My advice for other introverts starting uni

Being an introvert isn’t the same as being shy or a loner. University can be a place where we thrive

Introverts make up somewhere between a third and half of the population, but we are often misunderstood. Being an introvert doesn’t necessarily that mean you dislike social interaction. Nor does it mean you’re debilitatingly shy and have nothing to say. Susan Cain sums it up well in her book Quiet: “Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialise enough.”

Introversion and extroversion aren’t binary. It’s a spectrum – some people fall more to one side than the other. Many introverts thrive in areas often associated with extroversion such as public speaking and leadership. For instance, Maxine, 23, who studies business and fashion, says she finds public speaking “pretty easy, as long as I’m prepared and I know what I am saying. Being an introvert doesn’t mean that you’re not good at presenting.”

It wasn’t until I started my first semester that my own introverted traits began to feel like negative aspects of my personality. But in the process of being thrown into the loud, over-stimulating world of university, I’ve learned a few things.

Don’t worry about small talk

“Introverts do not hate small talk because they dislike people,” writes Dr Laurie Helgoe, in her book Introvert Power. “We hate small talk because we hate the barrier it creates between people.”

Refiloe, a computer science student, goes even further: “I prefer silence. Honestly, small talk is dreadful.”In order to have a meaningful conversation (that goes beyond knowing what someone is studying and where they live) you have to ask meaningful questions. Try it. It can be daunting and may even take a few tries, but the good relationships that you’ll form are worth it.

A group of students relax during a break
Meaningful friendships need meaningful conversations – those that go beyond small talk. Photograph: Jon Parker Lee/Alamy

Expand your comfort zone

Friends partying in a bar. They are toasting with beer and champagne.
Fomo probably isn’t a valid reason for going out. Photograph: Getty Images

It’s important to keep pushing yourself. During my first semester, I would find an event that I was hesitant to go to then set myself a goal, a challenge and a reward.

For example, if I went to the event, stayed for an hour and a half and had a proper conversation with three people, I could go home and watch TV for the rest of the night. Or if I made plans to meet up with two of the new people I’d spoken to, I could stay in my room for the rest of the weekend without feeling antisocial.

It really works. When I moved into a new flat midway through my first semester, I set myself a new challenge: I sat in the kitchen for two hours a day, at times I knew would be busy. I made a concerted effort to have actual conversations with everybody who came into the room – no small talk. I decided to do this for a week, thinking that if nothing came of it, I could always retreat to my bedroom for the rest of the year and start using all my fresher’s week pizza vouchers for takeaways. I’m yet to order a single pizza.

Conquer your fear of missing outIf there’s one thing I’ve become certain of in the past few months, it’s my ability to accurately predict what I will and will not enjoy socially. I love the idea of parties, but I can find them stressful.

The fear of missing out is strong at university. There’s often pressure to be seen at scheduled fresher’s week events, for example. They’re often good fun, but they don’t always feel like the most natural way to get to know people. As fashion student Rhyanna Mae says: “Friendships at university can feel forced sometimes.”

So I ask myself this question before leaving the house: is this a decision I’m making based on Fomo or genuine interest? The answer usually determines whether I stay at home or not.

Being introverted is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is it something particularly out of the ordinary. But the great thing about university is that it’s a place where both introverts and extroverts can thrive. From finding leadership roles to public speaking, university can encourage introverts to learn about themselves in ways they might not elsewhere. So, join societies, explore your interests, try out for the roles you’ve always wanted to pursue – and you’ll be surprised how far you can go.

Keep up with the latest on Guardian Students: follow us on Twitter at @GdnStudents – and become a member to receive exclusive benefits and our weekly newsletter.

Rufaro Mazarura

The GuardianTramp

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