InFocus: Sam Ross, founder of Populus

Photo: Sammi Ciardi
Photo: Sammi Ciardi
Photo: Sammi Ciardi

A second-year St Andrews student has turned a difficult experience into a fast-growing student support group, which is already seeing results just two weeks into the new academic year.

Management student Sam Ross from Moray, Scotland has seen incredible results after founding Populus, an organisation dedicated to helping students who may be feeling lonely and isolated during their time at St Andrews. Ms Ross entered St Andrews as a first year last autumn.

“In the first semester, I was quite happy with how things were going… but during second semester, a few different things changed,” Ms Ross said.

Even though she tried to rectify the situation by trying her hand in various things, she “felt very isolated, secluded and really lonely.” Ms Ross was shocked that she couldn’t find anything in St Andrews designed to help students who were experiencing feelings of loneliness so she was inspired to found Populus (Latin for “people.”)

“I just want somebody, even if it’s just one person, to feel less lonely – even if it’s just for a day,” said Ms Ross, “My aim is to have at least one event every two weeks.

“I want to have as many events as possible so that if anyone is feeling lonely there’s always something that Populus is doing or going to have within the next few days that they can go to.”

Populus hosts events like “Speed Friending” and coffee socials throughout the year so students can work to foster new friendships anytime.

“I just want somebody, even if it’s just one person, to feel less lonely – even if it’s just for a day,”

“There was one time when I went for coffee with somebody and I looked forward to that for weeks beforehand. It’s just a small thing, but going to speak to somebody, or having the opportunity to go speed friending more than just once during Freshers is really important to me,” she added.

“It’s a horrible thing, it really is, to be sat in a room, waking up on a Saturday and not [having anyone to see],” said Ms Ross.

“People build this huge expectation that University is going to be the best few years of their lives. Not only is that really pessimistic about the rest of your life, but it also gives false expectations because there are going to be really terrible days, and sometimes they just come day after day. For me the experience was just disappointing.

So at the end of the semester when I was done with exams I said ‘alright, we’ve got the whole summer, let’s go.’”

After Working on the project during the summer with a committee of other St Andrews students who shared Ross’ view that a support organisation for students feeling isolated or lonely is important. Populus hosted several events during Freshers’ Week including a pancake giveaway at ABH which involved making and delivering over 300 pancakes to students.

“[Students who want to get involved] really shouldn’t be afraid that they  won’t meet anybody, because at the very least they’ll meet myself or our Vice President or a member of our committee. They should always expect to meet someone.”

“I was certainly worried about going to socials and things since I don’t drink and I thought I’d just be sat and not have a conversation with anyone, but at Populus you’re absolutely guaranteed to have a conversation with someone.”

“We always have conversation cards at our events, and they are wonderful things! They can start off a whole host of things. There are 140 different questions in those cards and you can just read them off.

At our Speed Friending event during Freshers’ Week, people stayed for two and a half hours because they started a conversation with the card and found other things they had in common. In a room of forty people you’re bound to find somebody.”

Although most of Populus’ events this semester have taken place during Freshers’ Week, the organisation has been involving students from all years.

“It’s a misconception that this is directed only at Freshers – it’s really not. We’ve had third years and fourth years who said, ‘We wish this [existed] when we were in first year.’ Freshers think they shouldn’t be lonely since they’re in first year and they’re surrounded by all these new people while fourth years think, ‘I’ve been here for four years and I haven’t made any friends…what’s wrong with me?’ There’s nothing wrong with you, it’s just that you’re feeling lonely, it’s a totally normal thing to feel and it sucks.”

At our Speed Friending event during Freshers’ Week, people stayed for two and a half hours because they started a conversation with the card and found other things they had in common.

“I always try to tell myself that [I’m] not the only person who feels lonely. I know that there are so many people out there who are also feeling lonely, but just didn’t say anything – it’s so cliché, but it’s true.”

When asked about what she would say to her past self, and anyone who feels the same feeling of isolation and loneliness that she felt, Ms Ross said, “Don’t be so hard on yourself – there’s always time to meet new people.”

Populus’ events also include socials where students can make “mocktails” (non-alcoholic cocktails) which would be held on nights where a “Sinners” or a ball is taking place to serve as an alternative event for those who either didn’t get tickets or felt uncomfortable attending the main event of the evening.

Populus also incorporates some of the University’s traditions into their event agenda. “On our first Pier Walk with Populus, we saw a few people who were unsure of what to do. All it took was for me to go up to them, introduce myself, and ask ‘Would you like to go on the Pier Walk with us’?” Ms Ross recalled with a smile.

“They said that they were terrified and didn’t know what they were doing – but at the end of that day, that was five people who weren’t scared anymore, who were not lonely.”

The next event Populus is having is a coffee social on Wednesday 28 September.

“It’s a place for people to go if they don’t have anything to do in the middle of the day – you could just bring your friends, sit down and have some coffee. Everything is free, even membership – every matriculated student is already a member of Populus.”

“Whenever you go to Populus you’re not going to be judged or anything – there’s no pressure to do anything, no pressure to be anyone specific.

You’re just answering conversation cards – or taking advantage of the free stuff we provide.”

Ms Ross also plans on continuing to hold events in individual halls of residence in order to reach students more directly. Populus has already held events in ABH and Andrew Melville and are planning events at St Regulus Hall, John Burnet, and others.

Overall, Ms Ross hopes that Populus will help students who may be experiencing the same feelings of loneliness that originally inspired her to found the organization.

Working on Populus and seeing its early successes has given Ross confidence that her decision to found the organization has not only been the right thing to do, but has also made St Andrews a more welcoming place for current, and future, students.

“Populus means people. That’s who it’s for. All of us.”


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