I'm a new university student. How do I make friends?

I like my solitude, but I can't do it all alone. There are 40,000 students here. Any advice?

Published September 7, 2007 10:42AM (EDT)

Hi Cary,

I have a question for you, but also for the commenters on this column: How do people make friends? I was raised in relative social isolation in American suburbia, by two socially awkward doctors.

While socializing is something I can fake for a limited period of time, it's not something I'm good at, and I prefer to be alone anyway. I've never had a social network before.

The university I go to is huge (over 40,000 in total). What am I supposed to do, and how can I do it without sacrificing the 85 percent of the time (at the least) that I need to be by myself?


Dear Freshman,

It might be best to put it this way: It's not friends you need. It's accomplices. Allies. You're in a dangerous new place, and you need to forge alliances for your own protection.

Take a good, long look around you. You've all been sent here for different reasons, but one thing is clear: Some of these people will stop at nothing to get what they want. Consider the desperate ploys and devious schemes they hatched to get here. And look at the tattoos. You think those tattoos are innocent? A tattoo may look innocent but it means something; in some cases, it may be a reminder of the last undergraduate who attempted friendship and what happened to him or her. It might be a reminder of what happens if you pretend to make friends but then change your mind, or "want out." You don't want to fool around like that or you could wake up to find things on Facebook that ... well, you don't even want to think about it.

So like I say, what you need isn't friends. What you need is accomplices. You need a trained, trustworthy crew who can keep their mouths shut and do what needs to be done while you go about trying to figure out how to get out of there in one piece.

Keep each contact separate. That way you control the information.

Recruit. In execution, be bold. But in style, be casual. Don't say, "Gee, I really like the way you handle a Bunsen burner. Would you be my lab partner?" Talk like that is just going to get you hurt.

Instead, say something like, "Uh, looks like according to 'the professor' up there I need a 'lab partner.' I don't want to even talk to any of these other jerks. You up for it?"

Recruit your "lab partners" individually, out of earshot of other inmates and guards. Do not introduce them to one another. Keep them in the dark, or they might conspire against you and possibly take over the operation.

Be sure to put "lab partner" in air quotes.

And whatever you do, don't talk about high school. Remember: Everybody there had a high school. Everybody there had a favorite teacher who gave a favorable recommendation. Everybody there had a tough SOB who wouldn't see things his way. That's why they're there. Something happened and now they're walking the grounds, sitting in their dorms, dreaming of the life they left behind, using their iPhones. All of them have their own horror stories, their own dreams dashed on the wrestling mat, the gridiron or the dance floor. They don't need to hear your sad story. They've got their own.

Everybody comes there with secrets as well. You've got your secrets and they've got theirs. Don't go prying. You don't know where they come from or what they've been through or what they did to end up there. Sometimes it's better not to know. Don't get known as somebody who sticks his nose in. Somebody might take it the wrong way. Word gets around. Nobody likes a nosy parker.

Information concerning your dorm, your roommate's nocturnal habits, eating routines, food storage and e-mail usage, which family members visit and what kind of cookies and cakes they bring -- keep all that on a need-to-know basis.

And learn how to protect yourself. Bring good virus protection software and use it often. Remember that with some fairly basic coding skills you can make much of what you need.

Then, with your crew in place, finalize your plans. Agree on the date you're going break free and stick to it. Keep your heads low until then. It's only four years. When you're out, one hopes you will have learned your lessons.

As to the friendship angle, you may find that one or two of you enjoy socializing together. Fine. But don't overdo it. Don't start thinking you are friends. Remember, these are desperate people. The things they've done to end up there, you don't even want to think about. Don't believe for an instant that they won't sell you out. It's every student for himself. They don't call it an elite four-year university for nothing. Everything you've heard about life there is true. Don't forget it.

Do your time one day at a time. When you're finally out, you'll be a little wiser, a little older, with a few more tattoos. It might seem like a long time, but by the time you're 50 you won't even remember anything that happened there.

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