Comment Writer Madison Harding-White argues that societies at university can often be too cliquey which puts people off from joining them

A Neuroscience graduate interested psychology, debate and sustainable lifestyles.
Images by Piqsels

Although the word ‘clique’ pulls my mind back to the all singing groups of High School Musical, a clique is in fact a term well used by social psychologists: describing close-knit groups of individuals who pose resistance to others joining them. When I started university in 2016, cliques were not something I found particularly worrying – I was reassured by the idea that everybody at university would be new and looking for friends. Yet when I failed to join any societies in the first few weeks of term, I found worries about cliques did start to form. I suddenly found myself feeling as if there was a ‘deadline’ to joining new societies, extending only to the first few weeks of semester 1. Whilst I’ve always felt comfortable talking to new people, I found myself intimidated by the thought of a new environment filled with already steadfast friendships. These fears resulted in me failing to ever find the courage to join a society mid-semester.

On the basis that my fears were likely irrational, I pushed myself to try a join a volunteering society 4 weeks into my first semester as a postgrad. I was genuinely shocked when I found my clique fears were a reality. I was blanked as I arrived at the session, awkwardly entering a room of around 15 chatting students. What followed was a painful 10 minutes standing alone in silence whilst the rest of the volunteers gave me the side eye, before I quickly slipped away – unnoticed. Quite honestly, this experience made me feel unwanted and I certainly have not returned since. I truly thought experiences like these were gloomy features isolated to my gossipy high school past. Clearly, I was wrong.

I was genuinely shocked when I found my clique fears were a reality

Whilst it is likely that many societies do not show such an opposition to the integration of new members, the idea that any society at UoB could behave in such a manner is concerning. University societies can be an excellent way to meet like-minded people and can offer invaluable work and skills experiences which can be difficult to obtain elsewhere. In these circumstances, I find it extremely sad to think students may miss out of these critical opportunities simply because they are made to feel unwelcome. Beyond missing out, isolation from cliques can have serious consequences for your mental health, as loneliness has been linked with an increased risk of depression. This is of further concern when considering recent figures revealing ‘alarmingly high’ levels of anxiety, loneliness and depressive thoughts within the UK student population. Whilst it is highly unlikely society cliques alone are responsible for the rise of mental health issues, I find it disturbing to think that what could be source of support for many students may be exacerbating the problem for others. Worse still, reduced social identification with peers has also been linked to symptoms of examination anxiety in university students – meaning being excluded from cliques could even have a detrimental impact on your academic studies. To me, this shows cliques within societies at our university pose a serious threat to student wellbeing.

However, there does appear to be some hope. A fourth-year student and regular member of another volunteering society expressed to me that she too had started volunteering a month into the first semester of her second year – but had had an extremely positive experience. New members were reportedly ‘split into groups and so got to meet new people’, with this student stating that she ‘doesn’t feel like there are any cliques in this society’ and that ‘everyone…is friends with everyone’. But again, she did also mention that ‘in other societies [she] had previously been in, there were definitely cliques and [she] didn’t feel welcome’. Seemingly, being included or excluded within societies is little more than a lucky dip of which society you choose to join.

Seemingly, being included or excluded within societies is little more than a lucky dip of which society you choose to join

It is undoubtedly part of human nature to form friendship groups, with social psychology showing that cliques can provide a feeling of belonging for those in them. Yet, I feel that cliques have no place at university, much less in university societies which are formed to enrich the university experience and help individuals make new friends. Based on my experience, I truly feel that it is the responsibility of society committees to ensure new members are properly welcomed throughout the academic year and that support should reach beyond an invitation to a social.  Although it may seem like handholding to some, a simple introduction to group members and activities (as well as some warmth) can go a long way. Nobody deserves to miss out on the university experience simply because they joined the society ‘too late’.