I was never good at making friends. Growing up, I was shy, self-conscious, and generally felt like my few friends made me, rather than the other way around. This was fortunately never much of a problem… until I reached my twenties.
Suddenly, I found myself living alone in a city wherein I only knew a handful of people: two ex-boyfriends and their families. (Talk about slim pickings.) To top it off, I was working a remote job, so I didn’t even have an office to walk into every day.
My situation wasn’t unlike that of the average online college student. Lonely and disconnected, how was I supposed to make friends when I didn’t have a traditional institution, like a school or a workplace, to help me?
I considered simply sitting in my apartment and sulking my days away. But after a couple months of doing just that (hey, I have my bad seasons too), I decided it probably wasn’t the most mature course of action. So, eventually, I took the plunge and—gulp—made some friends.
Intentionally seeking out friendships ended up being one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. But now, one year later, my world feels like it’s flipped upside down. Far from being stuck at home day in and day out, I’m often saying “no” to invitations because I simply don’t have room in my calendar. I’ve begun building a real life, a real community, from nothing. Slowly but surely, this formerly lonely city is feeling more like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived.
Turns out I didn’t need a workplace or college campus to help me build a community, and you don’t either. If you’re an online college student—or considering becoming one—here are 10 ways to ensure your college experience is just as socially enriching as anything you could expect from a campus.
1. Look around.
When it comes to making friends, the biggest advantage of a campus is propinquity (that’s a fancy word for “being physically near other people”). On a college campus, you run into people everywhere—in class, on the grounds, in the cafeteria, at your dorm, in the library, at events. Online students, however, tend to spend a lot of their time at home. So, to replicate this aspect of the college experience, start by finding ways to create propinquity.
Meetup.com, church, sports leagues, tabletop gaming stores, Facebook events, book clubs, internships, volunteer opportunities, in-person classes at a local college (audit or transfer them into your degree), classes for a hobby you like or want to like, a part-time job, even Unbound student events (shameless plug!)—there are endless ways to be around people that don’t involve a campus.
Start by thinking of something you like to do, then look online to see if other people in your area also do that thing.
2. Just pick something.
If you’re a perfectionist, like myself, you might find yourself paralyzed by the list of options I mentioned above. What if you choose the “wrong thing”? What if it’s not fun? What if you don’t like the people you meet? Will you be stuck going to a weekly meetup group even if you don’t think it’s a good fit?
This advice is for both of us—don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. There’s no magical “best place” to meet people. Whatever event or group you try, you’re not signing up to attend it regularly for the rest of your life. You’re only committing to show up one time. If you like it, you can go back! If you don’t, you can try something else next time.
3. Keep trying.
While you don’t have to go back to the first group you try, you probably should.
Jumping from group to group in search of that elusive “perfect fit” just means you’re always the newbie, no matter where you go. Like I mentioned earlier, you’ll never find a perfect group of perfect people. So unless you got a really bad vibe the first time, give this group a chance. Show up to events over and over again until your newbie status starts to wear off, and you realize that suddenly these new friends feel a lot more like old ones.
4. Take the lead.
Waiting for someone to introduce themselves is a great way to stay disconnected. Turns out, humans are pretty skittish creatures. But you know what your dad always said about skittish creatures; they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.
So take the lead. Always assume that if you want friends, you have to make them. Step up and introduce yourself. Yes, it’s super uncomfortable. Yes, it’s super scary… if that’s what’s holding you back, you might not like my next piece of advice.
5. Know it’s always scary.
Sorry, there’s just no way around it. Meeting new people wouldn’t be any less scary if you were on a campus. The only difference is on a campus, it’s harder to hide. As an online student, there’s nothing pushing you to step outside of your comfort zone. You have to choose to do it.
While you can’t make social anxiety retreat entirely, you can at least make it tolerable by lowering your own expectations of yourself. Don’t go into a brand-new group planning to meet everyone. Just meet one person. And don’t worry about being BFFs by the time you leave either. Just have a conversation.
It will be uncomfortable. It will be awkward. You may not know what to talk about at first, and you may come away feeling like a fool. But the only way to get better at something is to be willing to be bad at it first. So let yourself be bad at it. Get some practice. Eventually, it’ll become a little less scary. (Probably.)
While uncomfortable first conversations are often inevitable, these can be made dramatically less awkward by simply caring about the other person.
