Starting college is a time of great transition as students face many changes in their social lives, living situations and academic experiences. Being in a new place and not knowing people can be intimidating. This is why many colleges offer support from staff and peers to support new students through the transition and why they host programs that encourage students to get involved and make new friends.
Liz Sinclair, assistant dean of the undergraduate programs and assessment at Kent State University, and Mick Steiner, assistant dean of students at Hiram College, talked about how schools help new students find their place and build new friendships.
“People fear how they’re coming across to other people,” Sinclair said. “They’re imagining what everyone else is thinking.”
They scrutinize themselves with thoughts of, “‘Oh, I’m too this,’ or ‘I’m too that,’ ‘I don’t look like them,’ ‘I don’t act like them,’” she explained. “The thing is, if everybody’s thinking like that, no one is thinking about you.”
As a leader of the student advisory group for the dean’s office, Sinclair said she has asked older students to write down pieces of advice they would give to younger students who are navigating these social changes.
“I think several people wrote, ‘Don’t be self-conscious,’ ‘Don’t think that other people are looking at you and judging or forming opinions,’ and ‘Just try to be yourself and you’ll figure it out,’” she recalled.
Sinclair pointed out that some schools have learning communities to make larger universities seem smaller and less intimidating.
“It’s a group of 30 to 100 students who are part of this community of people who get together before classes start; and they may be exploring downtown and getting to know one another,” she detailed. “Are they going to like all 30 or all 100? Probably not, but they’re going to find a core of people within that smaller group who they like and who they have things in common with.”
She recommended students look at lists of student organizations offered by their schools, as there are often many and they will likely find at least one that appeals to their interests.
“I know my daughter, when she first started (college), was interested in makeup and so there was a group of people who got together and did makeup and talked about makeup; and so she was participating in that,” Sinclair mentioned.
For students who live on campus, they will have many opportunities to meet other students and build friendships simply by being in the same living quarters, she noted.
For those who commute, she recommended seeking learning communities, as they will help students form their core groups of friends.
“Maybe even just some people are introverted and find it difficult to start conversations with people in their class,” she mentioned.
If a student is struggling with the changes they are facing when starting college, Sinclair suggested they speak to their college advisers, administrators or resident assistants if they live on campus.
Steiner pointed out that the social dynamic at college has changed significantly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many of those experiences, I think, look a little bit different now,” he said. “We have to try even harder to ensure that students are connecting and finding their place on campus.”
This starts with the school meeting the most basic needs of students within their first few days on campus; and administrators and staff asking themselves what they are doing to ensure students make at least one new friend who they can go to lunch or dinner with, and feel less socially isolated, he explained.
“I think one of the biggest things is trying to remember that that sense of awkwardness is only temporary and everyone is experiencing that together,” Sinclair said.
Everyone is going through some degree of adjustment, from sleeping on a new mattress to finding new friends, he noted.
“It can be challenging and I think for all of us across the college, we’re really committed – especially in our small school environment here – to making sure that students find their place here,” Steiner explained.
Colleges often have systems in place to help students who are struggling with making those initial connections, he said.
“Our resident assistants are trained in general topics like homesickness and helping students connect to the resources on campus,” Steiner said. “We want to catch those students as soon as possible to ensure that they are connecting with others.”