College is a Foreign Country. Don't Explore Alone.

When orientation ends, the real work of exploring begins. After the orientation group disbands ad the leader's responsibilities end, here is a complex new geography to master (Where is the dining hall? No, where is the good dining hall? And now how do I get back to my room from here?). There is a new language to translate (What is a gen ed? What is SAP? What is a bursar and how is that not the registrar? What is FERPA?). There is a new culture to sort out (Why are people wearing those shirts? How can I tell who is a professor and who is a grad student and what’s the difference? Are those people my new best friends? Or could it be these people? Can I sit here? Can I walk there? What am I even doing here?) .

Trying to figure this all out in a hurry and mostly alone can make students feel like they don’t know how to do college at all, let alone do it well. Add in the fact that so many other people seem to be familiar with this place and comfortable navigating its weirdness, and the conditions are right for a perfect storm of uncertainty.

All of this can make staying alone in the dorm with a barrel of animal crackers from Costco, a group chat with dear friends from high school, and Dad’s HBOGo password seem very, very appealing--but that is not the best way to cope. The path to overcoming culture shock is asking other students to be companions for navigating specific parts of college life.

Make Friends, Get Better at School Evidence suggests that the more connections and relationships that students build with peers in college, the more successful they will be academically and professionally. Sociologist Janice M. McCabe, a professor at Dartmouth, examined college students’ social relationships for many years. Her book “Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success” explores the ways that a student’s habits for forming and maintaining friendships relate to their academic experiences in college and their life after college. She found that students who form “academic multiplex” relationships—or dense connections in which they ask for support, offer assistance, and find other ways to reinforce behaviors that facilitate learning--are more likely to have successful college experiences. In other words, friendships are not a distraction. They are, in many ways, the point.

Making connections doesn't always feel easy, because not every person will feel like a true and lasting friend. That's fine--all relationships have to start somewhere, and having a purpose for connecting is a sound strategy for making the first move. I encourage students to assemble a roster of friends for specific functions. It is very likely that some of those connections will deepen and evolve into meaningful relationships. It doesn't matter how connections start. It matters that they start.

Recommended Friend Roster for First Year College Students

  • The Friend Who Says Yes to Stuff. Ideally, this person will live nearby. Since the Yes Friend is always up for whatever—they will walk to the gelato place off campus, or go to the Asian Student Association mixer, or boldly take candy from every single organization that’s tabling at the Activities Fair—having one will eliminate one reliable excuse (“there’s no one to go with me”) for avoiding venturing out.

  • The Laundry Friend. If two people join forces to jam an entire (filthy) wardrobes into washing machines sometime around the third (or fourth. Or, heaven help us, seventh) week of the term, they will bond. Everybody needs to do laundry and nobody wants to do it, so the social support will benefit each person equally.

  • The Expert Friend. This may be a sophomore, but first years will get even more valuable insights from a junior or senior. This is a symbiotic relationship—they’ll feel worldly and wise because a new student has asked for their guidance, and their guidance will help the first year solve problems and find resources. Everybody wins.

  • The Study Friend. Students will benefit from finding a Study Friend for every course they take in a term. This precious person will help fuel progress on the To Do list. Set regular study meetups or just get together when it’s time for midterms or finals—whatever works for both. When students tell others about their goals, share their progress, and celebrate accomplishments, it’s easier to persist through challenges.

As a note of caution, remember that building connections and navigating a new college life is so much easier if you resist the temptation to be on your phone while you are in public places—in line for gelato, waiting for the dryers, on the bus. Staying in touch with old friends is important, but if that contact is constant it pulls focus away from the present. Old friends will always be important. Remember that there are opportune and inopportune times for talking with them. And if you’re just on your phone killing time with games or online, remember: the internet is no one's friend.

This is just a partial list, but it should inspire a personalized roster. I advise students to seek companions for even the most mundane activities. This habit increases the likelihood of initiating our most important and enduring friendships. The important part of these early connections isn’t what we do together. The important part is that we are together when we do it.

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