See what Cypress from Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) has to say about campus community during your first semester.
Q: How can I find a community on campus during my first semester of college?
A: When I decided to go to UT, one of my biggest fears was that I wouldn’t find a close group of friends at such a big school. I also knew I wanted to have not just a group of close friends as my community, but a sense of community in the school of engineering. I always wanted to ask people I knew that had gone to UT how they found their community. Here’s the answers I would have given my freshman self.
Test things out and pay attention to what sticks
In a campus of 50,000, there’s a big element of chance when it comes to who your community will be. There is no perfect community, and it’s not actually possible to decide what people will stumble into your life. The next best thing is to exist in a lot of places, frequently. The beginning of the semester is full of get-to-know you opportunities (because nearly everyone really wants to find friends). There’s also lots of organizations that are really excited to recruit new members, based on majors, interests, projects, and more. There are also spirit groups recruiting that focus more explicitly on social activities, though they tend to be more of a financial commitment. First-Year Interest Groups are also great. I’m definitely biased, but I would recommend a FIG that’s major-specific because the people in your FIG are already potential study partners later on. All of these experiences might be awkward, but just log in to Zoom and participate anyway. You never know who you might meet. You’ll go to a lot of meetings that don’t interest you, but make a note of what does, so you can reach out to certain people or continue going to your favorite organization’s meeting.
Continue showing up
Trying out several different organizations or in Zoom meet and greets is one thing, but in order to build a community you need to decide which orgs or people you identify with. In my first semester, I went to some Engineers for a Sustainable World meeting and I really liked the mission of the organization, the officer team, and the people I met there. Unfortunately, I didn’t commit to the socials or volunteer events because I felt weird about taking initiative beyond going to a general meeting. As an officer in Engineers for a Sustainable World now, I know how much the officer team and other members want to meet new freshmen--we want our new members to be as excited by our org as we are! Basically, I missed out on meeting great people in an org I had a good feeling about.
Reach out to people in your classes
In my personal experience, talking to people on the first day of classes has led to valuable friendships. But even if you aren’t really interested in making friends in college, do this as frequently as you can. You’ll almost definitely need to collaborate with other people in your classes to be successful. Even better, you might meet someone in your major that you can continue studying with for the rest of your time in college. Talking to people you’re in classes with can feel really uncomfortable, but it can also be uncomfortable to stare at the same people on your computer screen for a whole semester knowing that you haven’t ever and will never exchange a word. If you have a class with a breakout session, be the first to ask, “Hey, do you guys want to start a GroupMe for help on the homework?” You can probably send a similar message to the whole class in the Zoom chat. Once a GroupMe or other group message has been established, be active. Give help and ask for help. If this seems daunting, try connecting with one person who you can see yourself studying with.
Prioritize your health
Some of the most dangerous unhealthy habits are these pervasive and insidious. Let’s look at a few of them.
Sleep deprivation. This one is almost a badge of honor in college, though that is changing. I’m a person who chooses work over sleep sometimes, and it’s never worth it. A bedtime forces you to get your work done in your waking hours. Without that hard limit, procrastination hours can stretch into the AM’s way too often. Also, a stressful week can feel like the end of the world if you’re too tired.
Hustle culture. Your worth is not defined by how hard you work, the grades and recognition you get, or your internship offers. Actively take time to rest (procrastination does not count as rest). If you realize you’ve taken on too much, and you have the ability to drop something--a class, a club, an extracurricular project--do it. On the other hand, a common concern among freshmen is activity overload. My recommendation is to take on as much as you reasonably think you can handle at first (or maybe a little more) and then drop something like an org if it’s more than you can handle.
Spending more money than you’re comfortable with. I went to a lot of restaurants in freshman year because it was such an easy way to hang out with friends. I didn’t really have that much money to spend, but FOMO is powerful. Instead of meeting up with someone at a restaurant, consider having a socially distanced picnic, frisbee game, or walk at Pease Park, Eastwood Park, or Hemphill Park, which are all within walking distance of campus.
Make use of resources provided by UT. The Counseling and Mental Health Center provides counseling, wellness seminars, and other mental health resources. Counseling appointments are free (find out more about the cost of CMHC services here). There are also advice columns on this blog on how to discuss mental health with friends here and here.
It’s ok if you don’t
If you remember nothing else, remember this--you do not have to have a certain college experience. That’s probably more obvious this semester than ever before, but the “ideal” college experience you’ve seen in movies and probably heard from some adults is not necessarily reality. It’s great if college is the best time of your life. It’s also completely ok if it’s the worst. I remember in my freshman year having a lot of fun and still feeling bad because I was not having the time of my life. College does not have to be the time of your life! I also felt lonely and isolated a lot that first year. I remember panicking as I saw more and more people with friend groups, then people making plans to live together the next year, and I felt like I was not on the same timeline. Of course, I wasn’t really paying attention to the people that were in the same place as me, I was just comparing myself to people that confirmed my fears about myself. I ended up developing close friendships in the beginning of my sophomore year--and that’s just how it turned out for me! I ended up meeting my friends through my Freshman-Year Interest Group, my spirit group, and Engineers for a Sustainable World. I know people that met their friend group through classes they took together, major-based organizations, at parties, and in dorm halls. Whether you meet your best friends on day one or not at all, your experience is valid and completely your own, no comparison required.
You can find ESW on social media here!
Facebook Group: Engineers for a Sustainable World at UT Austin (ESW-UT)
Engineers for a Sustainable World is an organization from a variety of majors and backgrounds that focuses on engineering as a means for environmental, social, and economic sustainability. ESW is a great organization for those interested in careers, outreach, technical projects, or simply a community centered on sustainability.
This blog post was written by Cypress Lefebre from ESW. Cypress is an architectural engineering senior and is ESW's publicity chair.