Saturday, March 5, 2011

Making "Friends" Can Be Hard Work

Two things come to mind: one, making friends for a group page on Facebook can be harder than you think; and two, making friends the old fashioned way is getting more complicated.

This epiphany struck me when I recently decided to branch out from my own personal facebook page and created a group page to promote my college and career center on campus. Frankly I thought it a fantastic idea. Imagine, no more depending on the ASB student, aka "Director of Student Social Media", to tweet or post my college/career visitor schedule, the latest scholarship opportunities, the career and technical ed. class sign ups, or to be perfectly honest any other career center promotionals I concoct to get students to head over to my office and take a look at the latest thing I'm promoting. Having learned and finally admitted to the gritty truth, that I am a born marketer, I figured going public with social media myself was for me a match made in heaven.

So, I create my own "group" on facebook, an extension of my own personal account, minus my name and profile pic that is. I post a few shout outs to the largest school "group" managed by the aforementioned ASB student and I sit back and wait for the bombardment of "likes" I'm sure to get... after a week and countless profile views by your's truly.... I'm still waiting. A month approaches, more updates by me, postings to our students' group wall, and yep,.... still waiting. Trying again, I update with more announcements, post some fun pictures, I even put up a video showcasing students' creativity in action, write catchy wall postings,... wait some more ... ask said ASB student, "can you tweet about my page please?" and "post a Facebook 'badge' to the website, mine and the school's?". He obliges. Yep,... still waiting.

Eleven. That's the number of like's I have for my new found project, 11. To break it down by demographics (no excel chart necessary to do this) 3 of my new "friends" are myself, and two other colleagues in my department. The rest are presumably students, except for one I'm not so sure about, but let's not go there. I ponder. I wonder. I ask myself,"so what am I doing wrong?". I consider posting a comment about Charlie Sheen to drive traffic to my "group", surely that'll do it. After careful reconsideration, I ditch that thought, remembering that I actually like my job and would like to keep it, thanks. Sometimes I'm a little slow, but even I can begin to see the writing on the "wall" or actually the lack thereof. This project is a little trickier than I first thought.

Part two, making friends the old fashioned way is tricky too, especially in college. Turns out this is tougher than I remember. For example, my youngest daughter is a sophomore in college. If you are one of the 11 or so following this other pet project, my blogging one, you might recall this daughter (also referred to as daughter #2 to keep her identity respectfully private) is back east in the DC area going to school. While still loving her college experience, it seems she is experiencing sporadic bouts of loneliness as her inner circle of friends are branching out into other clubs and organizations or traveling to their local home towns for various family obligations.

Her dad and I blab on about how she needs to branch out, join a university club, rush for a sorority perhaps, find a campus religious group, attend the basketball tournament, any number of things to bring her out and about. Last semester, having a fantastic internship on Capitol Hill with young professionals, kept her face to face time pretty high with new places to go and new people to meet. This semester, the roommate, same very compatible gal from last year, grabs a study abroad program opportunity and is off. The university, in a shuffle of probable paperwork oversight, overlooks moving in another roommate and gives said daughter the room to herself; a gift in one way, but leaving a hole in another. Her tight knit circle of friends from freshman year are developing a very full plate of activities in different directions that have left my daughter with a social life that is somewhat fragmented and at times a bit lonely.

Hmmm, what's an overly involved empty nest mom to do? I've got it! A trip to DC! That's it! After all, I run a high school career center, it’s my job to dissect the college and career planning needs of students. This must apply. I wonder even if this can be categorized as "professional development"? Maybe not. Anyway, a long President's weekend in my schedule means an opportune time to visit a far off campus. Cheap hotel rates in the dead of February and reasonable air fares make this parental call doable. I'm off. Turns out to be the best investment I made. With a stroke of luck, the holiday weekend is ridiculously warm and we have a blast together running all over DC and lally gagging around the comfortable hotel. I even catch up with her dorm friends. Check, all good there. Sure they're busy but they’re still a tight group. Yet, I still get a sense she is a bit lonely and a little sad. This lingers on in my mind as I return to the west coast.

A big secret most students don’t realize when going off to college: after the newness has worn off, after diving a little deeper into your area of study or stumbling into any given semester with a convergence of circumstances that leave one's social options dwindling, college can be a downright lonely place. There I said it, even when you are surrounded by a multitude of fellow students, endless social network options or unlimited phone exchanges, staying emotionally connected to other human beings is still just plain hard at times. This is the part of college most high school students don’t hear about. Parents often forget to share that part when they share their own glory days of college experiences. Parental memories, I have found, are often selective. Mine included. Throw in a little homesickness, restricted access to leave campus, a gloomy winter (especially for the relocated sun belt students), a schedule with too much or too little down time, roommate situations, bland cafeteria food, dwindling funds, changing majors, career concerns, colds and flus, subsequent housing needs of the upper classman, financial aid applications, a precarious social life or love life, rising tuition rates.... well you see where I'm going. Once there, the college life, albeit an often exciting time, also has the capacity to be an overwhelming and even a frighteningly lonely experience.

Friends make life more bearable. It's a simple truth. They uphold you when life is tough or at times downright cruel. A peer support system is crucial. Mark Zuckerberg, hit it big with Facebook alright. Without probably realizing it, or maybe he did, he tapped in to the basic human need to be connected. Combine that with a generation that was raised with technology and he struck gold. Trouble is, the more connected we have become, the more socially estranged we can be. The old fashioned way of making friends, face to face not Facebook to Facebook have become just that, old fashioned. Walking into a crowded room alone can still be a daunting task, especially for the less outgoing among us. Combine that with a mounting list of concerns over your emerging adult life, well, it’s just not all that pretty. So while I am not overly concerned over my daughter's sophomore year blues, I am at least aware of the reality of her life and the simple solution to "just join a club" is not that simple of a solution.

So while I am still hunting for the plethora of "friends" for my career center social media experiment, I'm still grateful to know that when students wander into the career center on their own to talk to me about whatever their college or career planning needs are, they often just want someone to talk to in person about what they are trying to do with their life. I like to be that person when I can. Stop, look and listen. That’s what my mom taught me when I learned to cross the street for the first time. It might be “old fashioned”, but it still works. Gets me across the street any way. It works with students too, I've found. Stop what I’m doing, look at the face in front of me and just listen. It almost always gets me to the other side of where I need to go with that student.

In the busyness of my day, it is my profound hope to be the face to face person students are looking to find, remembering to sideline virtual face time in exchange for the real, even if it means I stay at only "11" forever.