Smile Politely

The Bold Intruder: A non-academic study of friendship in Urbana-Champaign

Before I moved out here last summer, my buddy Nat offered his assessment: “I’ll just say that Champaign-Urbana is an excellent place to be 19 years old… and you’re not 19.” Judging by the tone of his voice, and the fact that I am indeed in my late twenties, I deduced that this was not a pep talk.

It has now been six months since I had that talk, and since I’ve moved to Urbana. While it’s not exactly like the Eastern Seaboard Megalopolis from which I moved, it’s certainly not the adolescent wasteland that Nat implied either. No need to point out to Smile Politely readers that there is a staggering amount to do/see/have for people of just about any age.

However, that warning does ring true about one important factor of living here: in a university town, where the friendship infrastructure is founded on the campus social sphere, how do you go about making friends as a non-student?

The difficulty of making new friends among adults, particularly when moving to a new location, is a widely documented problem. Add to that the inherently transient nature of a university town, and suddenly “go make friends” begins to sound a lot like “build a spaceship.” Where do you even begin?

I shall endeavor shamelessly to develop something of an introductory look for those, like me, who would like to take on “building that spaceship.” Delving into Urbana’s friendship zones may yet prove a rebuke to Nat’s hypothesis.


My partner Ellen, an experienced ethnologist, gave it to me straight: “Just try to talk your way into whatever group or event you find interesting and document what people there have to say about friendship.”

It sounded like a solid enough plan, and it lent this whole process a nice little air of academia; however, I do have to admit that asking potential friends about friendship in the abstract is certainly a disorienting experience.

For this study, I decided to catalog a single day of social interactions by listing notable “intrusions” into new spaces where friends may linger outside my normal comfort zone. Then I scored their friendliness based on the welcoming of the crowd and their views on making friends in the area.

Background Fieldwork

Naturally, the Quest for Friendship did not begin with this project, and has some notable antecedents:

  • A visit to the Altgeld Chime Tower, currently restricted to the bellringers most days, was made possible by “intruding” on their Halloween Carillon Concert. Expert rendering of levers to popular songs, along with a cozy, close group of enthusiasts and supporters, made for a mighty welcoming atmosphere. Friendship score: 7 out of 10 clanging bells
  • Hard as I may try to escape the gravity of student/campus life in this experiment, there are some passions that are not so easily quelled. Emailing the UIUC Debate Team allowed me to crash the annual Illinois Swing Speech & Debate Tournament in early February… as a judge! Sitting in critique of students from all around Illinois give speeches was mightily satisfying to this relapsed nerd, and the community was even accommodating enough to let me sit on their practice sessions from time to time. Friendship score: 8 out of 10 banging gavels

These useful precursors helped shape the direction of my first full day of gatecrashing, on a chilly Sunday in February.

Review of the Literature

First on the day’s agenda, to the internet! Browsing the web over my morning coffee, I am able to check out the following online leads for friendship:

  • Meetup is arguably the strongest of local Online Friendship Aggregators (OFA). At least, it’s certainly the tech-i-est. Particularly for the more group/activity-minded adults out there, there is an immediately accessible breadth of socializing and friendship on display in town. With the obvious caveat that organizers pay to put together groups, it nevertheless looks like Meetup is a relatively safe and easy way to gatecrash. Friendship score: 7 out of 10 shiny weblinks
  • Nostalgia brings me next to the local Craigslist pages. In sharp relief to Meetup, there is almost something comforting about the old-fashioned minimalism of those purple links. “Needing a friend”, “How do I make friends?”, “So lonely”, are pretty common posts, so the community is clearly thinking about friendship. That said, the website’s staying power has never been due to its being secure and above board. Also, recurring themes include romance and exotic pets. I even have trouble getting along with dogs, so perhaps Craigslist just isn’t the immediate avenue for me. Friendship score: 3 out of 10 sketchy stars
  • It’s been a full 15 minutes since I last checked Facebook, so off we go! This is a site that puts the friendship cart before the horse, so to speak, in that it presupposes you to already be somewhat networked locally. That said, I stumble upon the satirical City of Chambana page to find a thriving, if somewhat less-than-wholesome cache of cyberfriends. Friendship score: 5 out of 10 laugh reacts
  • Commenters on the UIUC subreddit yield quite a few tips for making friends, as the desire for friendship regularly crops up there as well. The board is pretty university-focused, so it can be hard to parse out what information is valuable for the community at large. Nevertheless, the community is clearly active, and a valuable resource for the casual browser. Friendship score: 6 out of 10 gilded upvotes

Field Experiment 

The Park
Now properly awake, I am off to start my day, with an outdoor run to the University of Illinois Arboretum. My mind races alongside my footsteps, as I ponder all the new friends I might make in the grand outdoors. I arrive, out of breath and full of hope…

… Nobody. Ah, right, it’s February. While the arboretum may be a truly wonderful resource for beauty and reflection, it is not liable to be a great spot to turn strangers into friends, at least not until it gets a bit warmer. Friendship score: 2 out of 10 cold snowdrifts

The Party
Next, Ellen’s friends are hosting an afternoon get-together at their house. I should note that I am hesitant to make use of my romantic partner’s social network for this study, as it threatens to subvert the intent of this research. But upon hearing that the party is to view the Daytona 500, I march right along to intrude a new space.

I discover that most of the assembled are not, in fact, NASCAR fans, but actually all members of Ellen’s graduate class, and I quickly learn that the term of venery for grad student is “cohort.” While the name sounds mildly threatening, I find among the racecar-watching cohort a bevy of fellowship. There is food, drink, and folks are more than happy to converse. “You definitely have to be an extrovert more here,” reflected one attendee, in comparison to making friends elsewhere. “It’s just about constantly trying things until you find your crew.” The rest of the conversation was interrupted by the host’s delightful, if excitable pets. Did I mention I have difficulty with dogs? Friendship score: 9 out of 10 victory laps

The Bar
Later that afternoon, I receive a text invite from one of the people I had met at the speech and debate tournament: “Trivia tonight?” More data, huzzah! I scurry across town to get to The Blind Pig for their weekly Sunday trivia night. I make it just in time to grab a drink and settle at a table with some new comrades.

In between rounds, we talk a bit about friendship, and the conversation rapidly shifts to a comparison of bars in the area, and how friendly the crowds are at each… more field work to come, perhaps? Friendship score: 9 out of 10 bonus points


As I return home, I reflect that this study may have some gaps and is perhaps not comprehensive in addressing the complex nuances of friendship. There are plenty of facets in Champaign-Urbana that I haven’t yet seen, and may not ever see. On top of this, there is just so much socializing in our quotidien rituals that we hardly take time to notice them.

A Parting Tale

Lost in my own thoughts, I stop at the crosswalk on Walnut and Taylor St. in downtown Champaign, waiting for traffic to clear. I fail to notice that there is no walk signal at that intersection, and so just stand there dumbly for a few moments. A middle-aged man saw this, came over, and said “Don’t be scared of the cars, I got you”. He then proceeds to shepherd me across the street, like an elementary school crossing guard. I am too embarrassed to say anything, and hurry on to my destination. Friendship score: 10 out of 10 distracted sidewalks

Photos by Max O’Hern

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