When I imagined my first day of university, I thought it would encompass me wandering down the nature trails of the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), strolling through the beautiful buildings to get to class, or sitting in large lecture halls where I would meet so many people and form life-long friendships. But then, the campus announced that all courses would be held online—and with that, my hopes and dreams of making new friends crashed and burned.
It took me a while to get into the groove of things and adjust to online learning. Academically, things were looking bright. But then I realized that my first year of university was almost done and I hadn’t met anyone or forged any relationships.
I found myself lost without friends—like a missing piece of my university experience. I quickly learned that I was not alone in this feeling of uncertainty. But is online school to blame for my lack of new friends, or is there more to this puzzle? The answer is simpler than we think. While friendships are important to us, as we grow older it becomes harder to form new bonds.
“As a child, you are exposed to different people in every class. In university, you are exposed to different people in every course. As an adult, you are working, so you have a stable social circle,” says Melissa Holmes, an associate psychology professor at UTM. Her research consists of understanding the types of brain and hormonal mechanisms that cause us to reflect and mimic others in social settings. “People often have a partner or family [at that age], so [they] interact with [others] in a smaller environment.”
Professor Holmes states that it is increasingly difficult to make friends as we get older due to lower variability in our lives. As we age, we are less exposed to new faces. In the current era of online school, our exposure to new people is even lower—thus making it harder to form new bonds. She also explains that the friends we make in university have great weight in our lives, as they often result in long-term friendships.
“Humans, being a highly social species, are happier and healthier when they have social support,” adds Professor Holmes, explaining that this does not only have to come in the form of friendships, but also in the form of family. “Humans need other people in their lives. But it is important to remember that we differ in the extent to which we like contact. For example, some of us prefer meeting people in huge social groups like parties, while others enjoy sticking to the groups of people that they know.”
Social circles not only provide support but also influence who we become, our moods, and the decisions we make. If we interact with happy and supportive people, we get more positive effects, “but if you interact with unhappy, negative, or angry people, it will impact you in a more negative way.” Professor Holmes describes our negative behaviour around others as peer pressure. She states that peer pressure continuously happens throughout our lives and that we tend to change how we behave to coincide with what we think others expect of us. Peer pressure comes in many forms, most prominently direct and indirect. In the direct form, we are put on the spot to make a decision immediately, such as drinking an unwanted alcoholic beverage. In the indirect form, we internalize rules and expectations of our friend group and behave accordingly to gain their acceptance.
When it comes to making new friends, we often feel insecure, self-conscious, or competitive with other people, making us hesitant about interacting with others. “We need to realize that everyone is in the same situation, and everyone has those concerns to different extents about fitting in,” concludes Professor Holmes. “Knowing that you are not alone and that if you reach out to other people, it is very likely that they are feeling similar things. You just have to reach out and let your guard down a little bit.”
Professor Holmes advises students to revisit the campus to re-immerse themselves in the UTM atmosphere and community to gain the sense of belonging and connection that we yearn for. Using other resources offered by UTM are great avenues to building new relations, such as online networking events, clubs, and organizations.
As the new school year rolled in and I went into my second year, I still barely knew any of my peers. Over the summer, I worked with some of the clubs on campus where I met new people—the most notable one being The Medium. This boosted my confidence that I would make more friends through the various other clubs I joined, and thankfully, I was right. During Zoom lectures, my professors also separated students into breakout rooms, where I made new friends as we were given time to mingle with our classmates and get to know each other better. From being involved in clubs and the mere minutes of interacting with my classmates in breakout rooms, I formed many promising friendships.
By joining clubs and becoming one with the UTM community, I feel myself opening more to others and finding avenues of relations with many students and staff. All I had to do was start a conversation and make the first move.