For me, college was a bit unusual. I happened to grow up in the same town as, arguably, the best university in my state, so it made sense for me to go there. I would be able to get a great degree from a school ranked highly—both academically and socially—for the reasonable in-state tuition price. The only catch was that my college years would be spent minutes from my family home and surrounded by a large percentage of people I grew up with—not exactly the "get out of dodge" scenario most associate with the college years.
Having a built-in friend group when I started college was a relief. I, of course, wanted to meet new people, but considering that all—yes, all—of my closest lifelong friends would be traversing the same campus with me, I felt more at ease. But that doesn’t mean the whole friend thing was without complication. Having friends already on campus made making new ones seem less important. And when I did make new friends, I struggled to see them as being as important to me as my old friends.
The famous Dunbar number system says that, based on our brain anatomy, we can all have about 150 people in our social group. Parsing that out, Dunbar said about fifty of those are close friends, fifteen are our confidants, and five are our closest support group. That gives us a lot of room to really think about whom it is we’re interacting with.
William Rawlins, the Stocker Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University, told The Atlantic: “I think young adulthood is the golden age for forming friendships. Especially for people who have the privilege and the blessing of being able to go to college.”
The four years I spent in undergrad, and the two after that in grad school, would teach me valuable and very unexpected lessons about friendships. Some people I thought I would know forever are now mere memories. Others, whose friendship I questioned at times, are among my inner circle. One thing is certain: Had I known that summer before freshman year what I know now, I would have done a few things differently.
01. Childhood Friends Are a League All Their Own
Many of us tend to place very high value on our friend groups. That’s great, but sometimes that value can almost create a vacuum. We want that group or that dynamic—the one we know and love—to stay static. When I went to college, I resisted my best friends making new friends for that very reason. But they did it anyway, and over time, I, too, made new friends.
Some of them fit in perfectly with my old friends; others didn’t, but it all worked out. There’s really nothing like the people you grow up with. Science shows that long-term friends can actually act like a second memory for us—reminding us of things we know but don’t remember. In a study done on how friends share memories, researchers found that interconnected memory was a strong factor in the strength of the friendship.
Our childhood friends tend to know us and our history and our family in ways that people we meet as an adult won’t ever replicate. Honor that bond, but don’t let it keep you from pursuing the new friendships that can also be quite valuable in other ways.
02. Exclusivity Gets You Nowhere
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve participated in clique culture. Hardly to the extent portrayed in Mean Girls, but luckily, social hierarchy in high school was pretty kind to me. In college, a lot of that falls away. It exists in Greek life, which was a big deal at my school, but mostly college is a free for all. I had great friends who were sorority princesses, and I had great friends who were agriculture majors and got credit hours for hanging out on the pig farm.
Whatever notions you have about like-mindedness, banish them during college. Especially in grad school, I found that the people I thought were most unlike me—the people I never would have guessed I’d be friends with—were the ones I learned the most from. According to Fast Company, by bringing different people into your circle you’re more likely to think critically, make better decisions, and be more self-aware. Sure, you want friends with whom you share values, but you also want people in your circle who intentionally aren’t just like you, to broaden your view of the world and to accept them kindly.
03. With Real Friends, There Will Be Fights
One of the primary ways you will learn about interpersonal dynamics during college is through living with people. I lived with my two best friends. We went to middle school and high school together, and they truly were (and still are) like family. But a year-and-a-half into living together, things just weren’t going well. We were all changing, and things got tense. With one of them, things came to major blows. We tried to talk about our issues so that we could continue to live together, but it became clear that wouldn’t happen. She moved out early, and we didn’t talk for the next several months. It literally felt like a friendship divorce. I never imagined, with our history, that we would have ended up there.
As The Atlantic points out, “We aren’t obligated to our friends the way we are to our romantic partners, our jobs, and our families. This is one of the inherent tensions of friendships.” Rawlins describes it as “the freedom to be independent and the freedom to be dependent.”
Luckily, we eventually came back together, and our friendship is so much stronger because of that. We often think fights are detrimental to friendships. You’re friends, things should always be happy! But that’s not real life. Knowing that things can get really bad, but that you still ultimately respect one another and freely choose to be part of each other’s lives is an underestimated but life-changing attitude to adopt and encourage among your inner circle.
04. College Can Actually Be a Bubble
College is an experience like no other, which is both good and bad. While some of your friendships made on campus will be real and lifelong, you’ll find that others are a product of the bubble. I was shocked by how much the transition out of college and into the “real world” affected some of my friendships.
With one friend, in particular, it was as though I suddenly felt like being at the same school was the only thing that made us friends. At first, I was upset by that. How could I have been so close to this person, and now feel like we were totally at odds? I truly think that college is a bubble for some people. Once you leave, things change, you see people in a different light, but that’s ok. Even though we’ve grown apart, I still look back on our university days with fond memories. We had tons of fun, and definitely provided value to each other’s lives. It sounds too storybook-like to be real, but it’s true that some people aren’t meant to stay in our lives forever. The hard part is learning how to accept rather than resent that fact.
05. Friendship Is Always Worth It
I hate when I hear people talk about regretting a former friendship. Like I said, most of my friendships have lasted, but a few have not. Either way, I think we learn about ourselves from every person we become close to. That’s not to say that every friendship is healthy or a positive influence, but there’s something to be learned from every friendship—and therefore, it’s worth it to pursue them.
According to U.S. News & World Report, friendships are part of what makes us uniquely human. According to its source, James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California at San Diego: "There is no other species that interacts so widely with other members of their species. So right away, you know that when you're studying these relationships with friends, what you're really doing is studying what makes us unique." Furthermore, “solid friendships provide needed validation that a person is valuable and of interest to other people.”
One thing I’ve found extremely rewarding as I’ve gotten older is to have a conversation with my friends about why we’re friends. For me these conversations tend to happen rather organically; I’m not suggesting the two of you sit down and pro/con each other. But to share with someone how they enhance your life and to hear them tell you why they connect to you is actually incredibly insightful. You’ll probably be surprised by what they say about you, and you’ll feel like you’re getting a glimpse into how you come across to others—something we’re all curious about.
To have good friends is not something we are entitled to. It’s a privilege all its own. The friendships we have are an endless well of knowledge both about the world and ourselves. My college years transformed the way I approach and value my friends. But whether it’s college you face, a new job, or a big move, make your friends a priority, and you’ll never regret it.
Photo Credit: Erynn Christine Photography