For many college freshmen, leaving the security of home for a place where they don’t know anyone can be overwhelming. That’s why, to ease this transition, a growing number of today’s students are turning to the web to make friends before they even arrive on campus.
When he decided to attend Duke University, Ross Goldstein was suddenly alone: He didn’t know anyone else planning to attend the private college in North Carolina, several states away from his New Jersey home.
It’s a circumstance freshman college students have faced for generations–having to find a new group of friends on a campus with 12,000 students.
But Goldstein didn’t wait to get to Durham before making some college buddies. By the time he got to Duke, he had met more than 150 of the about 1,700 members of Duke’s Class of 2009 over the internet.
“It makes me feel much more secure. I feel like I already have a little sense of community, or actually have one,” Goldstein said during a break from unpacking in his new dorm room.
Thousands of other students also spent the summer and last spring meeting their future classmates through web sites such as Myspace.com and Facebook.com.
Many chatted about their future dorms and meal plans, sororities and fraternities, and their majors, as well as fantasy football, their worst drinking experiences, and television shows such as The O.C. and Laguna Beach.
The students didn’t just meet a few friends. They met dozens.
When Goldstein arrived in Durham, he already had met 167 Duke friends online.
“Every day I will see someone new who I have talked to online but I haven’t talked to in person,” Goldstein said. “It’s just like I know them a little bit.”
Jennifer Propper started a University of California-Los Angeles Class of 2009 group on Myspace.com and was surprised the high interest among other students. Nearly 470 of the school’s roughly 4,300 incoming freshmen have joined so far.
Propper said some of the students who live near each other have organized group events. During the first week of school, she and others were planning a “Myspace Party.”
“UCLA has such a huge student population and quite a large incoming freshman class,” Propper said in an eMail interview. “The site has made the school seem smaller already. It’s been an icebreaker.”
School officials have noticed the web sites’ popularity.
Within days of receiving their housing assignments, three online groups had formed on one web site for students who would live in the same dorm at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said Claire Brady, program coordinator in residential life for the school.
Ryan Lombardi, assistant dean of students at Duke, said Facebook.com has become so well known that during student orientation there was a comedy skit about a romance that blossomed on the site even before the students met in person.
“It is so amazing to me how much effort they [put] into finding each other,” said Kristin Yates Thomas, an administrative coordinator in Northwestern University’s housing office. “It seems very natural to them to meet first online.”
She and other university officials agree that the web sites can be a good way for students to find each other and to build friendships before school starts.
“I think that anything that allows people to build community and connect to one another has got to be a positive tool,” Thomas said.
Lombardi at Duke agrees, but he also said he sees some drawbacks. Students typically are more outgoing online and may misrepresent themselves, he said.
“I do worry about some of the side effects,” Lombardi said. “I really like the potential it has to build community, but I just don’t want it to completely substitute” personal interaction, Lombardi said.
The web sites have taken some of the surprise out of student orientations. Many students post their pictures along with their personal profiles and talk about their hometowns and their majors. But that’s OK with some students.
“Even if you talk to people online, meeting them in person for the first time is a whole new and different experience in itself,” Propper said.