Many University freshmen arrive at college understandably terrified. For the first time in their lives, they are living away from home without the undying support of their childhood besties or their helicopter parents. With no pre-made social safety nets around, they must carve from scratch a new sense of belonging.

Naively, I arrived at college without the requisite fear of not fitting in. I was so excited to start a new chapter of my life that I full-heartedly bought into the notion of the “college experience” that each University brochure advertised. I was about to embark on the best four years of my life with my diverse group of instant friends. We would spend our days sitting on the lawn of the perpetually sunny Diag, smiling and laughing as we effortlessly completed our homework.

In reality, finding a support system in college was far from effortless. During my first semester, I spent a lot of time waiting for my social life to fall into place. While my high school friends began posting pictures with their new college BFFs, I tried to remain optimistic that my own group of friends would materialize. After two weeks of waiting, my learning community director commented to our freshman class that the window of opportunity for meeting people was closing and that surely we must be settling into college life. I looked around the room in disbelief and saw a sea of nodding heads and smiling faces. It was true: Friendships had been made, cliques had been formed and everyone seemed content. And yet there I was, on the outside of all of it.

I’m happy to report that things got better for me. During second semester, I met the other freshmen in my learning community and eventually found a solid group of friends. In subsequent years, I met even more friends through my involvement on ResStaff, Women’s Glee Club and other student organizations. In order to connect with new people, though, I had to actively reach out to others rather than passively wait for people to find me. Although taking such initiative can be exhausting, I am grateful that my social support system didn’t come easily. This experience challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone and initiate conversations with strangers. In large lectures, for example, I broke the ice with my classmates by asking them questions about the homework and then introducing myself. Such assertiveness would have been unthinkable for me in high school, but in college it helped me gain confidence in my friendship-making abilities. I now feel a greater sense of agency over the trajectory that my support system will take after graduation.

Another aspect the college brochures forgot to mention was the difficulty of maintaining friendships at such a large university. For me, it’s been difficult to keep up with friends who live across campus and participate in separate activities. I’m often so bogged down with classes and other obligations that it’s hard to find time to spend with anyone not directly involved in those commitments, especially if they live more than 10 minutes away. Although I feel sad to lose touch with people I was once so close with, this reality has taught me how to adapt to new situations. I have learned how to be in the moment and connect with the people around me instead of relying on dwindling connections with people I rarely see. Some of my favorite college memories have occurred during spontaneous social interactions, such as turning a simple “hello” in the hallway into a three-hour conversation.

There is no single right way to experience college. College looks very different for commuters versus out-of-staters versus full-time workers. The path I followed to form a social support system didn’t start out as advertised, but my experience is still valid and meaningful. I know of many students who have struggled similarly to find a sense of belonging, leading me to believe that my experience is likely closer to the norm than the brochures claim. Besides, to have any type of college experience is a privilege. In the grand scheme of life, we’re sacrificing thousands of dollars and hours for a degree, not a social circle. I hesitate to say that I have had the best four years of my life here; instead, I would argue that I have learned a lot these past four years, and I am eager to take what I’ve learned and make the rest of my life even better.

Annie Humphrey can be reached at annieah@umich.edu.

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