Colleges work hard to create a diverse student body. When applying to schools, as a well-off white girl from central Massachusetts, I was well aware that my background wasn’t doing me any favors with the admissions office. But I understood! Wherever I ended up, I would be surrounded by thousands of unique individuals. They would bring their perspectives to the classroom and the school culture. I wanted to learn something from my peers, not just feel accepted by them.
Despite all this talk and effort about diversity, many students go through all four years of school with only a handful of close friends that they made during orientation. These friends come from sports teams, dorms and orientation trips. For a lot of people, they really seem to stick. While others take more time to find their niche, the majority of college students find their niche by the end of their sophomore year. After that, it can actually seem harder to make new friends. I’m not talking about friends you wave to when you pass them, but friends you spend time with and know well. It seems sad to me that after two years, whoever you haven’t met yet is basically off the table as a close friend. But such is life (with exceptions, of course).
In case you don’t remember freshman orientation, it’s socially exhausting. You constantly feel the need to present your best self to strangers, trying to make a good first impression and identify potential friends. For weeks, your brain works double time during every social interaction. By the time people find a reliable group, it comes as a major relief. It’s comfortable and effortless to spend time with the same people once you know them. A lot of people really value that comfort and it bleeds into the rest of their college experience.
This solidification of friend groups happens for a variety of reasons.
A lot of them are personality based, and a lot of them, as my psychology-major-roommate explained to me, are psychological. For instance, children are taught to conform to a variety of social standards in exchange for acceptance and support. This conformity gave them access to the protection of a group and this mentality of social support over individuality often carries into adulthood.
Others feel trapped by the appearance of exclusivity between friend groups once the initial formation has passed. I’ve heard people say that to be friends with people in one friend group, you must renounce others. That gives you more time to spend with your group of choice. While this seems both absurd and unfortunate, the logic is that all of your close friends are also friends with each other. Hence, the group chat.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I know a host of people at my school and at others who wish it felt easier to branch out. Some sports teams become friend groups, which can trap people in a group they didn’t choose. Despite not feeling at home there, the social obligations of the team may prevent players from going up to people to make friends.
Eventually, those orientation-week skills get totally atrophied and it becomes way harder to put yourself out there. It’s nerve racking to make a first impression once you’re used to not thinking about it.
There is also the element of time. A friend of mine once noted that while everyone in college is friendly, not many people are actually friends. Putting in time to become close with friends inherently detracts from the time you can devote to others. You can only spread yourself so thin at once. My philosophy is that you should slowly grow your circle without losing touch with those you care about.
I tend approach my friendships by seeking out the people who make me happy. I have felt all of the things described above. But for my own personal wellbeing, the anxiety that surrounds finding and being committed to a friend group is not worth thinking about. Instead, I view my friends as individuals who also have other individual friends that I may like or not like.
To avoid the easy trap of hanging out with the same people all the time, get involved with multiple activities on campus. The advantages here are self-explanatory. Although approaching new people to hang out still feels scary sometimes, it doesn’t need to mean infiltrating their entire group. It just means you share something in common.
In college, making a new friend doesn’t need to start with a big hangout for a long period of time. Remember you live on the same campus. It could mean grabbing a meal. Knowing you like being around somebody should feel exciting, not dreadful. You got this. And remember that if you go up to them, they will likely just be glad they don’t have to do the scary part. Create the culture you want on your campus.