EngagePerspectivesUnlikely Friendships: Connections within the College House System
Citizenship Icon Dialogue Icon Wellness Icon

Unlikely Friendships: Connections within the College House System

In our second interview in the series, we are joined by Penn Senior, psychology major in the College Maddie McGregor and recent Penn graduate from the College Class of ’21 Cognitive Science major and Computer Science Minor, Fawad Syed.  Fawad was Maddie’s RA in Ware College House in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic hit.  Even though their time being together in person was truncated, they were able to develop a strong friendship that continues  to contribute to their wellbeing.

two people eating together

Excerpts from Edited Transcript

Dr. Lia Howard: Welcome, Maddie and Fawad. Would you introduce yourselves? Who are you? Can you give us your name, your major, your home town, or anything else you’d like to share?

Fawad Syed: I graduated from Penn in May of 2021. I started in 2017. I’m originally from Philly. I now live and work in New York City. And while I was at Penn, I studied cognitive science and computer science.

Maddie McGregor: Thank you for having us. I am from outside of Chicago. I’m a senior at Penn studying psychology in health care management and I’m excited to be here.

Dr. Lia Howard: We’re so excited to have you. And we’d love to hear more about why you consider your friendship unlikely or unusual in some way.

Maddie McGregor: When I tell people that my R.A. is my best friend. They always respond like, “Oh my God, no way. I didn’t get along with my R.A. or I never talk to my R.A.,” but Fawad was my R.A. freshman year, and we were able to surpass the R.A. Hall mate barrier and become best friends.

Fawad Syed: Tagging onto what Maddie said. So I think this was like 2019 to 2020. I was an R.A. in Ware College House and essentially you’re asked to send out this email survey before the school year starts, just sort of like gauging who your residents are, where they’re coming from and I was in one of the bigger halls, I think I had like 40 residents somewhere in that range.

And you don’t really go into it with this mindset of like, oh, they’re all going to be my best friends. I think that’s an impossible ask. And that’s something that can be overbearing for students who are new to Penn when they’re just trying to figure out sort of who they are and what they’re trying to get out of school.

I’m sure as this conversation continues to go, we’ll get into sort of like some of the details of how Maddie and I actually, like grew closer because of the sort of R.A. and resident dynamic.

Lia Howard: What a great meeting. And I love that. And I want to hear more about your friendship story. What is your friendship story? How did you meet? How did this friendship get kindled?

Maddie McGregor: Our friendship started when I moved in my freshman year. I’m on the volleyball team here at Penn, and so I had an early move in and was one of the first residents in the hall. So I met Fawad really early on, and one of the first things that he said to me. He mentioned, you had to fill out this survey before we got to school.

He sent it out to all of us. He really appreciated how much time and how open I was on the survey because, I thought everybody would fill it in as open as honestly as I would, but I guess people didn’t take it seriously or maybe not even responded. And so I think from that moment, we just started becoming friends and spent a lot of time together.

Freshman year, obviously freshman year, is a hard adjustment for a lot of people. And I had a really difficult freshman year with sports. And so Fawad was somebody who was always there for me, always made himself available. And when you don’t have a lot of friends right away, I kind of clung to him as somebody who was reliably there for me and listened and knew I could say anything to him because he was a trusted person by the University to be all right.

But as I got to know him and see that he really did care, that’s when I started really trusting him and wanted him to be my friend.

Fawad Syed: It was my first year as an R.A. and so as they were learning to sort of be like freshmen and be students at Penn, I was learning how to best be an R.A. and best be a support system for them. It’s really, really drilled into you to not do more than you were asked from the R.A. perspective. And what I mean by that is if you don’t want to overwhelm a student by or overwhelm a resident by going after them all the time and sort of being like, “Hey, come to this event,” like, “Hey, I noticed that you kind of look tired, you kind of look sad. You want to talk about it?” You want to reach out and you want to be kind and you want to be present. But there’s a fine line between that and sort of doing too much. And so what was explained to me by more senior by R.A.s or G.A.s which are grad students, so that you kind of have to let them become comfortable and then sort of let them come to you in certain instances.

