiff arms with her words. Words were painfully drawn out through her forced smile. Her dark brown eyes betrayed her smile with a look that could only be read as, I’d rather be anywhere than here.
It’s no wonder she didn’t have friends throughout school. The group she tried to tag along to that she assured her mom were ‘friends’ so she wouldn’t worry, probably saw her as a chore. She was as desirable as a large pile of laundry on a bed at eleven o’clock at night, when the owner just wants nothing more than to go to sleep.
“We’re here Cathy, gotta go!”
Jasmine let out a sigh. Her mother hung up the phone and parked the car in front of a large brick dormitory. Already, groups of girls were walking quickly with their arms full of belongings, laughing and chatting excitedly. How the heck did they make friends with each other so quickly?
“Aren’t you excited, Jazzy?! It’s college! The start of some of the best years of your life!” Her blue eyes shimmered with tears of glee and her own memories of dorm life.
“Oh mom,” Jasmine sighed again. She unbuckled her seatbelt and slowly made her way out of the car, feeling faint with fear. She was only minutes away from meeting her roommate. Careful to not look anybody in the eye, she grabbed a box of clothes from the trunk and piled blankets on top, her mom gabbing excitedly beside her while goggling at the tall building.
“My, oh my…what floor did you say you were on again?”
“Room number 463. Fourth floor.”
“What a workout this will be! Maybe some of these girls can help us—”
“No mom, we don’t need help. It’s not that much stuff. Besides, they have their own things to worry about.”
“What a ray of sunshine you are,” mom huffed back.
Jasmine rolled her eyes, trying to shift her anxiety by being angry with her bubbly, chatty mother instead. She knew it wasn’t her fault, but she had to tune the nerves out somehow.
Jasmine felt intense relief as they made it to the fourth floor and found room 463 empty. The only possessions in the room were the boxes they dropped on the floor and the chairs, beds, and closet. Maybe her roommate dropped out last minute and she could have this room all to herself.
By the third trip up the stairs—the final load from the car—Jasmine’s heart plummeted seeing that a short girl was in her room with her mother, looking out the window towards the campus and two boxes on her bed. She had a sleek red ponytail pulled back tightly, and as mom squealed in excitement, they both swung around.
“Ohhhh! I was hoping to meet my daughter’s roommate!”
The short redheaded girl smiled up at mom, peeping curiously behind her at Jasmine who was standing wide-eyed with a large box in her hands.
Jasmine, making eye contacting with her roommate, remembered last minute to smile. She hoped she didn’t catch the disappointment on her face.
Mom reached a handout and shook the other mother’s hand vigorously, the two of them chatting instantly together.
“I’m Veronica,” said the red-headed girl quietly, a warm smile on her face.
“Jasmine,” she replied, trying to think of what to say next. “Um…do you need help bringing things up?”
“Sure,” she said simply. The two of them left the moms chatting excitedly in the room. “I think our moms are more excited about us being here than we are,” Veronica whispered.
“Yeah,” Jasmine chuckled, following Veronica down the stairs. She couldn’t think of anything else to add.
“What’s your major?” Veronica asked, not skipping a beat.
I should have thought to ask that first. She’s probably thinking about why she has to carry the whole conversation. She will probably go to the front desk downstairs and see if she can find a roommate who’s cooler than me.
“Well, nursing for now,” Veronica said, grabbing a box from the trunk of a red car and handing it to Jasmine, “but I’m not too sure how I feel about touching people all day. You know?”
“I do,” Jasmine answered truthfully, “in fact, that’s why I picked accounting. I don’t have to deal with people.” Why did I say that? I don’t have to deal with people?! Now she thinks I don’t like her.
Veronica didn’t seem to take offense, “You just have to deal with numbers. I get it! That’s why I’m thinking of changing my major to Clinical Laboratory Sciences. I can just work in a lab all day and not have to deal with people.”
Jasmine followed her back up the stairs, heavy boxes in their hands. She was racking her brain for what to say next when they reached the top of the stairs.
“You must like numbers if you are going for accounting,” Veronica said, beating her to the punch.
“I’m not too sure. I did okay in math in high school.”
“Maybe you’ll end up switching to Clinical Lab too,” Veronica joked, “Are you good at chemistry?”
“I loved chemistry, actually.”
“Well, four years of five levels of chemistry so it’s something to think about. I like chemistry too.”
So, we both like chemistry. A common ground. What else? Initiate conversation!
“Have you signed up for any student groups yet?” Jasmine said, proud of herself for finally thinking of something to say.
“Nope. I don’t know if I will or not, I’d like to see what my class load is like first. Besides, I don't have many hobbies besides running.”
“Hey! Me too!” Jasmine’s excitement blurted out of her before she could stop it. She felt her face flush red with embarrassment at her outburst.
“Oh yay!” Veronica beamed beside her, “none of my friends from school ever liked to run. They said it was like torture. We could run around the campus together after we set up our room! You know, get a lay of the land.”
“None of my friends liked running either,” Jasmine fibbed. She felt a dull wave of sadness creep over, thinking back to how lonely she was in high school. She wouldn’t let Veronica know she didn’t really have friends.
You are going to make friends this year. You will fit in, she reminded herself while pushing the intrusive thoughts away.
“Who knows? I’m sure plenty of girls like running in this dorm. Maybe we could start our own little running club. Ha!”
The good thing about running was that it left little air for conversation. Jasmine could easily participate in a group that didn’t converse for a good hour. “Not a bad idea.”
They walked back into the room, their mother’s turning their attention to their daughters.
