Fast Track: The bonds of youth

Why do the friendships that we make at university prove to be some of the strongest emotional bonds we form?
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Remember your first day at university? Scanning lectures for signs of like-minded people - or at the very least, people who have the same trainers as you - is all part of the induction process. Three or four years on, the people you found are probably your new best friends.

But now that "school's up", those original feelings might well be re- appearing. You're wondering how you're going to cope without your buddies shouting at you for scraping that last baked bean from the saucepan, and who will sit up until the early hours night after night. So what is it that makes the mates you find at university so important? And what hope do such bonds have of lasting beyond graduation day?

Friendships developed later, in the workplace, are unlikely to capture the bond you have with fellow students, agree psychologists. That's because university friendships are based on sharing your most formative years. You turn up in a new town, having probably just left home for the first time. Not surprisingly, the independence that follows is a huge learning experience, one that requires all the assistance from peers that you can get.

But in order for the bonds to endure after life on campus, they must have developed beyond that - which can often mean winding up being mates with people you'd never have expected to. Jo Booth, 26, and Nicola Cox, 27, met at the University of East Anglia. Neither thought a friendship would develop, Jo explains: "You make really superficial friends at the beginning, just trying to find your feet. Then we went out one night and I realised Nicola had a really friendly persona."

They wound up sharing a house for their remaining student years. Retaining that friendship has been a natural progression, says Nicola: "Talking about university isn't the be all and end all. We discuss each other's lives as they are now." Now the bond is stronger than ever, though sometimes they don't meet for a couple of months.

Chartered counselling psychologist Dr Valerie Lamont suggests that first- year friendships provide security and comfort, but do not necessarily last. Only during the second and third years do ties really develop. "Learning to live on your own, going through the trauma of exams and having fun together creates a real bond," she believes.

But even that may not be enough. "If someone doesn't maintain contact, that suggests that university wasn't an especially happy experience. They may have gone through the motions, but at a deeper level they were not connected. Meeting friends reminds them that growing independent took longer for them."

Claire Perkins, 23, who graduated in 1997 from Buckinghamshire College, High Wycombe, raises another reason for friendships breaking up. Disappointed to have lost touch with one of her mates from college, she explains, "Friendships do change, interests differ and you only realise that over time."

She believes that the pressure on graduates to use their degrees to their full potential has a lot to answer for: "If the person does not feel they are achieving in their chosen field, seeing people that are may only reinforce these feelings."

Psychologist Dr Dorothy Rowe (author of Dorothy Rowe's Guide to Life, Harper Collins, pounds 7.99) agrees: "If one person is doing very well in their field, it can be a question of envy and pity on leaving university."

This is far more relevant in friendships between men than women: "It's a bit like `Who can be first away at the traffic lights?', and this can totally spoil friendships." Men are also less inclined to make an effort to keep in touch - something that Richard Mitchell, 23, who graduated from Bristol University, readily accepts: "I only really keep in contact with people who followed up a similar subject as me, or those I knew before starting college."

But, Dr Rowe says, a friendship that has been deepened by support over a difficult issue is more likely to survive: "It is generally sadness rather than joy that keeps such a friendship together."

Student counsellor Thelma Williams believes that friendships can be longer- lasting among students who have had a gap year. "Some people take a year out and travel with friends to prepare themselves for leaving their social group and going away to different universities all over the country."

Others, who have taken several gap years, stay in their area because they feel they have already got their core friends. Sam Lewis, 27, who returned to education six years ago, decided to stay at her local university for this reason: "I had an established circle of friends, and felt it would be harder for me, being slightly older, to become part of the social scene at college." Nevertheless, she surprised herself and made two very strong friends "who I can count on through anything".

Dr Lamont believes that friendships formed by students of any age, gender and locality can almost form a surrogate family, and can therefore be the strongest and longest-lasting you ever have. She adds: "One of the ways people stay in touch these days is via e-mail. It allows regular contact even though you may not meet up more than twice a year." It could be the perfect solution.