The impact of transitioning to university on personal networks: Initial changes & long-term developments

Mary Kempnich, Ralf Wölfer, Miles Hewstone, Robin Dunbar


Moving away from home to attend university is a first major life event for many. Adjusting to this change can be challenging, especially as there is a trade-off between investing time and effort in maintaining pre-existing relationships, and actively creating social bonds in the new environment. Since the size and cohesiveness of our personal networks predict our overall health and well-being, this transitioning phase can threaten our need to belong and make us more vulnerable. Yet, little is known about how our personal networks adapt over the course of our time at university. By following two consecutive student cohorts (n1 = 90 & n2 = 81) from the end of secondary school to the end of their undergraduate degree, I investigated the effects of this major life event on the composition and structure of their personal networks, both in the short- and long-run. Respondents of both cohorts filled out a social network questionnaire at three-month intervals, specifying for each listed network member the type of relationship, their perceived emotional closeness, the frequency and type of contact, and their physical proximity. Crucially, the first wave of data collection took place before the soon-to-be students moved to university, thereby allowing a baseline assessment of their ego-networks prior to transitioning into student life. I found that moving away from home initially caused a significant loss in pre-existing friendships, but not in relationships to family members. Simultaneously, this friendship loss was not only matched but surpassed by the addition of newly established relationships to their networks. This trend was observed for almost all individual network layers when these were analysed in isolation. This initial strategy of replacing friends above and beyond previous levels of non-kin social support appeared to allow respondents to maintain constant overall emotional closeness levels to their personal network. It further enabled respondents to preserve their familiar network characteristics, namely: the average physical proximity to ties, typical frequency of those interactions, and methods of engaging in contact. Once respondents’ networks stabilised, a combination of socio-demographic factors, baseline network parameters, and observed short-term changes predicted the proportion of pre-existing relationships that were maintained at the end of their time at university. Entering university in a new place is a common life event in early adulthood. Given that modern life events increasingly involve entering a new environment (without our personal network accompanying us), these findings also have broader implications. The results may extend to the growing number of people who become transient members of a number of communities over their lifespan. These data suggest that transitivity affects the way individuals’ networks are composed and maintained, but also that we can learn to identify individualised strategies to cope with these changes.

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