They say that high school friendships fade, but the friends you make in college will become your best friends for the rest of your life.
As a freshman, I hated the idea of losing people who carried me through the dreaded hallways of high school for four years, but there was something exciting about knowing the people I would soon be meeting would come to mean the world to me. Throughout my first year at Northwestern, it even happened – I fell in love with the people around me and became attached to my new friends faster than I had ever imagined.
But reality hit a few weeks after I returned as a sophomore: many of my friendships weren't the same. Between my new dorm location and new classes, I just didn’t run into half of my social circle anymore. Even with the ones I did happen to see, it felt as though the “spark” had dulled over the three months we had spent apart. Either we had less to talk about now that we barely saw each other, or we had subconsciously realized our friendship was simply a temporary fascination with one another – a fascination that had since ended.
What happened to my friendships between freshman and sophomore year isn’t uncommon – it happens between quarters, or even from one large social event to the next. The problem is inherent in the way in which college students interact. Despite what reminiscing adults love to say, making friends in college is just as hard as it is anywhere else, if not harder. In the college environment, people frequently interact with their friends, but very seldom do they actually connect.
College students have a strong tendency to form "situational friendships" dependent on a specific context: being in the same class, living in the same dorm or even dancing DM together. That camaraderie might be completely sincere and the two people may genuinely be interested in one another, but oftentimes these situational friendships end once the context ends. Once maintaining that connection involves a conscious, active effort, the two people realize the friendship just isn’t worth that extra effort. As much as you enjoyed spending time with each other, it’s not something you’d go out of your way to seek if not forced to interact due to a class, club or circumstance.
A basic example: Remember the people you hung out with during Welcome Week? When was the last time you spoke with them?
If these situation-based relationships did not make matters hard enough, there’s also the issue of breaking barriers – and how easy it is for students to avoid doing so. We live in a culture in which interactions are distant, careful and even scripted. For example, when a student asks another student how he or she is doing, most often the response is about how stressed he is, how much work he has to do this weekend or how he can’t stand so-and-so class. Very seldom do people mention the more personal details: an issue you’ve been having with a parent, a new band you’ve fallen for whose music hits every funny bone in your body or even the cute girl in econ who smiles and touches your shoulder when she talks to you.
And it makes sense. We talk about schoolwork because it’s the easiest thing to bring up that is immediately relateable. It’s a first and last resort. These type of situational “fillers” make it possible to fill an entire conversation – sometimes even a long one, and almost always a sincere one – without needing to reveal anything terribly private. In other words, it gives you a way to be consistently friendly without actually making friends.
While I don't think making tight bonds in college is impossible, we limit our ability to do so by consistently falling back on easy, situational, low-vulnerability topics as foundations for friendships. The thing is, these fluffy, insubstantial connections fail to stand the test of time.
To clarify, it’s okay to talk about academics with friends – it’s only natural. However, it’s important that you see the people around you as not just fellow students, fellow dormmates or fellow DM dancers but as fellow human beings. Holistic, multi-faceted human beings.
The next time you see your chemistry partner and she asks about your day, think about telling her about something other than your progress on the latest lab report. Tell her about your parents, your latest musical discovery, your econ crush. Tell her something real.
Or better yet, ask her to lunch.