Look around: you will have these friends for the rest of your life. Now, look around again. You don’t have to follow that path — one that tells you to make friends in college both fast and forever.
This message, perpetuated through everything from popular culture to universities themselves, is not necessarily true. The cultural norm of having college friends who become your lifelong friends does an excellent job of idealizing the college experience, shaping four years that should be unique to you into a mere goal to achieve. I know many first-years strive for their own Pitch Perfect moments in the communal bathrooms: they want to be chosen and quickly integrated into a tight-knit group of friends to spend the next four years with, not to mention the rest of their lives. Making friends in college, particularly in small environments like Oxford College, needs to stop being romanticized. It is not mandatory that you click with a group of people immediately (or at all). Instead, your focus should be on appreciating the distinctive adventures you have and how they shape your experiences naturally, not forcibly.
I am not ashamed to admit to feeling sad, confused and lonely for several weeks after I moved into my dorm. Now, almost two months into classes, I still do. Simple things like not sharing a common experience with new acquaintances or not being invited to social gatherings could easily lead me to spiral. In fact, 48% of first year students in a Canadian public university believed that their peers had more close friends than they did. College freshmen are plunged into an environment where not only do they feel off-kilter and vulnerable, but they also feel pressured to have a great time and make all their friends for the rest of their lives.
Friendships in college are nearly always considered to be those that stay with you for the rest of your life. However, it is not college itself that gets you lifetime friends — it is the exploratory nature of college. Not everyone is bound to explore in the same ways; thus, first-years will not always have similar experiences. If a student is socially anxious and does not feel comfortable participating in overwhelming orientation programs or struggles to sit with new people in the dining hall, then they will not have the same experience as an extremely extroverted person. Instead, each different student’s time in college will be unique to them.
As a part of the Ignite Leadership pre-orientation program on the Oxford campus, I was involved in activities that introduced me to my current closest friends. However, I did not truly feel connected to them until a few weeks ago. I, like many other new students, did not recognize that friendship takes time before it can do its magic. I had to actually build relationships with the right people before feeling like I belonged. I mourned my high school friendships and developed a toxic habit of comparison. I lined up my current college life alongside my past high school life and felt a sense of loss. Seeing as I had an enjoyable high school experience, I felt as though my life in college had to be synonymous with my life in high school. Extracurriculars needed to match up because that was what I knew I was good at, my friends had to have the same sort of humor because I had grown accustomed to those jokes — my expectations simply were not realistic, nor were they helping me acclimate to college.
It is highly likely that your friends in college will not be the same kinds of people as in high school. In a study by the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, 47% of freshmen reported having five or more friends with differing world perspectives than their own. For some, having friends with different worldviews is exciting and fresh. For others, it can create anxiety and unease. Prioritize making friends with similar personalities or qualities if it makes college subjectively better for you. Above all else, do not try to shape your time in college into what you think it is supposed to be. Make choices geared toward your tastes and comfort levels, even if that leads you toward a different outcome than you expected.
However, it is not fair to say that all perceptions of college are idealized and hazardous to the mental health of new students. Nor is it fair to single out individuals who are perfectly content with not having a conventional freshman experience filled with lifelong friendships. What is deeply needed in college communities is for us — as students, faculty, administrators and more — to think of college experiences and friendship-building as critically unique to each student. Every choice you make builds your unique experience: what clubs you join, what orientation programs you choose to actually show up to and what person you sit beside during class. Your college experience will be unique, by chance and by choice. There is no way to wholly control its outcome. We need to stop trying and instead appreciate it for what it is. And if you don’t like it, make choices that will better suit your needs, like joining different clubs, changing your major or visiting mental health resources on campus.
A focus shift is necessary. Universities must stop using friendship as a feature of their institution and instead continue to shape their environment to best support students – no advertising necessary. Students need to shift their mindset from seeking an idyllic experience to uplifting themselves and making decisions best suited to their needs and wants. Both universities and their students need to reach this focus shift by investing in a different, more student-centered, understanding of healthy relationship-building and flexible adjustment periods for students. Students should no longer hear all about ‘the college experience,’ they should be excited to uncover what their own college experience will hold for them.
Ellie Fivas (24Ox) is from Cleveland, Tennessee.
Ellie Fivas is from Cleveland, Tennessee, and is double-majoring in political science and English & Creative Writing. Outside of the Wheel, she serves on the Student Government Association, edits for the Oxford Phoenix literary magazine and writes for the Emory Political Review. In her free time, you can find her reading historical fiction, enjoying the outdoors or doing crossword puzzles.