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The importance of student friendships

  • 12 October 2020
  • By Jenny Shaw

This blog was kindly contributed by Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students. Yesterday, Saturday 10th October, was World Mental Health Day. Unite Students worked with Student Minds on a #uniteagainstloneliness student-led campaign to mark the day.

As the new academic year begins under the long shadow of COVID, students’ interpersonal relationships are under the spotlight. From concerns about the impacts of loneliness to the difficulties of managing student parties, lockdown conditions are bringing fresh attention to a very under-researched area – how students make their friends.

Student friendship may on the face of it seem like a frivolous area of study, but anyone familiar with the literature on loneliness and belonging will know that it plays an important role in enabling students to fulfil their potential. Moreover, it offers plenty of scope to craft programmes and interventions that will improve the lives of students. Loneliness, as we discovered last year, affects over a quarter of first year students and is associated with significantly lower wellbeing. A sense of belonging has long been established as important to retention, motivation, academic achievement and wellbeing.

Although the two are interconnected, loneliness and belonging are not quite two ends of a spectrum, as Asher and Weeks’ excellent chapter demonstrates. The opposite of loneliness is social intimacy, and feelings of loneliness arise from the difference between the actual and expected levels of intimacy that an individual experiences. Our previous research found that expectations matter as much as reality when navigating the transition to university, and it seems that making friends is no exception.

Belonging relates to how an individual perceives themselves in relation to those around them. Whereas it might be said that loneliness has an internal reference point, belongingness is referenced against the external world. Belonging is about fitting in and about legitimacy, and its opposite is alienation. It is also possible to feel alienated without feeling lonely. To feel both social intimacy and belonging it is not enough simply to have friends, but also to be able to identify with them on a fundamental level.

In January this year, we carried out a small, in-depth qualitative study with a diverse group of 16 students in three different cities, all but one of who lived in purpose built student accommodation. We wanted to understand how students went about establishing their friendship group when they first came to university, and we hoped that this would help universities and accommodation providers develop further programmes, interventions and spaces that truly facilitated friendships. The study was designed as a precursor to a national survey that would test out the emerging findings but, like many things, COVID made this impossible.

Nonetheless the emerging findings yield a tantalising glimpse of students’ everyday lives and reveal a strong preoccupation with making friends as an imperative throughout the first year of study and beyond.

Students talked about the fear of loneliness, and in a few cases actual experiences of loneliness, but belonging and the avoidance of alienation was also a strong feature of their narratives. Proximity can lead to intimacy, and flatmates can become good friends within the first day or two, with others in the same floor or block following shortly after. For the last few years Unite Students’ app has allowed flatmates to chat before they move in, speeding up the process of making friends. This year, drawing on our research, we opened up additional chat rooms for whole floors and these have been heavily used in the first few weeks of term, with 33,000 students using this feature.

Flatmates and others in the same accommodation can be a good remedy for loneliness, but some students still struggle with alienation. Feelings of difference when first coming to university were common among our research participants and could be strongly felt, and most students described the contrast between their home and university contexts. It was apparent that students were not just looking for friends, but those that were similar in some way. This shaped their strategies for identifying potential friends, especially in the first semester.

We heard many vivid accounts of students actively seeking out those who were similar, using clues such as clothing, accent, ethnicity or behaviour. These similarities contributed to their feelings of safety, and in fact one Black student who had done lots of work with BAME students via his Students’ Union, told us that some Black students only felt safe when other Black students were around. This is a poignant finding in the light of this summer’s events.

We heard that coursemates tend to make for good, long term friends. These friendships could take longer to develop and featured more strongly in the accounts of students who were in their second year or above. Being on the same course not only meant similar interests and sometimes similar values, but also represented a group going through the same experiences. We also heard about students branching out a little more once they went beyond their first year, making friends with a more diverse range of people as they grew in confidence.

New students, then, are keenly aware of the perils of loneliness and are driven to make friends. The fear of alienation is perhaps less often at the forefront of their mind, but seems to drive the way they go about identifying potential friends. Evidence from previous studies, noted above, suggests this is a sound strategy for students who want to get the best from their time at university.

In both this study and our 2019 Insight Report, small scale socialising was significant. Last year we found that Freshers’ Week fell short against expectation on these small and more intimate opportunities, and in our interviews and focus groups students gave examples such as ‘little random events’ in accommodation, course-related social opportunities or specialist chat-rooms as good ways of finding friends. By contrast, Freshers’ Week events were fun but not especially effective for making friends.

This year the large events are off the cards, but it may be that this doesn’t matter as much when it comes to combatting loneliness and engendering a sense of belonging. We heard from students that small, intimate opportunities, structured activities and interest or identity related groups work better. This insight has certainly shaped our own approach to online events since the start of lockdown, and has helped us to prioritise our Student Ambassador scheme this academic year.

We are living in challenging times, but evidence suggests that targeted investment in the social experience for first year students will be worth the effort. Our Insight Reports over the last few years have consistently shown the benefits of a good network of friends for wellbeing and support, and the negative impacts of loneliness. Moreover, the wider body of literature on sense of belonging, both from the UK and US, show the clear impact that belonging has on retention, motivation and academic achievement.

At the time of writing, many of us are working to steady the ship and it is difficult to look beyond the here and now. Yet friendships and sense of belonging are so fundamental to success at university. Finding ways to help students make friends – especially friends they can relate to closely – must surely be a priority once the immediate crisis has passed.

3 comments

  1. Sarah Walker says:

    Did students mention it was harder or easier to form friendships with coursemates and staff when all work is online?

    Is there a tendency for some new students to retreat and prefer work online to avoid the awkwardness of social interaction? It may be difficult forming friendships in the early days but it is a significant valuable investment. How well are universities encouraging and supporting physical meet ups, despite restrictions?
    Which universities are doing best to build those critical coursemate relationships?

  2. An insightful piece that is often overlooked when it comes to students (and their families) expectations of university life. Im interested to understand if students who struggle to establish friendships or are keen to fit in, take unnecessary risks such as using alcohol or drugs when this is not part of their character, (referencing the latest deaths that occurred in Newcastle Uni, when students had been on site for only 48 hours).

  3. Albert Wright says:

    This issue is particularly important in UK when many students study outside their home area, particularly if at a Russell Group location.

    It is even more challenging for new overseas students and organisations like Study Bundles / University Connect have evidence on this.

    Making friendships in education is a feature of life from nurseries, play schools, infants, juniors and secondary. It is not surprising it also applies in the transition from school to Colleges and Universities.

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