By Katherine Laws (’20), Presidential Fellow in the Office of Personal & Career Development at Wake Forest University

Alright… here we are: we’ve graduated from college. We feel like freshmen again, but unfortunately there’s no activities fair we can peruse, no upperclassmen who want to befriend us, there’s not 1500 other people who are equally lonely and in need of friendship. Are you asking yourself, “how do I make friends in this weird, new stage of life?” Whether it’s personal community, colleague relationships, or career networking, relationship-building can be a challenge—not to mention the added challenge of the pandemic.

Here’s the good news: you are not alone. To prove it to you, I asked a few other recent graduates, Yassmin, Mark, and Ashley about their experiences this year when it comes to building relationships. We can’t promise answers, but we can promise camaraderie and some helpful tips we’ve learned along the way as we’re figuring this out, together.

Two female students in masks sitting at a table together on campus

Photo by Ken Bennett, WFU Photographer.

First, let’s talk about friendships and community outside of work. Whether you’re moving to an unfamiliar city or living somewhere that already feels like home, building a social network as a post graduate can be intimidating. Here’s a few tidbits of advice we’ve learned the hard way:

  • Intentionality goes a long way. Because you have less free time to spend, it’s important to be thoughtful about who you spend time with, about planning time with them, and being fully present when you are together.
  • “Who are the people around me, and in what ways can I bring them together?” That’s a question Yassmin asks herself and suggests you ask yourself, too! Don’t be afraid to take accountability for your community.
  • Find a roommate, if it’s a good fit for you. Ashley loves having a roommate this year because of the way it’s a “built-in friend.” She and her roommate build off each other’s social networks to meet new people, and, especially during a pandemic, this has been really helpful. It’s wise to take time to find a roommate and living situation that’s a good fit for you. So, be reflective, patient, and maybe a little picky.
  • Make people a part of your routine. A struggle Mark is facing is that his routine has become something that’s not conducive to meeting new people and building relationships. An after-work routine can quickly be filled with chores, exercise, making a meal, and honestly just being tired. One of Mark’s favorite quotes from Allison McWilliams’ book Five for Your First Five is, “if this is adulting, you can have it back.” So, invite a friend to join you in your exercise routine or in your making-dinner during the week. It’s not as glamorous as you might have envisioned your social scene in your early 20’s, but it’s much more realistic—and just as fulfilling.

Now, what about building relationships within the workplace? It’s common for there to be an age gap between you and your coworkers, for you to be unfamiliar with the office culture, and for you to desire to impress your more-experienced colleagues. But, working relationships can be really great. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Find common ground. For Ashley, this looks like connecting to a colleague over their interest in wellbeing and love of exercise. “And then reach out to those people,” Ashley says.
  • Take the pressure off of yourself during small talk with your colleagues, during meetings and other communications. As Mark says, “The most paralyzing thing for me is the want to be perfect.” (This can be especially stressful when you can watch yourself the entire meeting on a Zoom screen). So, try to just focus on the moment rather than getting trapped in your own head. Mark’s favorite solution is some wisdom from Wake Forest’s Vice President of Campus Life, Penny Rue: “Perfectionism isn’t achievable, but excellence is.”
  • Ask questions to learn who your colleagues are as people. Find out about what they like to do for fun, or about who in their life is important to them. “That was really hard to do at first; it felt very awkward,” Yassmin shares. “They’re so used to this work-oriented structure, but that’s helped break down some of those barriers sometimes. Once people get into it, they’re excited because they get to talk about themselves, which people like to do.”

Networking may be an important part of your year. Networking looks different for everyone, but it can be helpful to learn more about careers or companies you’re interested in, get some wisdom from more experienced people on how you might succeed in a line of work, and build genuine relationships with people who share common career interests. This year, remember:

  • If you never networked in college, it’s not too late to start. Let’s remember, your first job is just the first step on your career path! I like to think about the first several years of my career journey as just “chiseling away at the marble” to find the sculpture underneath. You’ll likely be chiseling away for a while. And networking can be a helpful tool to get closer to the career and life you want to build.
  • Learn to make small talk interesting. For Yassmin, this can be a challenge because, let’s say it together: small talk is boring! So, ask questions that aren’t about the weather. Get creative! This list will make you laugh—and will make the small talk less painful for everyone.
  • Be Like Mark, try not labeling it as networking, because that word quickly induces pressure and the need to sell yourself. So take a page from his book: “The networking will come once you befriend the person and get to know them on a real level. Networking is part B, and part A is a genuine relationship.”

So there’s a few of the things we’ve learned (read: are learning.) At the end of the day, remember you’re not alone. Remember relationship-building is strange and new and different because you’re in a stage of life that’s strange and new and different. Remember you’ve made friends before, and you’ll do it again.