Navigating Friendship at a Small University
this post is dedicated to Deborah “Lil Deb” Harms, whose steadfast commitment to friendship includes sending Josh Ritter an annual holiday card
At this point, many of my readers know that I applied to something like 15 colleges during my senior year of college. I ended up making it into three, all of which were on the very bottom of my list. I’m pretty sure that I applied to my alma mater, the University of Portland, because it sent me a free paper application in the mail. In high school, I wanted to go to an East Coast SLAC like Sarah Lawrence, Smith, or Vassar. After all, my eighteen-year-old icons were the Beats, the confessional poets, and Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You. But I was no Ginsberg, Sexton, or Stratford, so I ended up at a small Catholic college in Portland, Oregon.* Blah blah blah. Quarter-life crisis blah.
Before I get into roasting various social groups at UP, you have to understand something: my university was tiny. Not 1,500 tiny, like my brother’s college on the East Coast, but 4,500 tiny, which is just small enough to feel exactly like high school. Especially seeing as, well, it was the same size as my actual high school. It will probably not be surprising to you, then, when I illustrate how the institutional vibes at the University of Portland could feel decidedly teenage.
As they likely do at many American universities, students at UP locked themselves pretty steadfastly into friend groups during the first month of the first term of freshman year. For the most part, these groups continued on essentially unchanged until graduation. None of this was entirely surprising to me, but it did make college feel suffocating and predetermined in ways I didn’t expect.
That first year, there were a group of girls I tried to become friends with in the first few months of the term.They were really kind people, mostly Education majors, who liked staying in to make brownies, keeping up with Broadway musicals, and watching the Joe Wright Pride & Prejudice. You get it. At the time, I knew that we had many differences, many of which seemed to boil down to unimportant minutiae. These girls were largely the types that had color-coded day planners, clean, brightly-colored dorm rooms with sensible Target decor, and planned, seasonally appropriate group outings to pumpkin patches and ice-skating rinks. By way of contrast, my room was constantly a mess. I was that college student who could barely keep my papers organized in a binder, and who relied on an above-average memory for academic information to make up for the fact that I regularly forgot about assignments. I didn’t get out much, and I didn’t have many hobbies, but I did spend a lot of time staring at the wall and and/or window, dancing alone to Celia Cruz, and watching Battlestar Galactica in bed.
As I’ve noted, these differences were not really significant, and we got along well. But I couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling that around these girls, I was faking at being more put-together than I really was, and that they knew I was something of a loose thread in their neatly-woven network of friendship.
First Things First: I’m (Not) the Realest
During that early period of college, there was also a group of people in my dorm I was friends with through my roommate, who I instantly liked. She was brave and wild and funny. She had been through more in eighteen years than most people will in their entire lives, and we shared a profound love of fast food and old school rap. Unfortunately for everyone involved, a splinter group of my roommate’s friends was chock-full of a bunch of rich white boys from Seattle who mimicked the speech patterns and personal style of their favorite rappers. While I can’t fully articulate what this was like, I hope it’s sufficient to say that thinking about it still makes me cringe with secondhand embarrassment. These manbaby Iggy Azaleas were friends with a lot of beautiful people who I wouldn’t necessarily label popular– in fact, they appeared to have a shockingly difficult time interacting with people who they weren’t familiar with– but nevertheless acted like edgier, athleisure-wearing versions of the Plastics. Side note: if you weren’t wearing black leggings, bright white, expensive kicks, and a perfectly-orchestrated messy bun at UP, then who were you, really?**
The important consequence of my association with this group was that I was spending time with yet another cluster of humans that I felt disconnected from. I was far from wealthy. I didn’t play sports. I did not particularly enjoy themed parties. I never took a curated “front porch steps” group photo. I have bad skin, and I get sad when I drink. In other words, it’s not that I thought I was better or more interesting than those folks, I just didn’t think I wanted the same things out of day-to-day life as they did. It also seemed like there were unspoken standards in place defining what kind of person you had to be in order to be close with them.
