The doors open. A blast of soothing cold air. The smell of fruit. The sounds of excited chatter. Bright Hawaiian shirts. Trader Joe’s–I have arrived. One hour to wander the store and find treasures to kibosh Thursday’s hunger (while still being economical and relatively easy to make!). But first thing’s first: samples. If I’m lucky, there will be a few different options. Sharon. Perfect. Sharon is my usual sample-maker and serves up a good conversation (her suggestion of avocado-yogurt dip rocked my world last week). But today, after giving me a second cup of pomegranate-mango juice, she asks how work is going.
It was a great question considering I had just had a one-with-one in which a student said she feels like she doesn’t have any friends. It was a meeting that left me wondering: How do we help students create solid friendships?
“…Come on Zack”
Yes, we can tell students to join this organization or that club, go to this event, or talk with someone in class or their suite. However, the student about whom I am thinking pointed out two flaws with these suggestions: (1) By spring of their first year, students have their friend group pretty well set and don’t often branch out after that point. (2) Students don’t know how to talk to each other. After months of roommate agreements that boiled down to students not knowing how to talk about different ways of behaving, I found the second obstacle completely true. So maybe the challenge does not begin with the external environment but with the individual’s ability to overcome these and other social challenges.
College students are not much different from five year olds. The differences lay in the social norms to which we force students to adhere (aka “hegemony”), which snuff their ability to be authentic. While speaking with a group of my student staff, I asked how they make friends. They said, “It sort of happens organically” (kind of like the 29 cent bananas at TJ’s!). Nevertheless, friendships do not form all at once. So, I asked what small steps a student could take to form a new friendship. One student said she always sits in the same seat in Mandarin class but would like speak with more people. What would it look like to change your daily routine? What if you sit in a different seat and say “hi” to the person next to you? How can you strike up a conversation with the person in front of you in the buffet line?
Add Water and Stir
I have another student who also has difficulties making friends because he believes that people only connect with him to study and disregard other types of socializing. My thought was: What can you do to introduce the idea of friendship to the relationships you already have? Study at a local Starbucks instead of the library and ask about their story in between discussing math!
As a new professional myself, meeting people in a new city was hard. I found it incredibly easy, however, to transition relationships from ‘colleagues’ to ‘friends’ by getting out of our work environment and going somewhere new. Since a lot of us experience new social circles frequently, our experiences in student affairs, and the sometimes nomadic culture that we have can be helpful to students with making friends. In addition, a question I would pose to my colleagues is: How can you show a student how to be a friend?
A student’s intrapersonal development is inherently connected to their interpersonal (Kegan, 1994). Before getting to know other people, it would behoove students to ask the question: Who am I? (the intrapersonal). If students are more conscious of who they are and why they do the things they do, they may be more conscious of how others exist in the world. They can observe similarities in themselves and others. Helping students to make friends starts with the students themselves. To help, the practitioner needs to provide a relationship where the student feels comfortable voicing their authentic thoughts, beliefs, values, ideas, etc.
Food for Thought
So what would it look like to show students an organic relationship and teach them how to be friends? How can you ask students to explore who they are, in an effort to help them to be more conscious of how they might be different from others? What might be organic baby steps toward friendships? And above all else, how can you let them know it is ok to be themselves? After discussing with Sharon, I scoop up some corn chips, humus, and frozen pizza and pack up the Prius. An evening of Scandal with friends is at my place tonight!
Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.