New Semester, New Friends: A Guide to Building Community as a Grad Student

Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School

Four friends stand with their arms around each other.

It’s week six of the semester, and many of us are finally starting to settle into our routines. The scramble of adjusting to new coursework, new professors, and new classmates is all but over, and a sense of familiarity is settling into the new day-to-day. It’s the perfect time to start investing energy into building connections with others and enjoying the opportunity for a fresh start socially.  Building community can be intimidating and it can be hard to know where to start, but luckily UC and Cincinnati are full of young people looking to connect and have fun. Read on for more general information on friend-making as an adult as well as specific organizations/communities to join to get yourself out there!

Why is it so difficult to make friends as an adult? 

It’s become a familiar litany that we all hear repeatedly- “It’s so hard to make friends as an adult.” While the life stages of childhood and young adulthood each have their own challenges, opportunities for making new friends are not among them. Primary education created an environment of “forced bonding;” when stuck with the same group of kids for 8 hours a day, it’s hard not to get to know people. Similarly, for many in undergrad it was as simple as living in the same freshman hall or joining the same clubs. In both of these stages of life there is an expectation that most people are actively looking for friends and, consequently, it doesn’t seem like such a leap of faith to strike up a conversation or offer an invitation. But graduate school (and adulthood) can be a little trickier. 

For starters, graduate school generally contains a wider variety of people than undergrad, in many different stages of life. Some students enter graduate education right after earning their bachelor’s degree; other people return to school having already built a career and a family. You might be sitting in a classroom with 22-year-olds and 65-year-olds, and all ages in between. We are often drawn to (and less intimidated by) people who are similar to us, and the reality is that once we leave the comfortable nest of undergraduate education we no longer see as much similarity in our day to day, so we might be more likely to keep to ourselves. We may assume that older (or younger) students are not looking for friends, or that we would have nothing in common. Social scientific research challenges these perceptions twofold; it shows that not only are friendships an important aspect of physical and mental health (and life expectancy!) for people of all ages, but there are actually many benefits to having friends who are a different age or background than you. Research shows that intergenerational friendships lead to higher intelligence, higher levels of resiliency, and more open-mindedness in both parties. And age isn’t the only factor to consider; one University of California Berkley study found that cross-racial friendships lead to reduced anxiety in both academic and social situations. Countless studies indicate again and again that diversity in social connections helps us all and that building friendships with people who are different than you is a good thing. But where to get started?  

General Tips for Making Friends in Graduate School

  • Stay open-minded and seek enthusiasm. As explained above, there are a lot of benefits to building friendships with people who are different than you. Don’t automatically gravitate towards the people who seem most similar to you; get to know a wide range of peers and invest your time and energy where it counts: people who reciprocate your interest and enthusiasm in building community!  

  • Take risks and invite people to do things. Too many adults wish for more friends but take no real steps to build connections. It’s often intimidating to be the person to make the first move, but unfortunately in real life friends don’t usually materialize out of nowhere without effort. If you fear rejection, try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; we can all agree it is flattering and feels nice to be invited somewhere or to have someone express interest in friendship, so it's likely that others will feel the same and will appreciate your effort! If the worst that will happen is a polite “no” or “I can’t this time,” trying doesn’t seem so hard.  

  • Have patience. Good connections don’t materialize overnight! It takes trial and error to find people that you really click with, so don’t get discouraged if it takes a while. By remaining open to new experiences and connections, you are doing a hard but admirable thing and setting yourself up for social, academic, and professional success. So, give yourself a pat on the back from time to time!

Put Yourself Out There

The best way to make new friends is simply to put yourself in situations where you’re likely to meet new people! Below are some ideas, both on campus and beyond: 

  • Join a social sports team. Many people join these leagues with the intention of meeting new people, and psychology shows that shared goals (both metaphorically and in a literal sports-related sense) effectively build community and reduce tension. All of these leagues offer an option to join as a “free agent” and be paired with other individuals who are also joining alone. In the Cincinnati area, Cincinnati Sports Leagues offers many staples such as basketball, flag football, volleyball, pickleball, softball, and soccer, as well as options like bowling and cornhole for those of us who prefer to stay sweat-free. Better Off Bowling offers a seasonal bowling league, and registration for the fall ends in two weeks! Hotmess Sports is an LGBTQ+ social sports league offering kickball, flag football, dodgeball, volleyball, and cornhole. 

  • Give Back Cincinnati. Give Back is the largest young professionals organization in Cincinnati, hosting a wide range of social and community service events. Coming up on October 1 is their New Member Social, with free fowling (combination bowling, cornhole, and football) as well as free drinks and mingling. Visit their website for more information and to register. 

  • UC IPALS. UC’s International Services Office operates the IPALs program, which offers regular social programming geared towards helping international students form community and acclimate to UC’s campus; however, domestic students are also encouraged to attend! Read this GradCurrents article for more information about IPALs and how to join.  

  • Grad Café. The Graduate Student Government hosts bi-monthly meetups for graduate students with free coffee and bagels. It’s a great opportunity to meet people from other programs who you might not otherwise cross paths with! Grad Café happens on the 1st Tuesday and 3rd Monday of each month, in the Steger 6th Floor Common Space (Steger Student Life Center).

  • Meetup is all about finding common interests and getting out into the community! It is free to join, and members can join as many groups as they would like, ranging from broad social communities to more niche, hobby-based groups such as hiking meetups or book clubs.  

Still struggling? 

Loneliness is linked with declines in physical, mental, and cognitive health. It can also create a self-fulfilling cycle wherein an individual who already feels lonely has a more difficult time connecting with others, which only exacerbates feelings of isolation. Unfortunately, stigma regarding loneliness and difficulties with social skills can create barriers to honesty, transparency, and getting help.

Try and normalize the experience of loneliness and banish the shame that is accompanied by struggling to make friends. Only by having compassion for yourself can you break this cycle and push yourself to make more authentic and fulfilling connections. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a great resource to process feelings of loneliness while also building social skills. They offer both individual counseling as well as group counseling options, including a group specifically for graduate students called Understanding Self and Others, which is themed precisely around building healthy connections!  

Even though the nature of loneliness involves feeling like you are alone in your struggles, try to seek some comfort in the knowledge that many people out in the world are experiencing the same thing. Have hope, put yourself out there, and make some new friends this semester- it's never too late!