Peer Relationships In College: Skill Building for the Real World


I recently wrote about the changing relationships between students and their parents when a young man or woman enters college. The conversation made me realize that this particular relationship is only one of four "P"s. The full roster? Parents, peers, professors, and professionals. As students go from "moving out" to "moving in" in these next few weeks (don't forget the t-shirt sheets!), I'd like to discuss the second of the four: that between students and their peers.

The relationships students form with their peers, both on campus and online, can hugely impact their college experiences personally, socially, and academically. Many would argue that these relationships are actually of more import than all the rest combined during this stage of life; physically removed from family (often for the first time), one begins to build a surrogate family of friends. It's the blind leading the blind as they all try to figure out this brave new world together! This level of intimacy and shared experience, I believe, is why friendships that begin in college often last decades if not a lifetime, but it is also why it is so crucial to find friends who have your best interest at heart.

I have worked with more than a few students whose relationships within a disadvantageous peer group became huge boulders to their success. Especially for students who may be already lacking in the motivation department, hanging out in a friend group made-up of similarly unmotivated students, those who have a lax attitude toward academics, or those who simply do not understand what they want in life and therefore have no clear path to achieving it, can make it that much harder to stay on track. I had one student who was having such a hard time bucking the trend of "all play and no work" that I told him he could always use me as an excuse. "Tell your friends I am making you come study with me and there's nothing you can do about it," I'd say. Sure, there are days when the lesson should be how to tell your friends you can't hang out because you are making you study, but you know…baby steps. And it worked! Jared began studying with me, and not only did his grades improve but his increased level of academic focus led another one of his friends to ask if he could come study with me too! Just as surrounding yourself with people who always have a second piece of pie is not going to help you lose weight, finding a jogging buddy can make dropping that stubborn 20 even easier!

Peer relationships are just as important inside the classroom, as they help students learn skills that will become incredibly valuable in the working world. Group projects can help you hone leadership skills, practice group decision making, and improve your ability to work with people who might have very different perspectives or ways of working. How do I navigate personality clashes? How do I deal with the man or woman in my group who is just difficult to work with?! College is a training ground for developing these kinds of peer-to-peer skills, and I remind my students that the relationships they develop in and out of the classroom will help them for years to come.

Again and again, I find my advice train arriving at the same station: identify what you need and then seek it out. In terms of peer relationships, that means finding good friends and good mentors. Whether that fellow student is next to you in class or 2,000 miles away logging in from her laptop- find mentors. Nurture those relationships. Ask for help. Pay it back and forward when you can.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.