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Can We Help Our College Students Be More Empathetic?Marybeth Bock, MPH
Friendships are tricky. They hold us together, support us, form who we are and provide us with shared experiences. But friendships can also strain us, worry us, fade, and leave us recollecting on times when things were different.
As life continues in its fluid and unpredictable way, friendships must find a way to adapt, change and grow.
I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota. My friends from my hometown, as is the experience with many people, have been the fundamental building blocks of my transition from childhood into early adulthood. The memories I’ve made with them are ones I'll cherish forever, no matter how immature or insignificant they may seem.
The friends you grow up with are the people you experience life with from a common set of overwhelmed eyes, the ones you develop your understanding of the world with — and the ones who, in many cases, you will grow apart from.
College is a time in life when things seem to change especially suddenly. In a matter of months, you go from being surrounded by people you’ve known your whole life, doing the same things you’ve always done in the same places you’ve always done them, to finding yourself in a brand new space with brand new people.
Eventually you settle in, get comfortable and find a new group of friends who, most likely, will be quite different than those who composed your circle previously. It can feel like a rebirth, a whole new life.
Last year, I started school at the University of Denver, a completely new setting. I love the friends I’ve met in Denver. They have opened up my world, showing me sides of myself that I didn’t know were there. They’ve challenged me to become a more well-rounded person and pushed my comfort zone.
They are very different from the friends I'd made in my life up until that point; of course they were. A college community brings together a unique blend of viewpoints, origins and interests all in one place. Although what you study in college is obviously an important part of learning, one of the best paths to broadening your knowledge and experiences is found through the people you are surrounded with.
That said, in Denver I can still find myself yearning for a simpler, more raw understanding. Someone who knows deeply where I am from, what I stand for, and what that means. My Minneapolis friends understand me in ways that no one in Denver could ever grasp. Simultaneously, I recognize that my Denver friends reach me on levels I'm not able to sustain with my hometown connections.
For college students, this experience presents something new, an overlap of environments and friends who know us in very different ways. Our past, present and future all intersect in the form of these relationships. It’s in this murky friendship-grey-space that I'm able to see there is no superior connection, no clear-cut path to my heart and soul. It’s here, where I feel relieved.
It’s no secret that different friendships provide you with different things. Although college is a pronounced steppingstone in the progression of social life, these intersections of relationships are present throughout the entirety of our lives.
So what do we do when this balancing act becomes overwhelming? Here are some thoughts that may help your own college student as they navigate the ebb and flow of friendships old and new.
Change is scary, especially when it has to do with friendship. Take solace in the fact that, without change, life would be pretty stagnant. After all, the ultimate goal is to be the best you that you can be, and change ensures that you have to constantly adapt to get there.
This can be one of the hardest aspects of friendships to deal with. Going into college, we're used to consistency and routines when it comes to our friends. However, no matter what we do after high school, those practices are going to shift.
It’s bound to feel strange, but this is just part of growing up. Your connections will find a way to evolve into mature, sustainable relationships. This change can be the catalyst of some very positive things. It forces you to prioritize friendships and make plans to continue them when wanted.
Some of my closest friends from my hometown now are people I wasn’t especially close to in high school. Distance, effort and undoubtedly the plethora of maturity-inducing aspects of college life end up combining to enhance and develop certain relationships.
It's still very valuable to make a concerted effort to stay in touch with old friends as well as reaching out to new friends. Express how you're handling the transition and don’t be afraid to discuss how you're feeling.
On the other end of this, encourage old and new friends with empathy and listen to them when they share their sentiments. Creating a dialogue is a great way to alleviate any pressure you are feeling in a friendship.
For instance, there can be a lot of factors involved with going to college that others may consider while you pay little mind to them. In my experience, these factors have been that of privilege, identity and independence. Attending school in Colorado is my experience and journey, but how do my friends from Minnesota view this choice? What does it mean that I was able to have the opportunity to attend not only a four-year university but one in an entirely new part of the country?
This transition is a lot to think about on a personal level, but caring about the feelings and reactions of those you value is a way to look at the all-important bigger picture.
We learn so many things from each friendship we take part in, old and new. Take these lessons with you and appreciate the people you learned them from. As you move forward in life, you'll take a small part of these memories with you wherever you go.
I hope you'll encourage your student to reflect on the changing social dynamics involved with their own transition from high school to college. Change can be difficult and uncomfortable but it also brings relief, happiness and new perspectives. Finding their own space during this period of adjustment, and discovering what they truly value in a friendship, can be a breath of fresh air.