Mythbusting College Friendships

Friendship, for most of my life, has been a word packed with conflicting emotions and unwelcome baggage. In second grade, as a quiet, slightly chubby and bookish kid, I didn’t have many friends. But things got much worse when I moved to the city and began elementary school all over again. Making friends admittedly takes time, but months passed and I hadn’t a single friend. I was designated the “uncool” kid of my new second grade class. To get caught talking to me was to also receive that label, and so I sat in silence for all of that year — always without friends, always the last one to be picked as a partner. After school, while other kids went home or went on playdates with friends, I went to the school library and sat there for hours, escaping into different worlds. Luckily, things changed after I moved for the second time. For some reason, at this new school, a group of “in” kids decided to take me under their wing. The most hellish year of my childhood ended one afternoon, after their leader — a blond boy named Caleb — gave me a nod of approval from the monkey bars.

Thankfully, nothing like that ever happened again. A steady pool of friends stayed with me for the rest of elementary school, for all of middle school and straight through to my high school graduation. The last few years of high school were actually when I made my closest friends. Though these friends were people I hadn’t felt particularly drawn to at first, we bonded startlingly easily once we started talking. I spent the best moments of high school with them. Still, I felt lonely sometimes and had more than my fair share of socially awkward moments. There were times when I would sit in my room feeling inadequate and unfit for society, overanalyzing every one of the social interactions I had had that day and criticizing myself to no end. Sometimes I even doubted the friendships I had, questioning — even as I struggled to define the term — whether these people were “true friends” or not. I blamed my social hang-ups on both myself and my childhood experiences of being bullied. Of course, these moments of insecurity eventually passed. But the self-doubt was always there, lurking deep within me. On top of this well of insecurity, college sparked even greater worries. It would be a completely different place, and my high school friends would be thousands of miles away. For all my life I’d learned — and had had it driven into my head again and again — that college was where you made friends for life. Where you’d find your absolute best buddies, bridesmaids, sisters or brothers from another mother, people you’d reminisce with 50 years down the road. But forget all that! Would I be able to make friends at all?

August 24, 2014: the beginning of first-year orientation, along with what was supposed to be the most fun, most productive, and wildest four years of life. The first time I stepped on campus last August, a series of emotions fought for dominance within me. Of them all, fear won out: Fear of failing too-difficult classes, fear of an overwhelming workload, and, most of all, fear of social failure. What if super-amazing lifelong college friends didn’t happen for me? What if I was doomed to spend the next four years — well, the rest of my life — without them, while everyone else had an amazing time? With that fear looming over me, I started desperately trying to find friends, though at first it wasn’t so much “making friends” as it was “not being left out.” That meant spending a lot of time with people I was kind of familiar with: People who lived on my floor, who were in my orientation squad, who I’d sat with by chance in Val during those first few days. It was easy, and not as scary, to hang out with them. I didn’t mesh with them quite as well as I’d been hoping — sometimes I felt like we were on completely different wavelengths, and, try as I might, I found it hard to view the world like they did. But as the semester went on and the freshmen found their friend groups, everyone became more closed off, less open to making new friends. And so by the time the fall semester ended, I had convinced myself that the friends I had then would become my lifelong best friends — if I couldn’t see things from their perspectives sometimes, that just meant I had to try harder, right?

Except it didn’t quite work that way. By the middle of second semester, I’d experienced a falling-out with one of my best friends from first semester, and was left feeling betrayed, empty and alone. I wandered about feeling like this for about a week, until it got almost unbearable. That was when I decided to start hanging out more with other friends I’d made in different contexts —I’d instantly clicked with them, but because we were in different classes or dorms I’d never had the chance to get to know them well. Instead of passively getting sucked into hangout sessions with my dorm or with my old friend group, I began initiating them. Instead of spending time with people simply because they were in the same common room, I started asking myself where I wanted to be. This time around it was much, much easier — instead of forcing myself to mold to personalities that clashed with mine, all I had to do was be myself and let things happen. Things happened much faster, too. A few weeks ago, one of my newer friends told me that friendships like these were what she had always imagined having in college. “Me too,” I told her, struck by the truth of her words.

It took, of all things, a Buzzfeed article (of unusually high quality) for me to realize what had changed. Number three on the list of “18 Important Things You’ll Wish You’d Known In College” was about being an active friend-maker, versus a passive one. This part of the blurb rang especially true for me: “The best friendships are made intentionally: When you actively seek out people who enjoy the same passions, activities and interests as you.” I thought about how much happier I had gotten since the friendship fallout, and realized that this was what had changed. Instead of hanging out with the most-accessible or least-threatening people, I was now choosing to spend my time with people I felt to be on the same wavelength, people I clicked with easily, people I genuinely liked. The act of choosing: That was the real difference. It had been, I thought, a choice all along. After all, friends don’t just appear — there’s a reason why it’s called making friends.