Alternative Ways of Making Friends at University

Tips for Neurodiverse Students Attending University​

Written by Nicole Provost

This might be counter-intuitive against everything you have ever been advised to do, so please take this piece of advice lightly. Although it didn’t work for me, it may work for you, and you should try everything to see what works for you and what doesn’t. So here goes:

Don’t put too much effort into joining university clubs to make friends. Instead, try these alternative ways to meet friends at university.

See, for some reason, ‘social clubs’ have never ever worked for me, even if it is a club based on a shared interest. For me, my real and true friendships have come from situations in which there was a mutual need to interact, not just an attempt to interact for pleasure like you do in social clubs. Joining social clubs at university made me feel more alone than I had felt before, because there was this pressure to “join clubs and make friends with people who have similar interests to meet like minded people”. Well I joined clubs based on shared interests, and lo and behold, I didn’t automatically fit in, and just because we were talking about my favourite topic, these people weren’t like-minded. I felt like I was an exception to all the advice I had been given, I felt like a weirdo with no possible way to meet like-minded people. Turns out, I was just thinking about it the wrong way.

I hadn’t yet learned that different ‘purposes’ of social interaction lead to different outcomes. Socializing for the purpose of socializing isn’t a ‘deep enough’ way to break through whatever mental barrier I have that makes me different from other people.

(Think of what JK Rowling writes in HP and the Philosophers Stone “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” At that point in my life, ‘socializing’ was not a deep enough social ‘task’ to make connections; I was not really able to form connections without “knocking out a mountain troll” alongside someone.

So how can people like that make friends at university? Any ‘task’ where you share a common goal with similar stakes. Allow me to offer some examples:

Labs and Group Projects

Even if you don’t like the project,  actually, *especially*  if you don’t like the project, interact with your lab partners. You may spend hours in the IT lab working on a coding project (I once did a final project where we spent a period of 24 hours straight in the coding lab in the Earth and Ocean Sciences Building), but allow yourself to be present in the moment. Offer to do a coffee or a pizza run. Pull up Clash of Clans on your phone and ask your partners if they play. Play a flash briefing of CBC news on your phone and talk about a news story. There is something about a lack of sleep and a surplus of nerves and a rush of sugar that causes people to talk about the most ridiculous things and laugh at the most pointless jokes, and can bring even the most opposite of personality types together if you have a common goal. All of you will probably be dying to go home and go to bed, but it is that mutual struggle, that shared goal and longing and suffering, that will bring you together. When I think of university, I think of these memories. I was miserable at the time, but when I look back, damn did we ever laugh hard, and even today I still care about the people I shared the experience with, regardless of whether or not we remained in each other’s lives.

**On a side note, it is also possible that a group project can go completely wrong. It is in these situations where I find that common interests are the most beneficial. I took psychology for a whole year and ended up getting kicked out of 2 group projects, 2 semesters in a row, because I couldn’t get along with my team. I got low marks and pissed a lot of people off because there was too much room for differences of opinion and different views on how we should do the project. When I switched to science, I never got in an argument with a group again, because there was really zero room for misinterpretation and zero gray areas – our goal was to code a program to launch an imaginary rocket to Mars using the Moon’s gravitational field. We had to get the code and the numbers and the math just right, and so there was really no opportunity for arguments about topics etc.

    Professors' Office Hours

      In university, especially in science, they really aren’t just for nerds, and people really do actually go. The teachers will encourage you to listen to other students’ questions and the profs’ answers to them. I didn’t make a ton of friends in office hours, but I did participate in some pretty epic discussions and I got on first name basis with many of my classmates. None of them thought I was weird or strange or anything, because we weren’t there to be social we were there to get help on a very specific set of data. It was like an exchange of information that we were all there to benefit from, and the office hours were limited so we rarely strayed off topic. I was in a chemistry class and I started going to office hours to try and bring up my mark and understand what the course was even talking about (I am notoriously bad at chemistry), and the same group of people kept going each session. Sometimes we would arrive early and ask each other questions in the hall while waiting for the prof or stay late and keep studying. Like I said, I didn’t make a ton of friends, I basically just got the satisfaction of feeling like I am part of a group, and ended up getting a circle of 10 – 12 people who I could smile at and say ‘good morning’ to, or even recognize in the sea of faces that was the UBC campus. 

