But something changed around second or third grade. I stopped participating in activities that put me on a stage in front of people. I had friends, but I let them do the talking for me in school. And forget about speaking up in class - suddenly, raising my hand became kind of uncomfortable.
I didn't share this with a lot of people because I felt like such a weirdo. I'm just shy, I told myself. Which was true - I am, and still am, a more reserved personality. But sometimes shyness can manifest itself in extreme ways, that require some self-awareness and a little bit of work if you ever want it to get better.
Here are 4 common problems shy students experience in college - and suggestions for how you can work on them:
1. You Receive Low Participation Grades
Until I realized that I was really (really, really, REALLY) tired of feeling paralyzed with fear every day, in every class. And I knew that the professor was reasonable in expecting people to participate in group discussions, because how else was she going to know that you did the reading and came to class prepared?
So I started making small goals first myself. First, I'd tell myself I had to speak twice per class - one comment and one question. In the beginning, I had to write these questions down ahead of time so that if I became too nervous, I could look down at my paper. Over time, however, I started trusting myself to actively listen to the conversation and be able to chime in when ready.
Even later, as a grad student, when I was no longer afraid of speaking in class, I still tried to speak at least 3 times per class. That goal kept me engaged (even when the topic was incredibly boring or dense) and ensured that no professor could ever say I wasn't participating.
2. You Avoid Certain Classes
Still, I had to fulfill the language requirement, and I was quite taken with the idea of learning Russian to supplement my new obsession with Russian history. I remember registering for classes sophomore year. I surprised myself when I decided my desire to learn Russian really did outweigh my need to stay in my comfort zone.
Signing up for Russian was a game-changer for me. So much, that I suggest any student struggling with extreme shyness consider taking a language class. First, the stakes are pretty low in any 101 class. People, professors included, tend to take a fairly lighthearted approach to learning how to say "Hello," "Goodbye," "My name is _____," and "Where is the library?"
Second, everyone will make mistakes. Every class. All of the time. And it's no big deal. There are so many things to mess up - pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar - you don't have to worry about looking stupid because nobody will expect you to be perfect.
Third, classes tend to be fairly small. You will be forced to do lots of partner-type activities and get to know everyone. Which made class presentations a lot less intimidating for me - these people were my friends and I knew they were rooting for me.
Maybe not everyone will have the same magical unicorn of an experience my Russian class was, but trust me, language classes are a great place to work on overcoming classroom shyness.
3. You Are Terrified of Speaking With Your Instructor One-On-One
One of my professors required we come to visit him at least once during his office hours early in the semester. Of course, I was terribly worried about being trapped in an office and possibly saying all kinds of stupid things, or, perhaps worse, being tongue-tied and not being able to say anything at all.
Instead the professor said to me, "I know you know this material based on your homework, papers, and tests. Why don't you speak in class more?"
So I told him my Big Embarrassing Secret: "I...I have a hard time talking in front of people. Or with people looking at me. Or with being asked a question in front of people."
He said, "Ok, how can I help?"
By the time I left, we had a plan where he would call on me specifically to make a comment about the course material. I was to prepare some thoughts prior to class.
It worked beautifully.
My advice is to let your professor know if you are exceptionally shy. The key is to not go in making excuses. Rather, you are making him aware of the situation and asking for assistance in improving.
4. You Self-Isolate
That's what I thought the first year in college. You know what? It was lonely. I didn't feel better. I felt like I was missing out on something, but I couldn't tell you what.
It wasn't until second semester when I found a truly good friend - which turned into a group of wonderful friends and roommates for the remainder of my undergrad experience - that I understood how self-defeating it was to remove myself from socializing.
This may not work for everyone, but here's what helped me: I started joining clubs and assuming leadership positions. I forced myself to not only participate, but also, to address large groups of students in person, by phone, and over email. I volunteered to organize events. I made myself go to job fairs and speak with at least 3 recruiters. I went to parties (even if I ended up pressed up against the wall scouring the room for the nearest exit) and accepted dates.
I started trying.
You can start small. Maybe the first step is befriending one person in each of your classes - someone you can sit next to and trade notes with. Then you might join a club or sport. If you like it enough, maybe you consider taking on a greater role within the group. Just start by saying yes to new opportunities.
And if you're still scared, ask yourself, what's the worse thing that could happen?
Chances are the absolute worst things that could happen include not liking a school club, not becoming BFF's with the kid who sits next to you in your Econ class, or your date not asking you out again. That's it. Which isn't really that bad at all.
Today I am perfectly comfortable presenting to groups of students and parents, as my work has me doing on a somewhat regular basis. I'm fine with interviews, because it really is just a discussion between two people. I've got my husband to help me get through parties.
If you are a student who is taking lower grades and feels detached from your overall college experience due to shyness, first consider what you can do to challenge yourself. And if you think you need outside help, enlist a friend, professor, or professional counselor to support you.