Human beings are social animals, and friendship means having someone to rely on, listen to, or be there for in times of need. Friends desire what is best for one another and express mutual understanding and compassion. They reach out to each other for emotional support and can make mistakes without fear of judgment.
A lack of friends and social contact can bring on the emotional distress of loneliness, a cognitive awareness that affects our brain, produces feelings of sadness, emptiness, isolation, and erodes emotional well-being (Marano, 2016).
Something to look out for: the side effects of social isolation
Even as restrictions begin to be lifted, the Coronavirus pandemic leaves an unfortunate legacy — as dangerous as alcoholism, obesity, or smoking. Social isolation and its side effects plague all corners of the continent — from cities to suburbs, including college campuses and virtual classrooms (Derbyshire, 2020). The fallout may be among the most significant risk factors leading to mortality. While educators typically express great concern if they know their students are using alcohol, they don’t seem to place the same significance on loneliness among students.
Some of the daunting effects of social isolation can be offset by connecting with others. Friendships have the power to create a sense of community and to provide compassion and trust.
The struggle to connect in higher education environments
Meeting a stranger and sensing something that may inspire you to invite them into your circle isn’t always easy. Students enter colleges and universities from diverse backgrounds and circumstances. Traditional-age learners start right out of high school; others may be experiencing transitions in their careers; still others enroll in higher education after raising a family. As they pursue their degrees, adjustments to new circumstances — struggling to make friends, finding their way in a new environment, integrating into classroom and campus cultures — can result in a shift in social connection.
Such shifts often result in a distancing from old friendships and needing to create new ones. A report by Fisher in 2012 showed that more than one in three exchange students reported having no close U.S. friends. Many students from abroad struggle to integrate into American classroom and campuses. Living away from one’s support system can leave students without a compassionate person to turn to for advice, leaving them lonely and socially disconnected in large learning group settings (Worsley, Harrison, & Corcoran, 2021). As social beings, we have a fundamental need to be included and to have close relationships; and such an absence can be unnatural for any individual.
Students may find it easier to develop friends in face-to-face learning environments than in the virtual or online settings brought about by the pandemic. With fewer contacts and less personal interaction, opportunities for new students to make friends or maintain existing friendships may be challenging. A survey of college students during the pandemic confirmed that 60% of students experienced loneliness and isolation (Covid-19 Impact, 2021).
Engaging students from experience
As immigrants to the United States, my family and I began a new life in an unfamiliar world, having left friends and family behind. When I enrolled in a university to complete a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, I became acutely aware of how difficult it was to form new friendships. Most students had already formed their circles through work or previous educational settings. Others communicated in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) behaviors that outsiders were not welcome in their respective circles.
Since friendship is a reciprocal gesture, I took the initiative to reach out to individuals I observed to be similarly isolated and we formed friends that I still maintain today.
College is a unique and often once-in-a-lifetime experience and should be enjoyed to the fullest. Supportive interactions with peers can influence overall academic development, knowledge acquisition, and self-esteem. Having valuable college friendships during your undergraduate or graduate career can also result in improved social life, a successful, satisfying education, and sought-after career opportunities. Emotion plays a pivotal role in the educational experience. Faculty and staff can help students formulate friendships by creating a community culture — physically and virtually.
The benefits of bonding
Postsecondary education professionals must ensure that students have inclusive spaces that are psychologically safe. Faculty and staff can also find solutions in togetherness — teaching the curricula as their authentic selves and inviting students to search within and support the same sentiments.
Encouraging educational experiences that foster friendships can include:
- Collaborating with others on group assignments
- Discussing opinions on course content with other students
- Socializing with someone from a different ethnic or racial group
A culture of friendship is fostered when students engage in activities that bring them together. Faculty can help students develop friendships by cultivating a culture of connection and modeling friendly behaviors such as:
- Identifying self to other students and allowing them to reciprocate
- Using open-ended questions to obtain information about each other while maintaining eye contact and smiling
- Assigning pairs or small groups to work on classroom projects to develop bonds with other students
- Acknowledging and celebrating everyday experiences such as birthdays to encourage social interaction
- Offering support during difficult circumstances and extending encouragement to each other
Connecting cohorts and classmates
A culture of friendship can be fostered when faculty compliment students on admirable qualities and provide opportunities for students to acknowledge commendable attributes in others. Permitting students to complete guided peer evaluations of group projects creates an atmosphere to recognize peers’ strengths and realize the benefits of working in the group. Students can then develop friendships with group members if the interactions are positive.
Faculty can further enhance this process by guiding connectivity within the groups. For example, establish ground rules that support caring, respect for peers, a focus on the feelings and experiences of self and others, support for peers during group work or discussion, and the need to engage in healthy interaction that fosters learning. A supportive environment fosters a sense of belonging and community. Therefore, universities should ensure that students feel supported by staff and peers while acclimatizing to multiple new challenges (Worsley, Harrison, & Corcoran, 2021).
Friendship is essential for mental, physical, and social well-being. College students, especially those from abroad, may be friendless. However, if faculty, staff, and institutions implement these strategies to help students develop, meaningful friendships will form, and students will flourish in the higher education setting.
Goodwin University strives to provide social support to its community, including counseling. To learn more about these types services within our Student Affairs depart, visit www.goodwin.edu/counseling.
Derbyshire, D. (2020). Loneliness is a killer: It’s as bad for your health as alcoholism, smoking and over-eating, say scientists. Retrieved from
Fisher, K. (2012). Many foreign students are friendless in the U. S., study finds. Retrieved from
Marano, E. F. (2016). The dangers of loneliness. Psychology Today
Penn State Student Affairs. (2021), Part 1 of 5: COVID-19’s Impact on college student mental
health. Center for Collegiate Mental Health. https://ccmh.psu.edu/index.php?option=com_dailyplanetblog&view=entry&year=2021&month=02&day=01&id=9:part-1-of-5-covid-19-s-impact-on-college-student-mental-health
Wheeler, R. (2012). Student life in college: Things to know about college friendships. Retrieved
Worsley, J. D., Harrison, P., & Corcoran, R. (2021). Bridging the gap: Exploring the unique
transition from home, school or college into university. Front. Public Health 9:634285. doi:
Dr. Friday is an experienced nurse educator with a love for learning and a desire to master various new skills. She is passionate about the well-being of elderly populations. As a nurse educator for more than 15 years, she maintains a focus on the infusion of robust gerontological content and clinical practicum within the nursing curriculum. Dr. Friday has authored and taught gerontological nursing courses and seminars, and engaged students in service-learning projects with older adults.
Vivienne is committed to educating nurses to be more competent caregivers to older adults. This commitment has resulted in scholarly publications and conference presentations at Education Summits of the National League for Nursing (2013 & 214) and the International Council of Nurses (ICN) Congress, 2016. She earned the National League for Nursing Hearst Foundations Excellence in Geriatric Education Award in 2013. Dr. Friday’s was also a contributing author of teaching strategies in the National League for Nursing’s publication Advancing Care Excellence for Seniors (2016).
Dr. Friday volunteered with the Area Agency in Council Bluffs, Iowa, as a member of the fundraising committee and at the Eastern Nebraska Agency for Aging as a Senior Medicare Patrol agent. She is a current member of the Connecticut Nurses’ Association (CNA) Government Relations Committee, an Advisory Board member for the Connecticut League for Nursing (CLN), and the Southwestern Connecticut Agency on Aging (AWCAA) Inc. Dr. Friday serves on the Advisory Council of the National Education Progression in Nursing (NEPIN) and is a member of a special interest group that focuses on diversity, inclusion, and equity in nursing.