Of course, there was a guy in this group of friends that I developed an enormous crush on. Because I’m an idiot. One night, he texted me to ask if I wanted to come over for a party his friends were having down the street. At that moment, I was eating pizza and listening to reggaeton with a friend. I was also wearing sweatpants with Classico pasta sauce stains on them. Glam. Anyway, I remember pulling on my boots and racing home as quickly as I could, wincing while I thought about the fact that I barely had any clean laundry. My friend came with me, and sat on the bed shrugging while I threw on approximately 15 articles of clothing. I felt big and greasy and uncool in all of them. I thought about that house on the other end of the street, occupied by a couple of people who I think may actually be models at this point, and I felt my face grew hot. I sat frozen in my grimy little room for just a minute or two before this guy sent me another text to say that the party had been broken up. As you might imagine, I had spent so much time feeling anxious and gross that I completely missed an opportunity to get to know him better ( : a memoir).
Just Your Average Proust-Loving Woo Girl
A complicating factor in terms of my college social life was the fact that I existed in a weird middle space between those who liked to party and those who didn’t. It’s probably worth mentioning that I didn’t start drinking for a long time in college out of respect for my family, who has been deeply impacted by alcoholism and substance abuse. But I really loved music, dancing, and meeting people. Even more, I loved the conversations you can get into at the edges of the party where someone starts letting their often delicately-constructed guards down, often more easily because of all of the loud noise and dim light, and you get to learn about them in ways that are not always possible outside of those spaces. In fact, I’ve had some of the most interesting and authentic conversations of my life at house parties.
For the record, I’m not trying to say that I am particularly interesting or unique in the sense that I am a Grade A geek who comes alive in the nighttime. We all contain multitudes. But it can be kind of odd being the type of person who loves talking V. Woolf and Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” but also being that girl who very authentically squeals when Lil Jon’s “Get Low”*** comes on at Brandon’s birthday rager. In fact, the inside of my brain is always jumbled up because it is trying to remember, for example, a specific line in Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am while dutifully reciting “Who that be fly as a Martian? (Cardi)/ Who that on fleek in the cut? (Cardi).” In that miasma of thoughts, my mind (or superego or self) never seems to know which words are most valuable, or which forms of art to prioritize. Indeed, in many ways, my constant struggle with questions of focus and value when it comes to the content of my thoughts reflects the uncertainty I experience when trying to connect with others.
All of that being said, it’s worth noting that despite my complex affection for the social and spiritual benefits of the house party, “partying” at my college may actually have been the dumbest thing I have ever witnessed in my life (before the election of Trump, obviously, but this was a different time). I’ll tell you why:
Given that UP is a small school, and that over half of the school’s students live in university-affiliated housing, the party scene (if you could even call it that), consisted of about five or six active houses that students would rotate among throughout the course of a night. Many of these houses had cutesy nicknames like “the Gingerbread House” or “SeaWorld” or whatever. You were supposed to know the addresses of these houses, as well as who lived in them, because asking was uncool and made you look like a freshman– which, of course, you were, at least for awhile. I hated this tradition, and while I guess it would have been funny to name my house something like Tatooine or the House of Usher, the whole thing reeked of exclusionary posturing.
On most Friday nights, throughout the neighborhood closest to campus, groups of anywhere from a couple of upperclassmen to a horde of 12 freshmen– sometimes pretending to be drunk from the small amount of strawberry Smirnoff they were forced to split with the others– would stumble around looking for houses rumored to be party locations. Because the average lifespan of a UP party was about 25 minutes (if the party got big enough to be fun, then it was definitely big enough to be shut down by Public Safety), most of these groups had to continue moving from one rumored party location to another in order to cobble together anything that looked like a night out. In that sense, with so many groups of kids knocking on various neighborhood doors, scouting around for signs of life and movement, the whole operation looked a lot like trick-or-treating.
Let’s continue with a relevant example:
During my freshman year, there was a house past North Lombard St. called “The Bakery,” supposedly because all of its occupants were stoners. At least in theory, the stoners never let freshmen come to their parties, and even appointed “bouncers” to make sure you were old enough and worthy enough to enter their hallowed halls. The bouncers stood guard in front of a sign that said “NO FRESHMEN” written in red letters, which instantly reminded me of the “Keep Out” signs on children’s forts and treehouses. It all just felt so incredibly adult.
Though I was indeed a freshman the first night I trekked to The Bakery in a bandage skirt and ballet flats, I never really worried about getting in. The whole misogynistic underpinning of the party scene dictates that if you are deemed attractive enough by whoever is manning the door– usually some bro who probably hasn’t even showered that week– you can get in anywhere. Easy. Inside the house, the walls were covered with butcher paper, and strings of green lights (the Great Gatsby kind, the kind that make you confront your existential dread and the masterful lie that was the Jazz Age) cast everything in a hazy glow. Throughout the course of the party, representatives of The Bakery’s tender and time-honored traditions went around marking the foreheads of all those not smoking weed with a large green “X.” At first, I was angry at how authoritarian this practice seemed. Though I had plastered my face in my best cool-girl smile, I was secretly screaming WHAT IS THIS? 1984? THIS IS SOME MAJOR THOUGHT POLICING F****ERY AND I WILL NOT ABIDE BY IT. I did not want to smoke, and I did not want such a visual representation of what I already felt: I was alone, and everyone could see through the fact that I was pretending to have an amazing night.
