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So You're Becoming a College Student: A Study in Socialization

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Did you recently start college? If so, you are experiencing a major lesson in the process of socialization.

Socialization entails learning to be a member of a group. True, we are all individuals who bring our unique selves into any social interaction, but part of entering a new group involves learning its norms, rituals, routines, and rules.

Some of these lessons will be explicit: your professors have likely handed out syllabi with the rules, policies, and practices for each class. Your school probably has a set of written guidelines to let you know its policies on academic integrity, what happens if you need to drop a class, and other things you might never have thought about (a suggestion: if you haven't already, go ahead and peruse the rules of your campus; you might break some you weren't even aware of otherwise).

Most of the process of socialization you will experience will not come from any written documents; they will come from interacting with your peers, faculty and staff. These experiences might be the most challenging because you might find that the rules change depending on the people, time and place.

Some profs want you to call them by their first name; others will be offended if you do. Some staff members are open to walk-in appointments, while others stick to a schedule of appointments. Need to turn in a paper late? Some TAs will let a deadline slide, others will strictly adhere to deadlines. All of this can be very confusing when you are trying to figure out how to be a college student.

This is especially tough if you are living on your own for the first time. You may have once had a curfew, and now you might be able to stay out as long as you like. Your parents might have taken care of all sorts of things you now have to deal with, like paying bills, doing laundry and other basic cleaning.

Meal times might have been regular in your household; now you can eat at a variety of different times and you may have a much larger selection of food to choose from (thus the phrase "freshman fifteen"). You may find yourself eating with different friends each day, or eating alone from time to time. It is particularly hard to adjust to new classes -- and perhaps more difficult ones than you are used to -- when everything else in your life is changing too.

If you live with a roommate on campus, that creates a whole new set of challenges. For the first time, you might be sharing a room and have to learn to cooperate with someone who might keep a different schedule than yours or have different cleanliness standards. They may have very different interests from you or have a background that is very different from your own. Learning to get along with a roommate can be one of the biggest obstacles new students face.

As sociologist Dalton Conley recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed, having a roommate who is from another culture can help create tolerance (although roommates can also negatively impact each other's binge drinking). The skills one builds from living with a roommate are some of the unwritten lessons a college education provides; it never hurts to learn to get along with someone under sometimes difficult circumstances. As Conley writes:

Other than prison and the military, there are not many other institutions outside the college dorm that shove two people into a 10-foot-by-10-foot space and expect them to get along for nine months. Can you think of any better training for marriage?

Navigating romantic relationships can be a challenge too. Having lots of private space can mean that relationships become sexual much more quickly than they did when students lived with their parents. Sociologists have studied the so-called "hook-up culture" on college campuses and found that many students are ambivalent about it. They may feel that others are having casual sex regularly, and that it is therefore "normal" and part of being a college student. The same goes for binge drinking.

Socialization is not merely about conformity; just because students might think "everyone is doing it" it doesn't mean they will too. Instead, socialization is a process of learning what it means to be a member of a group and navigating one's sense of self as part of that process. Because there are many different groups on a college campus, socialization might include finding like-minded peers on campus to differentiate one's self from others and develop closer bonds with some group members (as in fraternities and sororities).

Think of all of the ways you are learning (or once learned) how to be a group member. Do you wear your college t-shirt, sweatshirt, or hat regularly? Attend a football game? Join a club? Start a new club? All of these are important socialization experiences that you are actively taking part it, whether you conform or not.

This post first appeared on the Everyday Sociology Blog .

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