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A Degree in Friendship

A Degree in Friendship

By Lorena O'Neil

College Friendships


As Muhammad Ali said, ”If you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you haven’t learned anything.”

By Lorena O'Neil

Freshman ladies, as you settle into college this fall, I’d like to offer up a humble piece of advice: Be on the lookout for your lifelong partners. Someone who will love you unconditionally, support you through difficult times and make you feel like a princess even when happily-ever-afters don’t go according to plan. Seek out these partners and never let them go.

I’m not talking about finding your future husband; I’m talking about finding your future bridesmaids.

Or groomsmen. Or, if you choose not to marry, that is OK, too. What I really mean is, find your best friends. Friends plural, because as Mindy Kaling so aptly said, a best friend isn’t a person, it’s a tier.

Psychologist Eric Klinger said that the majority of college students he interviewed in 1977 placed friends as a source of meaning in life more frequently than family, religion or occupational success.

Your friends will buffer you during the heady transitions to come. In her research on sororal friendshipsAna Martínez Alemán surveyed a group of young women while they were attending college and years after they had graduated. She found that in college the participants’ female friends served as sources of information and advice and as a respite from stress and anxiety. They also provided different and diverse perspectives.

The friend who held your hair back while you threw up after too many post-breakup strawberry margaritas might be the same one comforting you after the loss of a parent.

Years later, these college buddies were still helping one another in the same ways, but they felt a “heightened intimacy” in their friendships. The life problems after college can be — spoiler alert — a bit more complex and serious than the ones undergrads face. The friend who held your hair when you threw up after too many post-breakup strawberry margaritas might be the same person to comfort you after the loss of a parent.

College Friendships

Buddy up

Source Brian Finke

At freshman orientation, I didn’t go around wondering whom to befriend based on whether they would give me valuable life advice. I just wanted friends to hang out with, who would eat pizza and gossip with me until midnight. But years after graduation, these women mean so much more than that; we lean on each other as we make decisions about our careers, our marriages, our goals for the future. 

We are strewn across the globe but remain in touch, supporting Martínez Alemán’s finding that female friends’ conversations intensify despite geographic distance. Our jobs vary, but we benefit from our differing perspectives. My friend vying for a CEO position by the time she turns 35 gives me different advice than my friend who is a stay-at-home mother. I value both of their outlooks equally and am grateful to have an array of real-world experiences to draw inspiration from when confronted with life’s many challenges.

It’s not impossible to make friends after college, of course, but it tends to be more difficult. As women’s studies experts Helen Gouldner and Mary Symons Strong found, individuals have “friendship budgets,” which are determined by how much time we feel we can give to a new friend after factoring in the demands of a job, family and existing friends. In college, by comparison, free time is plentiful.

After college, new friends are often coworkers or neighbors. Martínez Alemán calls these situational friendships “boutique friendships” and discovered that a lack of “central shared experiences” and “developmental correspondence” made it more difficult to connect in the same way college friends do.

My sophomore year, a friend scolded me and two other girls for spending too much time with our boyfriends. She said, “If you are going to marry these guys, then you will have the rest of your life to be with them. If not, then I will be more important to you than they are in the long run. Either way, you should spend more time with me now.”

I shrugged her off as too intense, but now I see her point. That boyfriend is a distant memory, and, in fact, she is the one who will be standing beside me as my bridesmaid when I get married this spring. So, take her advice: Prioritize friendships these next four years. You cannot imagine how integral a part of your life they will become.

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