The day was hot, and I didn’t feel like leaving my dorm room. My orientation leader told us there would be a club fair on the quad. I asked if she were going, and she said she was, and would be happy to pick me up and walk around with me so I would know what was there. I didn’t know it then, but going to the club fair was my first step towards finding my niche in college, and even outside of it.
“Let’s see,” she said. “We’re passing by the Chess club now, and there’s a physics club. And an anomie club.”
As we walked on, passing more boring-sounding clubs, the sun burned into the back of my head, making me wish I was in front of my fan.
“Can you repeat that?" I asked, knocked from my reverie.
“It’s a club that teaches English to Spanish speaking members of the campus community.”
“Really? Let’s stop there."
“Can you tell me more about the club,” I asked the enthusiastic-sounding student at the booth.
She explained that each group had several students and two teachers. The groups ranged from beginning students to advanced. She pointed out that it would be a good way to use both my Spanish skills and my interest in teaching.
I signed up, a little unsure what I was getting into. A little nervous. A little excited. At the first meeting a few weeks later, I met people with similar interests to mine. Many of my fellow members wanted to work with languages and teaching, two areas which interested me. The club gave me great experience in teaching, but also helped me make friends with similar interests. Joining one club naturally led to joining others, such as a club that fostered mentorships between college students and teenagers from the community.
Creating a club
At the end of my freshman year, I was browsing the Office of student activities website when I came across an article about creating your own club. It told me I needed five people in order to start a club, and then would be required to fill out paperwork describing the club. I had heard of disability awareness clubs before, and thought I would like to try to create one. Advocacy was always a passion of mine, and I thought advocacy and awareness of disabilities would benefit my college community. I hoped the club would interest people both with and without disabilities.
I found four people who were interested in the idea. All had disabilities, but all seemed to think it would be a good idea to bring disability awareness to the campus. One friend helped me fill out the paperwork as it was not accessible, and we were on our way. We were a small club, so frequently did activities with other clubs to get our name known on campus. While the club started out with just a few people, by talking to students we met on campus and getting involved with other clubs, our club grew. All of us made new friends as a result.
Usually, if you have a club you want to start, you’ll be able to find people to participate, even if you don’t think you’ll be able to. Talk to people in your classes or people you meet at the dining hall, and tell them about the club. Even if they don’t stay interested long-term, you will probably be able to get the club off the ground with their support.
Keep your door open as often as possible
While joining clubs and creating a club were some of the larger steps I took to socialize in college, there were several smaller steps I took that helped me meet new people. Sometimes all it takes to pave the way to friendship is to keep your physical door open. People will naturally pass by. Maybe someone will hear your music and stop in to tell you they like that song, too. Maybe someone will see you using your braille display and think it’s interesting and stop to chat, or perhaps they’ll hear your screen-reader twittering away and wonder what they’re hearing.
One day, early in my freshman year, I had my door open and was reading something on my BrailleNote. A dorm mate was curious about it and stopped by to chat. I tried to get the focus off of my blindness and technology as quickly as possible by talking about things we had in common. I asked questions about where she was from and her interests. After discussing my technology, we had a lively chat about interests, backgrounds and hometowns. I might not have made this friend if my door had been closed. Remember that although this strategy is great, there will be times when you need or want to maintain your privacy. Don’t think of your door being shut sometimes as a possible lost opportunity; instead remind yourself that it’s a way for you to recharge for the next possible encounter.
Talk to people in class
Another way I met people was talking to students sitting next to me in class. I’m usually early to everything, and class was no exception. I always left plenty of time to walk to class, find a seat and get ready. I was already sitting down when everyone else filed into the room. This made it easier for me to say hello to classmates as they walked in. During my second semester, I struck up a conversation with a student who often came in as early as I did to my Women in Literature class. Our friendship began as we bonded, naturally, over our proclivity to be early. To our surprise, we both discovered that we both used audio books to access the reading for the class.
Though in-person interaction is critical for socializing, I found that using technology also helped me to enhance my ability to meet people and build social connections. I used Facebook to find people in my classes and continue conversations. In addition to strengthening connections with people I met on campus, Facebook helped me find other interesting events going on. When a speaker came to campus, it was usually posted on Facebook. I didn’t have to rely on someone to read flyers posted on campus, or miss events entirely. If you’re part of a club, you can help by putting up virtual flyers of events that your club is hosting. People often use pictures to showcase their social interactions, and now, with Facebook’s image recognition technology, blind people can get a basic idea of what’s in the picture. However, a picture is not always worth a thousand words, so making a descriptive flier is always best!
Now, there are more social media sites than ever before. You can find out about events happening on your college campus and meet more people virtually.
Socializing in college can be a challenge, especially when coupled with all of the other new responsibilities. Joining clubs, keeping my door open, and creating my own club helped me meet people with similar interests. The skills I gained from socializing such as leadership and teaching have helped me beyond college. Many of the friendships I formed are still part of my life.
Everyone has to figure out what strategies for socializing work best for them. Remember, everyone, whether they have disabilities or not, can find social interactions to be both inviting and challenging.