I have to admit: I am one of those people that says, “College was the best four years of my life!”
And yes, I would definitely do college all over again—as long as I could do it with the same group of friends I made back then.
I came to college “alone”—alone in the sense that I was leaving behind all of my friends from high school.
But by the end of the fall semester, I had met some of my friends for life.
I also developed some wonderful connections with faculty and staff who were able to help me with countless things, like selecting my classes so that I could graduate on time, securing on-campus employment (and later an internship), and providing me with letters of recommendation to attend graduate school.
College really is amazing, and it’s the human connections that make it such a beautiful experience.
In fact, one of the longest running studies, started in 1938, has found that “strong relationships are what make for a happy life” (Dunn, 2023).
If you just want to take classes, do the reading, and submit assignments, there are great online programs for that. College, however, allows you to experience firsthand the people and the world around you; it builds empathy, interpersonal skills, and how to navigate diverse personalities and perspectives. These are the critical soft skills you need to help you grow and succeed in work and life.
I believe that some students already know this. However, a large number of students—particularly those who may be first-generation college students, members of a marginalized identity, or simply haven’t had good mentors or figures to look up to—may not realize that these relationships are a part of the hidden college curriculum.
My goal here is to give you some quick tips for how you can approach making those connections.
Assess the human resources you have available at your school and in your community.
There are many ways to develop and increase your network, but I would first encourage you to consider your purpose or goal of being at your particular college. What is your “why,” and what made you choose this school?
Even if the school you’re attending wasn’t your top choice, how can you make the most out of your time? What are aspects about yourself that you want to grow and nourish?
Yes, you want to get that degree, of course—but why else are you there?
Take the next few weeks to do an audit of all the human resources you have at your disposal—professors, teaching and research assistants, grad students, organizations, clubs, local business owners, librarians—anyone you could turn to for guidance and information, and to give you that sense of knowing you are NOT alone.
Find your group.
If one of your goals is to find a network of individuals who may understand your experience, you may be interested in joining social and/or cultural identity groups.
These groups often attract other like-minded individuals such as yourself, and may result in sustained, regular interaction, which is critical to developing friendships.
At this point, most college campuses have some type of group where students can gather with other students, staff, and/or faculty who may share a particular identity. These groups are generally open to all, but will center the voices of those highlighted in the group. There can be great power and support gathering with those whom you share a personal experience with.
Attend a campus event.
If one of your goals is to enjoy and experience what your campus has to offer, try attending some of the campus events.
I remember going to various intro and welcome meetings just to grab a slice of pizza, and I would often strike up a conversation with at least one familiar face.
Having even just one person that you know can be helpful if you may be more introverted, or you find large social events to be a bit draining.
Volunteer your time.
In other cases, students may be interested in expanding their reach beyond the campus community. If this is your goal, you may find volunteer or other types of social justice opportunities to be of interest.
In some cases, these volunteer opportunities can be connected to an on-campus organization or club that spends time volunteering in the community.
You can also branch out on your own, or start your own initiative. National organizations such as the United Way or Urban League Young Professionals have diverse locations and are often seeking volunteers. There are also numerous local organizations seeking volunteers, and students may be able to find some opportunities at Volunteermatch.org.
Don’t be afraid to connect with faculty.
If one of your goals is to find internships, jobs, or research assistantships, you may find it valuable to develop connections with faculty and staff.
Faculty and staff are often contacted by employers or former students who are seeking current students for internship and job opportunities.
It is very difficult to recommend a student I do not know, so take advantage of those office hours just to say hello. (Office hours aren’t only meant for homework help!)
Visiting with faculty during office hours can be a great way to develop a relationship. Not sure what to say? Begin with something you have in common, such as the class. While in someone’s office you may notice pictures of family, friends, or a pet, all of which can be great conversation starters.
I know this may feel a bit awkward at first for some. One way to decrease this barrier is to organize a small group event for students to “network” and invite faculty and staff.
A great opportunity could be partnering with a department or faculty affinity group to co-host an informal event. There can be a rough agenda or conversation starter topics, but nothing too formal, as you likely do not want to replicate the same dynamics as the classroom. A more casual setting like this as opposed to office hours can make this feel like a safe space to connect.
As you begin the process of developing your community, remember that this is YOUR community. If you do not want to engage in a particular activity or group, that’s fine! In fact, that may help you be more intentional about the relationships that you do decide to invest in and develop.
While taking time to develop and build relationships may seem like extra work, and at times may seem to conflict with many other competing priorities (e.g., work, coursework, parenting), building a strong sense of community in college is an important step in setting yourself up for success in your future career.
As the author notes, friendships are not “happening organically”—they require intention and work. This book may help people understand why interaction and relationship-building are important.
This article summarizes some of the work by researcher Dr. Robert Waldinger (and other prior researchers), on the importance of happiness and underscores the negative effects of loneliness. This article is Day 1 in a series of articles focused on relationships, happiness, etc. to begin the new year.
This book highlights a longitudinal study exploring happiness in individuals.
As more of our lives continue to be conducted online, we must not neglect the importance and need for human connection.
About the author
Nicole C. Jones Young, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Franklin & Marshall College.