Taking on college, working and trying to have a family life are stressful enough for most people.
When I talk with first year college students and folks returning to college after many years, they often tell me about a source of stress they did not expect—their friends.
Normally we think of our friends as people who help us cope. They are the people we turn to for distractions on the weekends. They lend a hand at home when we have a big task like moving in new appliances or putting on a new roof. They listen to our problems better than any paid counselor could. They remember our birthdays and anniversaries. They watch our pets while we are away.
The first people to congratulate a person for being accepted to college and the first to offer their support are often our friends, the people we say know us best. A real test to those relationships begins, however, when one starts the real work of going to classes, doing homework and studying for exams.
Friends can be a real source of tension when the demands of academic life detract from the time and attention a person can give them. Many classmates and friends at other universities tell me not everyone in their circle was accepting of their decision to go back to school much less all the work that commitment entails.
A fellow I know at the University of Michigan told me a few of his friends withdrew as soon as they realized he would be moving away to student housing for most of the year and making new connections while there.
A girl at Delta College told me some of her friends stopped talking to her because they felt she was trying to be better than them or “too smart” to have fun hanging out with them anymore.
Another female student complained that her friends did not understand how she could save so much of her money for school that she could not go shopping with them as often as she used to.
One of my classmates last year told me about friends that would act annoyed because he would not take their text messages during class. Another told me that a few of his friends think he is a snob now because he spends all his time studying and cannot clear his schedule at a moment’s notice to come to a party or a hockey game.
A friend of mine at Michigan State said other moms on her block began treating her as an outsider when she became a student. She said they looked down on her because she could not attend all the neighborhood social events or be present with her husband for each one of the children’s school functions because of her class schedule.
Some of my friendships, too, strained or even ended when I decided to come back to school. Some people could not deal with the direction I want my life to go, but the real friends never left.
The people who are still close to me realize that when I cannot spend as much time with them as I used to, it is not because I don’t want to see them. I would much rather be hanging out with them than writing papers or balancing equations, but my college education is important to me. And they respect that.
My friends don’t force me to choose between getting my school work done or spending time with them. They don’t go out of their way to make me feel guilty. Instead, they are happy to see me when we do have time, and we usually have much more to share in conversation about what has been happening in our lives.
The people who have remained my friends do not get jealous about the time I spend with the new friends I’ve made at school either. Rather, they like it when I’m able to bring these new friends to town for a night out. They like to meet people from other parts of the country and other parts of the world.
I learned that a small group of friends who would stick by me was better than a large group of friends who never seemed pleased with the choices I know are worthwhile.
Real friends won’t demand a relationship on their terms only, and students stressed by these relationships have to consider letting them go. If their friends cannot deal with them going to college, it’s not likely those friends will be there when life’s real troubles present themselves.