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Beating Isolation: GirlsConnect YYC’s founder talks social anxiety and fostering healthy female friendships

By Aymen Sherwani, August 1 2022

If you grew up in Calgary, it’s more than likely the case that the circle of friends that you grew up with is the one you still do everything with and don’t venture outside of because of time, convenience and comfort. Now, if you’re a new international student that just moved to Calgary or maybe just looking for new people to spend time with — for one reason or another — this can leave you constantly feeling like you’re on the outside looking in because of just how tight some circles can be. You especially feel this in the summer where you’re almost expected to be out every day — whether it be soaking up the sun in the Rockies or at a summer music festival at night — it’s really hard to have fun when you, one, don’t know anybody, or two, you grew up with people whose interests no longer align with yours.  

This is the core issue that Cong Chen brings up in an interview with the Gauntlet.

“When I moved home from studying abroad, I just felt as if I needed different friends. I had my core group of friends, but I needed friends that had the same hobbies as me,” said Chen.

“I travel quite a bit and I find that it’s so much easier making friends [abroad] than meeting friends back home — which is Calgary,” she continued. “Everyone has the same friends from childhood and don’t branch out — like I meet so many cool people, they just don’t know how to find each other.”

To combat this, GirlsConnect YYC was born. Starting out as a Facebook group that Chen started in 2017 to find other women that had mutual interests, the organization has now grown into a massive community with tens of thousands of women in Calgary keeping up with events and opportunities to make new friends in a city where it seems like everyone is very much in their own bubble. Their third annual Bow River Float event, where 20-30 women all meet up to go rafting alongside the river, is Chen’s latest effort to bring women together in the hopes that they may find friends. From spa nights and yoga to brewery crawls and rafting, Chen attests that women of all ages and demographics turn up — most of which leave feeling incredibly fulfilled and grateful that they overcame their social anxiety and took the leap to meet strangers in the chance that they can foster something new.

“Every day, I hear that somebody found their best friend through our page or mentioned that it just made the city more livable,” she said.  

At the same time, so many women, myself included, have grown up being friends with women of a similar ethnicity, culture or religion — and told that it’s difficult to get along with other people, just because of how different your values may be. While people may like to tell you that this keeps cultural communities strong — does this not close women off to each other even further? Not as groups, but as potentially kindred spirits? To Chen, there’s always the fear of “What if they don’t like me?” but that is a leap one should be willing to take.

“The whole main idea [of GirlsConnect YYC] was that you can land in Calgary and have friends the next day — I would have people at my apartment, like complete strangers, and it was definitely a risk but it ended up always being so fun,” she said. “I’ve had people message me after they’ve RSVP’d to events, saying that they have social anxiety — I always tell them to come for at least five minutes and that if they don’t like it they can leave but every single person that has been through that has stayed the entire time.”

Chen makes a note of mentioning that while GirlsConnect YYC is a group for women to be able to feel less alone through events that Chen and her team plan, it has also taken a life of its own — with many women posting information about their hobbies and also intimate issues that they may be going through, often finding a helping hand or shoulder to lean on in the group.

“Some women like going on hikes and other women like staying in the city — you can read up on their posts and connect with them — but it’s so much more than that now,” said Chen, emphasizing the level of positive impact GirlsConnect YYC has had on the city. “People have found their jobs through it, gotten support for domestic violence — there have also been times where women have made posts saying “I have a family with two kids and we’re getting evicted tomorrow” and others in the group have helped them to find places.”

For university students, Chen encourages them to make a post on the GirlsConnect Facebook group if they’re feeling isolated, as they might find what they’re looking for.

“The worst thing that can happen is that you waste half an hour of your life — but so many lives have been changed for the better by complete strangers in  this community,” Chen concluded.

For more information about GirlsConnect YYC, request to join their private Facebook group, or follow them on Instagram (@girlsconnectyyc) and TikTok (@girlsconnectyyc) where they regularly post updates about upcoming events in the city.

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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