“Well, we best leave you two to it,” Veronica’s mother stated, hands on her hips, “Is that everything, Vera?”
“Yup,” she stated, dropping the box on her bed.
“I’ll miss you so much sweetie,” Jasmine’s mom bustled towards her, her eyes brimming with tears as she embraced her in a tight hug.
“Mom, we’re still in the same state. It’s not like I’m on the moon.”
Veronica laughed. Jasmine felt like she could melt into a puddle and slither under the bed for the rest of the semester.
“Bye, mom,” she said to her own mother who was hugging her just as tight.
Great. Now my roommate thinks I’m cruel to my own mom.
Jasmine felt awkward watching the two mom’s leave, the noise of their chatter fading down the hall. They both focused on unpacking and decorating. Veronica had pulled a small radio alarm clock from a box and tuned in to a song, humming lightly to an Ed Sheeran song.
As the months went along, the anxiety eased. Jasmine no longer felt the pressure of small talk when she walked home from her classes and found Veronica reading a book on her bed or studying notes at her desk. Jasmine would end up doing the same, both of them coexisting in a cordial manner.
Jasmine would go on runs through the campus with her, and they’d sit together at the cafeteria for dinner, but Jasmine watched as Veronica made friends as easily as breathing. People would wave hello to her on their runs or sit at the table with them during meals. She began to believe the only reason she was here in this group of friends at all was simply because she was Veronica’s roommate.
It’s not as if Veronica wasn’t including her, more of the fact that Jasmine didn’t know how to engage in conversation. One night, when Jasmine came back to their room late—just as a group of Veronica’s friends were leaving—Jasmine couldn’t contain it anymore.
“How do you do that?”
“Hm?” Veronica cocked her head in question, throwing away a burger wrapper on her desk.
“How do you…just talk to people? Make friends? Find things to say?”
The words felt ridiculous coming out, and she could feel her cheeks flushing. She wished she could take it back. She talked herself up into it on the walk over from class behind a group of girls with their arms linked. She wanted so badly to have friends like that.
There are 18,295 students. If Veronica laughs, I’ll just switch rooms in a different building and never have to see her again. Just do it.
She stared at Jasmine, who blinked and pretended to be interested in a piece of paper on her desk. “I assumed you were just shy,” she said, “do you have social anxiety?”
She had never coined her nerves to a specific term, but this made her glance up at Veronica sitting down on her bed, eyeing Jasmine thoughtfully.
“You’re worried about how others perceive you? Like you are some sort of nuisance?
It’s because I am a nuisance, why else would she be so quick to bring it up?
Jasmine slowly nodded, swallowing the lump in her throat.
“And you struggle with talking to strangers…it feels like an exhausting task? Because really, it is a task trying to sort through your brain for something to say.”
“Yes,” Jasmine replied quietly, her voice cracking. So, my roommate thinks I’m a nutcase loser. And now she knows I find her exhausting.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed about,” Veronica said. She saw the worry and panic on Jasmine’s face, “I don’t know what’s going on in your head, but I know you’re being hypercritical of yourself. You know, I used to battle with social anxiety.”
“Really?” Jasmine’s eyes shot up, staring at Veronica in disbelief.
“I still do from time to time, that’s why I see the counselor on campus.”
“But you’re so…friendly. And talkative.”
Veronica laughed, coming over and sliding her arm around Jasmine’s shoulder. Jasmine smiled back, giddy with excitement at the thought that she was more like her than she thought. She actually understands.
“You should come with me tomorrow. We learn a lot of good stuff in there. And the friends I made are all from that group too.”
“Nope,” she said proudly, “college is a huge adjustment for everybody. Not just you.” she prodded gently on her arm, “you’re not alone, Jasmine Halley.”
Jasmine was in awe over this discovery, “I never knew.”
“Well, it’s not something I like to shout from the rooftops! Also, I’ve been to therapy all through high school for it so I’m good at working through it. I figured you mostly stayed quiet because you thought I was a weirdo!”
“Oh, please” Jasmine laughed back, “I thought you thought I was the weirdo!”
She was nervous as she walked with Veronica across campus to the counselors group meeting place, but she felt an odd sense of comfort in being here. She already recognized all the faces in the small group as friends of Veronica’s.
The counselor had her introduce herself and what she liked to do and went around the room with everybody else doing the same. The lecture went on for an hour with what obstacles others had faced throughout the week and how they’d overcome it.
“Don’t think of a new friendship as you going to an interview for a job,” spoke Ms. Leslie, “it’s the other way around. You are interviewing them. How can this friendship benefit you?”
She learned other great tidbits, like talk about the other person since everybody likes talking about themselves. Actively listen. Repeating their name to help you remember them. Never to take things too personally. Speak kindly to yourself. Keep a journal and write ten great things about yourself each day.
Jasmine and Veronica both ended up switching majors to Clinical Laboratory Science and staying friends throughout college and onwards. The shy, scared girl she once was had faded away, Jasmine’s confidence growing the more practice she got with talking to people. She found herself complimenting others she never spoke with before.
“Love your heels!” She said to one woman walking along the street on her way to work at the lab around the corner. The lady smiled brightly at her as she walked by.
She would have never done that as a girl. She smiled, thinking about how finding the courage to ask Veronica one simple question five years ago ended up with them being best friends in a career she would have never known about with a confidence she never thought she had. Whenever she felt the anxiety creeping in, she would shut them off just like her counselor had taught her to: I am kind, I am smart, I have a job I love….
Most of all, she was proud of herself for having the courage to break free from her comfort zone and face her fears.