Later that year, though, when I thought about that cannabinoid scarlet letter, I considered that many people already do mentally what The Bakery boys were doing that night. They habitually draw mental “X”s on people based on first impressions, rumors, and assumptions gathered from their peers. They rule people out. At the very least, I thought, those upperclassmen had the decency to let me know that I wasn’t their people. That way, I wouldn’t have to waste my time attempting to connect.
Anne of Green Gables Ruined Me, and Other Stories
I know that “I love so hard” is a cliche, but that cliche describes me well. In the words of DFW, “Everything I have ever let go of has claw marks on it.”
During my freshman year, I met a girl in the English program who was my straight up kindred spirit. You know those people who seem to physically glow from the inside out? That was her. She was also a gentle person, but that gentleness was stitched through with a thin seam of coldness. Like my roommate, she had been through a lot, and that made her different. She was resilient in a way that a lot of other people our age were not, and I appreciated that. We had nearly everything in common. I was like the goddamn Aeolian harp and she was like the wind. My interactions with her felt so organic, so natural, and so filled with joy. So many of my attempts to connect to others, I realized, weren’t just thankless and depressing, they were exhausting. This laughter and validation were effortless, like a breeze. It was one of the easiest kinds of love I have ever known. But I expected to much of her too quickly: too much time, too much intimacy, and too much of what I perceived of as loyalty. It’s the reason I have always sucked at casual dating. Once I get a glimpse of someone’s gorgeous human soul, I determinedly seal them into my heart with very little chill.
Importantly, I also didn’t realize how considerably unfun I was to be around at the time. Not only was I severely depressed, but I was also in a long-distance relationship that constantly tore at my ability to exist in the present. Later on in my college career, the dissolution of that relationship turned me into a self-effacing, near-catatonic hermit. I didn’t have a lot to offer my kindred spirit in terms of mutual benefit; so, after a year or so, she left me behind in favor of those who did.
It Was the Year Beyonce’s Self-Titled Album Came Out, and I Didn’t Know What I Was Doing on Princeton St.
A photo that accurately depicts me alone in a corner, peak sparrow face, not knowing at all what I am doing.
In my junior year of college, I lived in a house with four other UP students who were smart, artsy types; a lot of people called them hipsters, but that term pretty imprecisely describes their unique backgrounds and personalities. Given that we had a lot of interests in common, I thought that this house would be a good fit for me. For the large part, my housemates were a really kind and talented bunch.
Once, when my parents came to visit, I gave them a little tour of the house. In the kitchen, there was a collage of Polaroids taped all over the wall. The photos showed my housemates with their friends dancing, eating, and smoking hookah–sometimes naked, sometimes costumed, and always captioned with funny phrases and quotations. My dad, being a dad, went to look at the collage, probably to inspect the array of substances featured in the photos.
It felt awkward when I quietly told him that he shouldn’t waste his time. I wasn’t in any of them.
In this case, I was pretty certain that the problem was that I had just moved in with a very close group of friends. As seniors in college, they just weren’t particularly interested in bringing someone into the fold that late. But, because many of them were kind, they would sometimes casually invite me to go out with them, or watch a movie or something. I rarely did, because I always had the sneaking feeling they pitied me, and considered me something of a wet blanket. Even the introverted ones in the group seemed vibrant and unique and carefree– tied to a system of art references I didn’t understand, and party to a catalog of inside jokes that stretched back years. I felt quiet and ignorant, uncultured and lame. (Are you sensing a theme? Me too.)
I’ve Got It All (Most)
If you care to know, here is my takeaway from this mess of anecdotes, all of which I’m sure appear somewhat unrelated:
In Atonement (coincidentally, a novel increasingly assigned to freshmen in college English classes), Ian McEwan wrote, “It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.” I know I am guilty of this flaw, and I think I was particularly guilty of it in college. Even though I was much more confident in myself and in my social skills than I was during the years I was bullied in grade school, I continued to see the social politics of any given environment as an extensive game, a complex chessboard requiring hotness, social capital, and an understanding of what any particular group of friends shared, valued, or considered cool. Ostensibly, mastering these categories would allow me to move forward on the board. The end goal of all this, of course, was something like joy or a feeling of belonging, though I could never quite put my finger on what either of those might look like.