Don’t just try to “survive” the conversation. Make an effort to actually get to know the person you’re talking to. What’s their story? Where were they born? What is their family like? What are they majoring in? Where do they work? What do they enjoy doing outside of work? Who are they watching/reading/listening to? What are their life goals? What inspired them to pursue those goals? What are they good at? What are they bad at?
Any one of these questions might help you discover a natural way to connect with whoever you’re talking to, transforming your conversation into—well—a conversation, rather than simply a barrage of questions.
7. Assume they care too.
While asking questions is great, no one likes being interrogated. Be willing to talk about yourself too. This means assuming the other person is interested in listening—because, usually, they are.
So if, in your attempt to get to know them, you learn about something that clicks with you—maybe you grew up in the same town or you like the same books—be willing to share your own experience. This is how natural connections form.
And if nothing clicks? That’s okay, it might take a few conversations (even with the same person) before you really connect. Of course, some people just never click with you at all, and that’s okay too. You don’t have to be friends with everyone.
8. Don’t be picky.
I’m 25 years old, and one of my very best friends just turned 60. Just because a person doesn’t seem like a good fit for you doesn’t necessarily mean that you weren’t somehow made for each other.
While it is important to find friends who are experiencing the same stage of life as you, don’t pass up the opportunity to meet someone completely different. College is all about trying new things, meeting new people, gaining new experiences, and being exposed to new ideas. What better way to do all of that then to make a friend you never would have imagined for yourself?
9. Be hospitable.
Once you’ve met a few people you click with, take things a step further! Invite them to a movie, host a game night, or, if you’ve found other online students, meet up at Starbucks for a study group. This is a great way to get to know people better and let them know you’re interested in being more than just a casual acquaintance.
Community isn’t just about meeting up at events. It’s about living life together. So if it’s a deep connection you’re after, allow one to take root by inviting people into your life and just seeing what happens. Over time, you might find that all your hard work allowed you to cultivate something truly one-of-a-kind.
10. Be patient.
Friends aren’t made overnight. Especially if you’re starting from scratch, you’ll still have to face your fair share of lonely evenings and boring Saturdays. But that’s just part of life, regardless of how many friends you have.
Paradoxical as it sounds, one of the most valuable skills I learned in my attempt to make friends was how to enjoy being alone. Initially, I wanted to make friends because I didn’t like being alone. I wanted to avoid it as much as possible. So, I started pouring a lot of effort into reaching out, meeting new people, suffering through awkward conversation, and being the newbie at events. This lead to me feeling frustrated at my “lack of immediate results.” I wanted friends now, but that’s just not how it works.
After finally realizing that community-building would take some time—that I’d just have to keep showing up before I felt like part of a group—I started doing what I could to make solitude something I genuinely enjoyed. I started hanging out with myself the way I’d want to hang out with a friend. For me, that meant cooking myself nice dinners, going for walks, visiting new parks or restaurants, shopping, reading fascinating books, and even getting into a crazy skincare regimen that one of my long-distance friends swore by.
Learning to enjoy (and even look forward to) being alone made it so much easier for me to be patient and allow my new relationships to grow in their own time. Plus, I ended up making one of the best friends of all—myself!
If you were hoping this post would make friendship-building sound easy, I’m sorry to disappoint. In my experience, building a community from scratch involves a lot of lonely social outings, awkward conversations, expended energy, and just plain work and patience.
So why do it? Wouldn’t it be easier to just… go to a campus?
Maybe it would. Maybe it wouldn’t. Meeting new people is almost never fun (unless you’re a super extravert), and while going to a campus might give you a little extra push out of your comfort zone, it’s important to remember that college eventually ends. People move. Jobs change. The friends you make now won’t necessarily be around forever. Eventually, you’ll have to make new ones, which means you’ll still have to face everything we’ve already talked about in this post.
So why not just do it now?
Yes, it’s hard. Adulthood is hard. Get over it. Better yet, step into it. Taking the advice in this post will help you do more than just build a community now; it’ll give you the skills to build one wherever life takes you.
Isn’t an entire lifetime of future friends worth a little discomfort in the present?
I know I already made reference to it earlier in this post, but seriously, the Unbound student community is one killer way to make friends as an online college student. Our students are constantly chatting online, meeting up at local events, and even putting together their very own National Student Conference (which is a total blast every single year). They go out of their way to build community both locally and across the internet, and if you’re looking to do college and life with smart, hard-working people who share your values, you should seriously consider becoming one of them.
A former student counselor and Unbound student, Abigail is passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not dreaming with her friends, you can find her reading or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.Read more by Abigail