There is something about coming to college that changed how I view friendships. Perhaps it’s the fact that we are learning so much about the world around us on a daily basis that it feels difficult to settle for less open-minded and less tolerant peers. Perhaps being in a different environment and meeting hundreds of new people introduce us to the possibility of having friends you don’t settle for, but rather people you genuinely want in your life.
In high school, I had this fear of being alone, and that led me to spend time with the first few people who talked to me and thinking that I had to stick with them. Being alone felt uncomfortable and intimidating. Eventually, I realised that that discomfort felt better than being around people whose bigoted words and actions made me feel uncomfortable.
As more time passed by, I realized that I would rather be around people who I genuinely connected with than compromise just because I was afraid of being alone. I found comfort in the handful of people who didn’t make me feel like I was constantly holding my breath around them, and they proved to me that I didn’t need to settle for lukewarm friendships that were detrimental to my mental health.
A part of that fear returned when I came to college. I didn’t want to walk into the atrium or to class and find out there was no one I could sit with. I didn’t want to eat lunch alone and have people look at me and think I had no friends, even though I was flattering myself to think that anyone spared me that amount of thought.
Throughout orientation week, the voice inside my head constantly told me that once the week is over, I would have no more time to find friends and that I needed to immediately find the people I wanted to share the next four years of my life. I know just how ridiculous that is now because I barely remember anything or anyone I met from that week, and the few people I regularly talked to feel like strangers to me now. I had to remind myself that I had found good friends before, and I could do it again, but that proved to be more difficult than I thought.
I had the naive expectation that the few months of summer vacation after high school would change people so much that I would be surrounded only by mature, intelligent and insightful people the moment I walked into college. My standards for friendship were higher than they had been in high school, and I was optimistic that it would be easy to find people who I connected with in the hundreds of people I had just met. It had to be, even just statistically.
I learned very quickly that that wasn’t going to be the case. Just a few days of observation showed me that several of my classmates were casually racist, or casually sexist, or casually homophobic and transphobic. I heard slurs thrown around in random conversations, and stereotypes being perpetuated in insulting ways. Afterall, they were not much different from the kids I dreaded being around in high school. Before college, I had heard that Georgetown had a great cultural environment, but the image of the typical Georgetown student was turning out to be more complex and imperfect.
I did manage to find friends, but it took weeks of really getting to know people before I felt comfortable enough around them to think of them as friends. Even then, it was difficult. I found myself getting quite close to a friend, only to realise how queerphobic they were after a troubling exchange on the topic of queer rights. I had to distance myself and start over again.
I’ve been told I’m too picky about my friends, and that by expecting them to be socially and culturally aware I’m asking for too much, and that if I continue to expect these values, I will find myself all alone. To me, these political and social awareness are the minimum requirement for being good people. It is daunting to realize that my moral standards can be considered considered “too much” for my friends to meet.
It is dangerous to only surround yourself with people who think like you, because you remain stagnant and stop each other from growing. Nevertheless, it is another thing to brush off your friends’ hateful and troublesome in order to stay in a friend group. We can often forget to draw healthy boundaries, especially when we are in need of company. We forget sometimes that when we are in friendships or relationships, a part of what we’re doing is validating other people with our love, time, attention. To extend that validation to people who are blatantly hateful is wrong. A person’s values are often the most similar to those closest to them. As such, for one to excuse their friend’s homophobic speech signals that they are okay with homophobia. Your friends’ fundamental views are an extension of yours. That means you have a responsibility to speak up when they break those hard boundaries.
My biggest transition from high school to college is the beginning of my refusal to excuse hate and ignorance, even from myself. I learned to accept that we are all growing and learning, while also setting a hard limit to what I can compromise on. There is a time where I need to start holding myself and my friends accountable, and I keep myself accountable for speaking up.
We spend so much time surrounded by people who are not right for us, at times people who invalidate our values and existence. We settle for bad friends because the alternative of being alone scares us. But that’s not the only alternative. Sometimes you need to allow yourself to be alone, and find comfort in that solitude. Finding the right people takes time, no matter how good of a university you are in. Take the time to teach yourself that compromising on your self-respect and morality for the wrong people is not worth it. You deserve friends who you can truly be yourself with, and it’s okay to be alone until you find them.