As a psychologist in private practice I have worked with many young people, often in high school, in college, or in trying to figure out their next steps after high school. One theme I have seen lately, especially during this time of year, is young people feeling nervous about going off to college. Whether they have had thriving social lives in high school or not, I have heard a lot of talk about feeling anxious about meeting new people, finding where they fit in, or not being isolated.
One thing I have been going over is doing the behaviors that are necessary for making new connections. People who struggled socially often dread starting over, while those who were very social may question if they will have the same success in a new environment. Whether or not socializing or meeting new people comes naturally for you, by doing these things the experience can feel more manageable and you should get better results.
Here is a list of behaviors to remember:
- Be friendly! Smile, make eye contact, look approachable.
- Remember: you are not alone…everyone is in the same boat- new and nervous about meeting people and fitting in- whether they look like it or not! If this situation is at all hard for you, remember, the rule is: GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE!
- When you’re moving into your dorm room, setting up, or just hanging out the first few days, keep the door open. People might stop and say hi, or you can say hi to them.
- Smile and say hi if you pass people in the hallways. Do not look at the floor or your phone!
- Introduce yourself when you get a chance, people will reciprocate.
- Try to take introductions into a conversation…when you have your foot in the door, try to get to know the person a little more.
- Go to mandatory floor or dorm meetings, try to talk to people. They may even have ice breakers for this purpose.
- Go to optional gatherings like floor pizza parties (where the intention is to get to know each other).
- Hang out in the dorm lobby, outside of the dorm, or wherever people congregate. Going to where people are increases your chances of meeting people.
- DO NOT STAY IN YOUR ROOM BY YOURSELF! You can’t meet people then, and you will be missing opportunities to make connections. Particularly during the first week or two, you don’t want to miss the boat! People will be meeting each other, forming groups, and so on. Be part of it.
- Remember that connections spread. Even if the first people you meet don’t become your best friends or your core group, you might meet other people through them, or just being with other people will reduce your anxiety about meeting others- making it easier for you to meet more new people.
- Ask other people if they want to go and get a meal, to check out the bookstore, to go to CVS, or on some other errand with you. Chances are they need to go there too!
- If people invite you to do things, say YES! Don’t miss opportunities. This includes going to get something to eat, taking a walk, going to the gym, or going for a run or to play basketball.
- Check out extracurricular activities. Most schools have an activities fair or something like that near the start of school. Go with other people if you can, check out anything that looks interesting and talk to anyone who looks inviting. Clubs or activities are a great way to meet people, and you know you have something in common you can talk about!
- If you think you might be interested in joining a fraternity or sorority, or even if you aren’t sure or think you would not be, check out the Greek fair if your school has one, or go with some friends (these are usually at least a few weeks out, so you may have met some people by then) to some of their events (called rush events). You can gather more information this way about whether you do or don’t want to do this, and at worst you might still make a few connections.
- Look for cues. Does it look like someone is into the same thing you are? Are they wearing something that you identify with? For example, are you into skateboarding and they are carrying a skateboard? Are they wearing the shirt of a band or a team you like, or of a high school you know? Do you see someone you have already talked to in a larger group? Then you already have things you can talk about!
- Be mindful about your phone use when around others. I know your phone is a great social crutch, but LOOKING AT YOUR PHONE TELLS PEOPLE YOU ARE BUSY AND YOU MAY NOT WANT TO TALK!
- If you’re going to get something to eat, ask someone (or even a group) if they want to go with you. If you’re already there and you see someone you have talked to, ask if they want to join you. Or, if you see someone already there you have talked to, ask if they mind if you join them. Most people don’t want to eat alone!
- Ask people if they want to go to: a sports game, a club meeting, a movie, to an off-campus restaurant or coffee shop, to a play or comedy show, to some other fun area of the town or city, a haunted house (ok, maybe not a haunted house…but you never know!) and so on. Chances are the other people at your school would be interested in doing some of these things too, and this may be part of why they chose that school!
- Look for opportunities in classes, in between classes, while studying in the library or some other location, hanging around campus, around your dorm, at parties, in the dining hall, etc. I met my best friend in college while doing laundry! You never know!! Worst case, you make an attempt and it’s not reciprocated, but you tried. Or, you at least know another familiar face.
- Remember: IT’S NOT ALL ON YOU. Just as you need to make the effort, so do other people. Once you make even 1 or 2 connections, IT WILL GET EASIER!
- Don’t forget to manage your anxiety. It’s completely normal here and to expect to have none might be unrealistic, but you can deal with it. Breathe, tell yourself reassuring things (positive self-talk), take time outs to be alone if needed (just not for too long), use other coping skills, or talk to a friend, family member, or some other person about how you’re feeling.
- Last, remember some easy conversation starters (and anticipate questions you might be asked):
- Where are you from? What is that like? Add to it: I’ve been there…I have never been there…I love it there…or, I’ve always wanted to go there.
- What high school did you go to?
- What is your major?
- How do you like it here so far?
- Are you ready for classes to start?
- Are you joining any clubs or activities? Do you think you will rush a fraternity/sorority?
- Are you going to/looking forward to the first football game? Do you think you will be going to the basketball games (or other sports your school has)?
- Go with what you know: “I saw you at the ultimate frisbee meeting earlier”, or, “I think you live on my floor”, or, “Do you live in ______ Hall?” Even if you’re wrong, you’ve still started a conversation!
If you remember these things and are mindful about how you present yourself, you are sure to make some connections in your new home. It may not be easy, but with a consistent effort you can do it! If you need support, don’t hesitate to reach out to your family or a friend, or even your therapist if you have one at home. You can also talk to your RA (resident assistant), or don’t be afraid to visit the counseling center (this is what they are there for!). You are not alone. Remember these tips and try to have fun!