In the same way that–while navigating the dating scene–some people are saddled with the feeling of not being enough (not good-looking enough, not talkative enough, etc. etc. etc.), that is, saddled with cultural, economic, and gender expectations of all kinds, I found that in friendship, I also felt not enough– not fun enough, not artistic enough, not approachable or smart or fit enough– for any given social group. And that constant sensation of lack just felt like high school all over again.
There are those who say that not only is college like high school, but that postgraduate life is like high school, too. I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure I don’t want my limited time on this earth to be subject to the same pressures and anxieties as those I experienced at sixteen. And I certainly don’t want to consider myself part of some Good Place-esque plus and minus system where I move up or down in any given group depending on how much I impress them (+) or reveal too much of myself, therefore freaking them out and/or repulsing them entirely (-).
Thankfully, after graduate school (which also embodied some high school-y qualities, but that’s a story for another time), things have gotten better. I have a kind of “Love Me or Leave Me” thing going on, and I very rarely think about how I come across to other people. Over time, I think the confidence and peace I have started to gather around myself have helped me to develop more beautiful friendships. I have a writer friend who writes me honest-to-God letters, complete with pressed flowers and magazine cut-outs, and a friend who is a walking IMDB, and whose nice sweaters I cry on every few weeks at the movies. I have an anarchist friend I drink mate with who tells me stories about Quito and Nicanor Parra. It seems like things are just easier, now. If someone seems disinterested, including in the parts about me that do not adhere to their tastes, sensibilities, and values, then I let that relationship fade–gently– from the fabric of my everyday life.
Simply put, I care about myself more seriously now, and that simple fact seems to smooth out some of the wrinkles in interactions that used to feel so complicated and stress-ridden. I try to reach out more, self-sabotage less, and endeavor to remind myself that each person is a tiny universe full of histories and anxieties that I will never fully know.
Moreover, nowadays, I am just too tired to care what Chase-the-aspiring-frat-bro thinks.
Food for Thought and Further Reading:
> With time, I have realized that in conjunction with my own failures, UP’s lack of diversity; that is, the fact that so many of its students are wealthy or upper-middle class white folks from the PNW, contributed to a corresponding culture of homogeneity that made me (and certainly many others) experience difficulty achieving a sense of belonging in college. For those of you who attended schools with more diverse student populations– particularly at larger universities– how did that diversity impact some of the social politics I discuss above?
> The year before I graduated college, “The Dark Power of Fraternities” came out in an issue of The Atlantic. If you are at all interested in the presence of misogyny, rape culture, and substance use on college campuses, give this one a read. For me, this article elicits not just feminist concerns or important observations about American binge-drinking culture, but also makes me think about what kinds of things we are looking for when we go out at night, and why there often seems to be this enormous gulf, especially during freshman year, between university-sponsored dry events that no one goes to and frat/party culture.
> Do you have any cringe-inducing, vulnerable, or otherwise difficult stories to share about making friends in an institution of higher ed (particularly during freshman year?)? Any realizations or wisdom regarding Pointless Rituals That Seemed Important at the Time (TM)? I would love to start an archive below, particularly for my younger readers who haven’t started college yet. As always, feel free to email me your comments at email@example.com. And, for the love of Blue Ivy Carter, at least try to be nice.
* Does it sound like I still haven’t disembarked from the bitter train? That’s probably because you’re right, Barbara, I still haven’t. So sue me.
** I kid. Kind of.
*** A fun fact about me and Lil Jon: I was publicly castigated in the cafeteria of a Cambria, CA summer camp for teaching my fellow youths the dance to Lil Jon’s 2005 hit “Snap Yo Fingers.” I was 10.
The title of this piece borrows from Plath’s opening lines in The Bell Jar.
The subtitle “First Things First” is a modified version of lyrics from Iggy Azalea’s 2014 “Fancy.”
The subtitle “I’ve Got it All (Most)” is a song title taken from Isaac Brock. It comes from Modest Mouse’s EP No One’s First, and You’re Next (2009).
Screen caps from 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), dir. by Gil Junger and Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), dev. by Ronald D. Moore and created by Glen Larson