Adrienne Shumlich/the Gauntlet

The power of a social network

A young adult's journey to establish himself in a new town

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We’ve all left behind places we’ve loved for greater opportunities.

We all have a personal journey to take. Our journey is not bound by country, province, area code or city. It is in our hearts and our minds, and we will go to any measure to chase it until it is realized. Our journey often takes us far away from the special place we call home.

Leaving home is inevitable at some point, and adapting to a new environment is always difficult. The beauty of the old environment seems especially apparent when leaving — the new friends, new opportunities and new experiences just don’t seem as satisfying.

I’ve lived in north east Calgary for most of my life. My social network strengthened with each year that passed. After graduating high school, I decided to move downtown and enjoy the city up close.

I moved in with Cam Adair, my mentor from a company dedicated to improving the quality of your life through improving the quality of your relationships. I was young, enthusiastic and willing to learn. With Cam’s guidance, I studied social dynamics and I applied them in every area of my life — improving my dating life, social circle and family relationships.

I developed a strong network at a fast pace. I was bartending at Jameson’s Irish Pub during the day, approaching strangers at bars at night. The more I went out, the more my social skills improved and the greater my network became. My energy was high, my enthusiasm never died and I loved every second of my life.

Everything in my life was perfect. There was only one problem. I had this nagging dream: since the age of 14 I wanted to play football at the junior level. Football was the reason I used to wake up in the morning. At 17, I separated my shoulder and took a break from the sport I loved. Even though I wasn’t on the field, my spirit wouldn’t leave the game. My shoulder pads lay in my room for three years awaiting my return to the sport.

Now, at 20, I thought I had a legitimate shot of playing junior football. On a whim, I messaged a coach from the Okanagan Sun in Kelowna, B.C. asking for a tryout. He agreed to give me a shot, and, in what seemed like an instant, I decided I was going to pack my bags and leave the city I loved for a tryout.

I decided to move to Kelowna instead of going just for the tryout. My intention was to give it my all and make the team. I would stay in Kelowna and have a summer vacation if I didn’t make the team, but I didn’t want to have an escape door.

I walked through the terminal doors in the gloomy Greyhound bus station on July 20, 2012. I turned around and waved goodbye to my family. I could feel their love now more than ever. I grabbed the two boxes I had packed my life in, loaded them on the left side of the bus and boarded for Kelowna, B.C.

This was the first time I’d ever moved out of my hometown and I was experiencing emotion I’d never felt before. I felt lonely, excited, scared, anxious and confused — all at the same time.

I’d make friends instantly, I thought to myself. I expected my life to pick up right where I left it in Calgary. I’ll push my comfort zones and within no time, I’ll have a network of people mirroring the brilliance of my Calgary friends, I thought.

I was full of excitement, joy and hope for the new times in Kelowna. An excerpt from my journal reads, “I’m extremely motivated to push myself and create new opportunities in this beautiful city!”

In the middle of training camp, two days after arrival, I pinched my C5 and C6 nerves in my shoulder. This injury left me feeling sorry for myself and questioning the move I made from Calgary to Kelowna. I left behind my friends, my family and my job to, what, get injured? It didn’t make sense. I was frustrated, my inspiration to meet people plummeted dramatically and I started to keep to myself.

I sat inside my house for two weeks straight, leaving only for physiotherapy and football. I’d wake up, go to physio, go to football, come home to eat and sleep. Wash, rinse, repeat. My life quickly became a routine to fix my shoulder and maintain an average playing level while I was injured.

I was lonely.

I had thought everything was going to work itself out when I moved to Kelowna. My football friends and I were going to get along just fine, I was going to have a fantastic social circle with similar interests as myself and I’d be playing football full time for the Okanagan Sun. It was harder than I thought to find friends with similar interests, I was injured unexpectedly and I slowly began to feel homesick. I missed my friends, my family and my city. I wanted to give up and go home.

“I feel like a failure,” I said in a Facebook conversation with my aunt. “I came out here and nothing is working out the way I planned.”

“You have no reason to feel sorry for yourself and to feel like a failure. The only time you fail is when you give up,” she responded.

I knew I had to start changing the way I viewed things. I started looking for positive qualities in the people around me instead of looking for their flaws to justify my inability to connect. I joined a yoga studio as a volunteer. I started walking up to people in coffee shops and starting conversations. I chatted more on the football team, and I started going out when I was invited to events.

The quality of my life was completely different after one week of getting involved. I felt I had an increased amount of mental clarity.

Just like when I moved for football, starting university is one of those times where we may have to leave the place we love.

“It’s a social network problem,” University of Calgary sociology professor Tom Langford said. “Students have strong networks at home. Peer networks, social networks, family networks. When you move to university for the first time all of those networks are put on the backburner and you’re in this new environment.”

“One big struggle with the university experience is just that: establishing your network. Second-, third- and fourth-year students have it easier because they’ve built up new networks at university, and they have their old networks they can rely on. The first-year transition is hard for students.”

