U.S. Surgeon General’s ‘We Are Made to Connect’ Tour Stops at Drexel University

Students attended a talk by United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, and Cynthia Germanotta to learn about the loneliness epidemic and how to combat it in small, impactful ways every day.
Cynthia Germanotta and Vivek Murthy
Cynthia Germanotta and Vivek Murthy onstage. 

Humans are meant to connect with one another. That’s the idea United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, has based a nationwide tour of college campuses around as a way to combat the epidemic of loneliness. Put simply, Murthy said, the “We Are Made to Connect” Tour is about “returning to who we were designed and evolved to be, to exist in interdependent communities.”

Murthy held a talk with Cynthia Germanotta, the president and co-founder of Born This Way Foundation and mother of Lady Gaga, at Drexel University on Nov. 28 as one of the stops along the tour, which began in October. Throughout the day, Drexel organizations including the Active Minds chapter and the Counseling Center worked with MTV Entertainment to host social events including friendship bracelet-making leading up to the talk.

Murthy and Germanotta’s discussion focused on the global issues straining mental health and a sharp increase in loneliness, which Murthy sees as so severe he put out a Surgeon General’s Advisory about the topic earlier this year. Germanotta recognized the impact of layers of stressors in the modern world, including social media, climate change, wars, the COVID-19 pandemic and global issues that affect young people, driving down their mental health and leading to increased isolation as a result. It can be hard to connect, but both Murthy and Germanotta have seen the urge to do so among young people, even when they don’t know where to start.

Materials to make friendship bracelets
Students made friendship bracelets throughout the day.

“We've come across programs that are trying to identify places and spaces to gather classmates and to create opportunities for them to get to know one another,” Murthy said. “I do want everyone here to leave without a shred of doubt about the fact that making connections and investing energy into building relationships is being prioritized. It’s not something you do at the end of a long to-do list. This is just as important as anything you may learn in the classroom or any skill you may gain online. This is a core part of the foundation of being.”

Loneliness, especially amongst high schoolers and college students, has skyrocketed since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impact on people can have physical effects like increased risks for heart disease, strokes, dementia and premature death. The tour has been a way to encourage small, daily moments of connection, including with the surgeon general’s 5-for-5 Connection Challenge, which challenges students to take five actions over five days to express gratitude, offer support or ask for help.

“There’s a strain in our society that tells us that in order to be successful, we’ve got to be independent, we should not need anyone else, we should be able to do everything on our own,” Murthy said. “That person who said, thousands of years ago when we were hunter-gatherers, ‘I’m just going to go it on my own, I don’t need anyone, I can do it myself.’? That person died. They got eaten by a predator. The person who survived was the person who recognized there’s no shame and there’s this great strength to be found in recognizing you need people.”

At the Drexel talk, Murthy alluded to his own experiences with loneliness as a child and teenager, while Germanotta spoke about the experiences of her daughter, Lady Gaga, and her mental health and bullying struggles that led Germanotta to begin Born This Way Foundation. Through the foundation, Germanotta has learned that young people are prioritizing mental health very highly and want to help themselves and their peers, but they need help learning where resources are and how to access them. That’s where community comes in.

“It’s surprising what [young people] look to as far as things that can help them,” Germanotta said. “Young people tell us that acts of kindness, whether that’s giving, receiving or witnessing, can help them feel connected.”

Loneliness, over time, erodes a person’s sense of self and self-esteem, Murthy said, because it makes someone feel like their loneliness is their own fault. It’s critical to realize that even though someone may feel uncomfortable trying to connect with people, small acts of connection can make a big difference. They remind people that they’re not alone, Murthy said.

Leadership from Drexel and Vivek Murthy

There are organizations and programs at Drexel, like Active Minds and their A.S.K. program, the University's “U Okay?” campaign and the University’s peer counseling program that Germanotta shouted out during the talk, that can help bring students together in intentional ways. Prior to the talk, Murthy met with Drexel administrators from the colleges and schools, Student Success and Student Health & Wellness. He also met with student leaders from the Undergraduate Student Association (USGA) and Active Minds, as well as Peer Counselors to learn what’s important to them and how they view connection.

“Even from the highest levels of administration and even the government, people are looking towards our generation to determine the future of mental health, so it’s important that if you see issues in your organization, to speak out, even if it helps only one person,” USGA President Vivek Babu, biological sciences ‘24, said.

As Murthy has visited college campuses on the tour, the impact of technology and young peoples’ complicated relationship with it has been a recurring theme. Germanotta said she’s seen the dark side of it while also acknowledging that marginalized communities can find comfort in groups online.

Attendees raised their flashlights on their phones once they sent texts telling someone they are grateful for them.

“It’s very powerful and I’ve always believed that technology is a tool and how we use it determines whether it helps us or hurts us,” Murthy said. “For many people, it’s hard to find the balance … What I care about is the quality of time people are spending on social media platforms.”

Murthy and Germanotta ended the talk by encouraging attendees to take the first step in the 5-for-5 Connection Challenge by texting a person they are grateful for — just a small way of connecting and using technology for good. After the text was sent, attendees raised the flashlights on their phones.

“Each of these lights represents a ray of connection,” Murthy said. “We have hope it's gone out into the world and someone later today or tomorrow is going to open up their text message, look at their inbox and they're going to see a message and that's going to remind them that they're not alone … In 60 seconds, you took a step towards building your social muscle. That’s a step you can take tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. At the end of those five days, I guarantee you will feel more connected.”