        Pre-Arranged Study Sessions

        I’m referring to study sessions held through the school, like Prep 101 sessions, not necessarily study sessions at fellow students’ dorms. On a side note, Prep 101 Sessions were literally more helpful than literally any lecture – the amount that they teach you and the way they manage to isolate the important points of the course that appear on the exam is amazing. Second, most people who go to them are people who struggled a bit in the course and are likely quite nervous and desperate to learn enough to do well on the exam. It is pretty likely that whoever you sit beside (make sure to sit beside someone who isn’t already there with a friend if you’re going to put too much stress into this), would like it if you asked them some questions or made some comments related to what you’re learning, during breaks etc. You can say things like “how do you think you’ll do on the exam?” or “this teacher is so much better at explaining than the prof, what do you think?” or “do you get what they’re saying about the Rayleigh Criterion? Do we use sin or cos when we calculate the angle?”. Even better – plan a run to the coffee shop during a break and ask the people next to you if they want anything. No one can dislike you after you offer them coffee during an 8-hour study session. 

          In Your Workplace

          Some of my most cherished memories of social interactions came from the pizzeria I worked at throughout my time in uni. I was a cook in the kitchen and I had a random obsession with coming to work dressed up in a Spiderman costume and I would climb all over the ovens and tables. Of course, this was a very weird thing to do. Everyone thought so and I was oblivious thinking I was the coolest, funniest person ever :’D

          But again, somthing about being forced into a sweaty room with other people for 8 hours at a time, every day, really made you get to know one another. For the first 2 weeks I really made no friends. But once I brought poporn and tried to pop it in the stone pizza oven and ended up causing a small and harmless inferno, I started to talk to people. We would chat about our families or what we wanted to do in the future, or sometimes just sing songs for hours because there was nothing else to do. Like in Breakfast Club actually. We would play ‘would you rather’ and tell stories and jokes while we cooked. We would share our dreams and tell each other things that were on our minds. Even if we wouldn’t have ‘clicked’ had we met at a social club, we knew a lot about each other and spent a lot of time together. We ended up becoming really close-knit, all of us. People would bring a Wii and hook it up to the restaurant computers, or we would stay out after the restaurant closed and play poker in the booths.

          I was definitely a weird one, but I had my place and loved my co-workers dearly. There were times when people would tell me to ‘shut up’ or say ‘what is wrong with you’ to me, etc, but its not like they could just walk away from me or I from them. We had to learn to get along, and we more than got along in the end. I have memories I will cherish for the rest of my life. All because we were forced to spend so much time together and make small talk over pizzas, that turned into the funniest improv games and the deepest of heart-to-heart talks.

          Competitive Teams or Performance Groups

          This one I have talked about before as it relates a lot to the choir. And it relates back to the mountain troll. When you are on a competitive team or in a play or performance troupe together, you bond in a special way. You rely on your teammates to bring you success. You likely travel together and dress in a uniform and meet competitors or audience members. You may have nothing in common with the people on your varsity Quidditch team, but you need them if you want to win the inter-school university Quidditch cup. And in turn, they are relying on you. You rely on your fellow choir members to stand and sing alongside you and remember the words and put on a good show, because your success depends on their success. Then, there are the practices themselves. You attend practices 1, 2, 3, 4, or even 5 days a week and you see these people often. You experience new settings together when you travel and you have your little team ‘culture’ such as a team cheer or a ‘psyc circle’ etc or a special warm up tradition or something. The point is that you rely on each other to succeed and you share the experiences of performing or competing together, and that in turn, creates a bond deeper than you can get from just a social group.


          In short, university is the perfect ‘mountain troll’ because it is designed to push students to the limits and it can be immensely stressful and isolating, but also rewarding and empowering. Every student is experiencing this, so allow yourself to experience it alongside them.

          I make friends when the professor is giving an immensely long lecture on an obscure topic that no one understands, and the person beside me whispers under their breath “what the f*ck?” and I whisper back “I have no earthly idea”. Or in a lab when someone forgets their goggles and I happen to have an extra pair – it is shared experiences in which all parties are there for personal gain other than ‘making friends’ that I have found form the most meaningful friendships.

          Remember though, and this is important – just because I am writing this in retrospect, doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Lots of my neurodivergent friends joined social clubs and met lifelong friends. So I encourage you to try it, and carve our your own successes and failures.

          And believe me, there will be failures. But the important thing to remember is that by ‘failing’ repeatedly in social situations, you are writing yourself a mental ‘map’ of what works for you and what doesn’t. Every failure is another section of the map that will one day serve as your perfect guide to navigating the social world. Your map is unique to YOU, and no matter how much different it is than anyone else’s, it will be perfect for you because it is created BY you and FOR you.

          By writing this article, I am hoping that you will understand that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to make friends or form relationships. Some people just need bigger ‘mountain trolls’ than others. Some people don’t need a mountain troll at all and they can make friends anywhere they go. That will never be me, but I know that about myself, and as a result, I can put less pressure on myself and those around me, and enjoy my life for what it is, not what I think it should be.

          So kid, get out there and make mistakes, be vulnerable, and keep on being you.

          Love, Nicole <3

          1 Comment

          Lynne · September 30, 2021 at 10:38 am

          Wonderfully done Nicole!!!!! You are a true treasure!

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