For a new student in a school of 30,000 students, becoming a part of the background noise and focusing solely on one’s classes — the easy way out — is always there. The stress of moving, ending the summer routines and being buried under a heavy course load can leave students feeling overwhelmed and with little or no time for their social lives.

“The student needs to make a decision to get involved. All work and no play can make for a lonely experience,” Langford continued. “The university does a bunch of stuff right. They have orientation sessions which provide opportunities for students to get involved. Students need to say to themselves ‘I know I’m here to take five courses but I also need to get myself established. I need to find like-minded people through intramural recreation or joining social clubs.’ It doesn’t just happen, you have to work at it.”

Fourth-year U of C visual studies major Katie Horeschka has seen it all: from being a petrified rookie on the first day of school to residence student representative.

“I can remember my very first day at university like it was yesterday,” Horeschka reminisced. “There were a whole bunch of people in red T-shirts, they were screaming and yelling and jumping at me. They just grabbed my stuff and ran up to my room.”

“As the new kid, I was traumatized. I didn’t know anyone at the U of C and it was my first time away from home. When my family left me I wanted to cry. I was stuck here now and I was scared.”

Horeschka spoke of a problem that all students face in their first weeks at university. There are a bunch of new people having the same nerve-wracking experience and dealing with the stress of moving to a new environment.

“I was crying. I didn’t want to be there. I was terrified. I walked back to my room after my mom left and I said to myself ‘enough is enough,’ and I walked right next door to introduce myself to my neighbour,” Horeschka said. “It’s funny actually, that girl is still one of my best friends. I’m going out to Saskatchewan to visit her next month!”

After Horeschka’s parents left, she made a choice, and that choice impacted her experience. Horeschka had two options: she could either stay in her room and be a hermit on the first day of university, or she could gather her courage and head next door to introduce herself to her neighbour. Despite her fear, Horeschka walked next door and put herself on the line to make a new friend.

Living in residence makes life a bit easier for those looking to improve the quality of their university experience. All you have to do is walk next door and say hi. There are many things that you can do to improve your university experience, even if you don’t live in residence.

“The biggest piece of advice I can give to first-year students is to get involved,” Students’ Union vice-president student life Hayley Wade explained. “By getting involved not only do you find that you’re making friends and building your network, you find this sense of the ‘home away from home.’ Students aren’t in their comfort zone any more, getting involved grounds them and makes them feel welcome. They make so many friends, develop their skills and expand their network.”

The main problem people face when adapting to a new environment is a social problem. We’re away from the networks we’ve established at home, far outside of our comfort zone and it can be an overwhelming experience.

“You’re going to meet a lot of new people who are having the same experience as you,” said SU president Hardave Birk. “University is much different than high school. You’re in large classes, which is a huge adjustment for most people. It’s important to get out there and talk to your classmates. Talk to the people beside you in your classes. Take advantage of opportunities.”

“There are over 276 clubs on the university campus,” Birk continued. “There’s literally a club for just about any type of interest. Religion, skiing, snowboarding, speech, clubs for international students — there’s every type of club. The third week is clubs week and students can go around seeing what types of clubs there are. It’s an easy way to meet like-minded people.”

“There’s a friendship-running club. Let’s say you’re a student who likes to run. This is a great way to join a club with people who go for a run around the city.”

Adapting to a new environment is easier with social support when the support comes from people who like the same things that you do. Volunteering at a yoga studio was one of the best decisions I’ve made since moving to Kelowna. Spending time at the studio means spending time with like-minded people — it’s become one of the best parts of my day.

Making the decision to get involved is often the toughest part of the process. I remember what it felt like to hermit up in my house in Kelowna — it was easy, comfortable and I didn’t put myself in any strange situations.

I assumed when I moved to Kelowna that I’d be looking for friends similar to my friends in Calgary. I wrote off anyone who didn’t fit my expectation of a friend. A couple weeks ago, I realized that the people who are real — the ones who are true to themselves — come in all shapes and sizes and often are completely unique characters. I dropped the prejudice of who I thought people were and I started appreciating them for who they actually are. This simple shift improved my social life dramatically.

In the end, I decided that having a strong social network is important. I’ve started taking more risks. I’ve made a commitment to walk up to someone each day and start a conversation with the intention of making their day better. I’m talking to people every chance I get at my studio, on my team and at my job. Being social is a choice, and it’s a choice that must be made if you’re looking for an enjoyable university experience.

Get involved in your first few weeks. Adapting to a new environment at the U of C can be quite easy. Say hello to your neighbour. Push your comfort zones. There are thousands of students in a situation similar to yours. Take advantage of the fantastic options that the U of C offers. Volunteer for a cause, join a club, create a study group, get involved in undergraduate research.

I offer you a challenge: after reading this piece, put down the Gauntlet and look around at the people in your proximity. Allow someone of interest to catch your eye, and then look at their books. Can you tell what they’re taking? Look at their sense of style. Are they part of a sports team? Become aware of the building you’re in. Are they in a certain department?

Walk over and start a conversation with that person, tell them you noticed something about them and wanted to introduce yourself. Whether or not you’re right, you may just make a new friend.