Loneliness in College: Thematic Analysis of Experience of Creating Friendships in First Year University
The social transition from college to university can feel lonely and isolating due to the large amount of changes happening, leaving family, their home, and friends. By using a thematic analysis of a semi-structured interview transcript on a first-year university student living in halls, it was found that moving to university can feel like an isolating and lonely transition. However, in this case, friendship can be easily made when living with others in university accommodation, but harder when in lectures or living at home.
Diehl et al (2018) state that the transition from college to university is mostly associated with social, structural, and behavioural changes. These social changes involve leaving friends behind and creating new friends. All these changes can be related to the feeling of loneliness many new students feel. During their study they found that students living with others in university halls were less socially lonely and that only 32.4% of students felt lovely which can be seen as not common.
During Kantanis (2000) study on the role of social transition in students’ adjustment to their first year of university, Kantanis found that the most common expectation that first year students have is meeting new and different people, such as gaining new friends from different places. However, Kantanis states that during her finding, students realised that making new friends had been more difficult than expected and that almost half (49.1%) of her participants had not been successful when creating a friendship group. This struggle to make friends is described as alienating by Kantanis and that this development of friendships can be seen as critical for a student’s level of adjustment. The need to belong is stated as a core desire and that is why the establishment and the maintenance of friendship networks is important.
Pancer and Adams (2007) results showed that there was a significant positive relation between the quality of new friendships and the adjustment to university. This is backed up by Brooks and Dubois (1995) who found that first year students have been found to drop out more frequently due to a sense of isolation from either missing family, old friends or not creating new friendships at university.
This study is taking place as, although there is past research on the creation of new friendships gained at university and the loneliness they feel when moving, there is not a lot. There is holes in the literature concerning developing new friends whilst trying to keep old friendships strong at home. This research therefore fills this hole. Many of this literature, although in the 21st century, can be seen as dated. This research took place in 2020, therefore newer and gives more relevant information into how students feel.
This study aims to explore the experiences first year university students have in creating friendship.
A transcript of a semi-structured interview on the HEA website was thematically analysed (Louise interview, 2008) to view the transitions of friendships from college to university. Louise, a first-year university student studying psychology, was interviewed on the topic of friendship, including her friendships inside and outside of university, and the feelings she felt about making and keeping these friendships.
The study has ethical approval but was given a limited word count. However, the researcher was one of Louise`s course tutors so their can’t be a guarantee of honesty or bias.
A semi-structured interview was used as this generates rich data from encouraging a two-way communication between the interviewer and interviewee, where the interviewee has time to speak about sensitive issues. However, there can’t be a guarantee that participants are honest, there is a difficulty in comparing the questions asked and a cause and effect can’t be inferred (Willig, 2008). This interview was thematically analysed, which allows the interview to be repeatedly examined which then provides a lot of complex rich, detailed data which can’t easily be open to conversations in normal elements (Braun & Clarke, 2006).
The thematic analysis showed 3 sub themes for the transition of friendship when starting university. These included development of new friends, anxiety and loneliness, and preserving old friendships.
Development of new friendships
In this extract of the interview, Louise talks about how friendships have developed during her time at university and how she created these new friendships.
Pancer and Adams (2007) state that although its important for first year university students to replenish their home friendship networks, developing new friends at university is more important, especially for students who live in halls of residence, like Louise.
“I send most of my time with people in halls” … “I’ve already made a bond with them.” (89-90)
“More confident with people I live with.” (98)
Louise says that making friends was “Quite easy because everyone was in the same position so you just be yourself, that’s all you can be.” (104-105) When Louise says that it was easy to create friendships, this goes against Katanis (2000) statistic of 49.1% of students who did not establish a friendship group by the end of the first semester.
She also states that “you just be yourself” which is the complete opposite of how she feels self-conscious when “Everyone’s already formed their friends, that’s when I’m more like self-conscious.” (102-103)
Anxiety and loneliness
In the extract, Louise talks about how important it is for her to have friendships at university and how before coming to university she was worried about being lonely. This shows how Louise places a strong importance on friendship and struggles with the fact that she could’ve been lonely, showing she doesn’t like to be lonely.
Louise speaks about her fear of loneliness and isolation multiple times in the interview.
“Everyone’s already formed their friends, that’s when I’m more like self-conscious.” (102-103) By Louise stating that she would feel `self-conscious` if she was left out, shows that she`d be scared and anxious if she was alone.
Louise exaggerates her anxiety of being isolated by saying “I hate to be on my own.” (176) and “I was just scared of being lonely more than anything” … “I just thought I was gonna be on my own.” (4-6). The word `hate` and `scared` intensifies her feelings of anxiety for being lonely and that she doesn’t want to be alone.
Louise also displays concerns for others by saying “I find it quite sad when I see people who are quite lonely and stuff, for me that would be the worst situation to be in.” (189-190) this shows that loneliness must be such a terrifying subject for her that she doesn’t want anyone else to feel it.
Preserving old friendships
During the extract, Louise talks about how important it is to her to preserve her old friendships from when she was at home, and how she does this.
The quote “My friends back home are still gonna be there.” (185). Shows that Louise feels that it is necessary to maintain her at home friendships so even if she doesn’t make friends at university, she will always have friends and will never be lonely even when not at university. “I met up with her over Easter.” (48)
When the researcher asked, “Were you worried about losing contact with your college friends?” Louise replied with “Yeah, definitely.” (8-9). By using the word `definitely` this shows the exaggeration and how important those friendships are for Louise.
Louise describes the loss of a friendship by saying “Where did that little bond go” (65). This shows Louise`s confusion of the loss of her friendship, showing that she is not used to losing friends, however by using the word `little` it shows that the bond was not of a close friendship. Oswald and Clark (2003) state that 41% of school friends have been found to distance more during the first term of moving to university and that there tends to be a decrease in commitment and quality in at home friendships when moved to university which can lead to the complete disappearance of that friendship.
Through this research, it can be seen that more research should be done in this area considering the preservation of old friendships and how important they are to first year university students. Old friendships can be seen as a safety net for new students and are as important as creating these new friendships.
Through the thematic analysis of the Louise interview transcript, this study explored the experiences first year university students had in creating new friendships. By looking at this studies findings, the creation of friendship is an extremely important part of the transition from college to university. Many students feel isolated and lonely when not in a friendship group and when before creating these friendships, students feel anxious and scared that they may be lonely or lose touch with old friends from college and home.
- Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative research in psychology, 3(2), 77-101.
- Brooks, J. H., & DuBois, D. L. (1995). Individual and environmental predictors of adjustment during the first year of college. Journal of college student development.
- Buote, V. M., Pancer, S. M., Pratt, M. W., Adams, G., Birnie-Lefcovitch, S., Polivy, J., & Wintre, M. G. (2007). The importance of friends: Friendship and adjustment among 1st-year university students. Journal of adolescent research, 22(6), 665-689.
- Diehl, K., Jansen, C., Ishchanova, K., & Hilger-Kolb, J. (2018). Loneliness at universities: determinants of emotional and social loneliness among students. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(9), 1865.
- Kantanis, T. (2000). The role of social transition in students’: adjustment to the first-year of university. Journal of Institutional Research, 9(1), 100-110.
- Oswald, D. L., & Clark, E. M. (2003). Best friends forever?: High school best friendships and the transition to college. Personal relationships, 10(2), 187-196.
- Willig, C. (2013). Introducing qualitative research in psychology. McGraw-hill education (UK).