And that’s what I started noticing with Maddie. I think the initial conversation we had and like the first initial couple of events I had, I made it known to the residents in that hall that, you know, I’m not going to ever chase them because I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. But my door will always be open.

I’ll always be there to talk. And it’s really if you want to utilize me as someone to talk to and to listen, then you know I’m there. And, you know, there was I’d like to think that there was a lot of them that did that. But Maddie definitely in like the early stage of that year, took advantage of it.

And, you know, thankfully she did, because now we are as close as we are.

Lia Howard: I so appreciate you sharing these parts of your story. It’s so great to hear. So tell me, how do you maintain your friendship and are people ever surprised that you are friends and what kinds of things do they say?

Maddie McGregor: We’re able to maintain our friendship because we’re similar communicators. I think it was hard because freshman year got cut short and so our friendship building stage got cut short. But he was a resource for me when the world was really uncertain. I used Fawad as an R.A. figure and a role model, even when we were in the quad anymore.

But what I mean by we’re similar communicators is that we don’t need to talk all the time and update each other 24 seven on what we’re doing or how we’re feeling. But since we built that understanding of who each other are and when each other maybe holding back or need support, we’re able to be that for each other and we don’t talk all the time.

Especially now he’s in New York and I’m still in school and we have very different schedules. He’s working full time and I was in season and now I’m just a student. But when we do, we have that basis for each other. Knowing just knowing each other and what questions to ask to fill each other up. And there’s little things that we do to like maintain our friendship, like sending, in this day and age, I feel like everybody does it by like sending memes or sending advice on what shoes to buy or what clothes or daily outfit. So we have similarities that have allowed us to stay in touch and just kind of knowing our communication styles and not getting frustrated if Fawad’s not texting me right now. Like, I know he’s busy and I’m not responding right away. He knows I’m busy, but we’ll respond eventually.

Fawad Syed: Yeah. So, again, I think the fact that our communication styles are quite similar makes it a little easier given that we’re not in the same place. But as far as people ever being surprised we are friends and what they say about it, I think surprised in the sense of how little time we had in terms of face time, but how close we were able to get despite that lack of face time. I think that’s where the biggest surprise comes from. And honestly, that’s some of the surprise that I have within myself of like you know, Maddie and I were only really on campus together or in the same place together doing sort of the same things at the same time for a very short period of time. And so it doesn’t really make sense as to how we were able to get so close so quickly. But when it comes to things like that, I don’t really think there’s a need to sort of question or to sort of look for an answer. Sometimes like friendships are just made out of things like that, right? It’s like a little moments of the things that happen that can sometimes have a big impact on a person and you kind of just run with it.

There’s no point in questioning that. But it definitely transfers over to my other friendships as well. I try to make it a point to like, get coffee with Maddie, or get pancakes, or get brunch, or do something whenever I come back home because again, my family still lives in Philly. All of the kids I grew up with live in Philly, so whenever I come home I try to make it a point to hang out with Maddie. And so I think that is the biggest part of it is like making the effort when you’re able to make the effort is a big part of how we’re able to do it.

Maddie McGregor: Yeah, and just being completely present when we’re with each other, even when we were on campus, we’d talk for hours and wouldn’t look at our phones or I’d block out like we were just getting pancakes. Maybe that would take 45 minutes with another friend. But when I was hanging out with Fawad, it’d be like blocking out four hours in my day where I’m just going to be like, totally present with him. And I think that quality of time, not quantity, is how we are able to have such a strong friendship in such a short amount of time.

Lia Howard: Excellent. Well, I’ve heard so many beautiful things already in what you’ve all shared, but I want to ask you, what are some of the things you most value about your friendship and how does this friendship contribute to your well-being?

Fawad Syed: I value the ability to kind of just be myself in the sense of I don’t always feel that way with all my friends. I have like a very there’s a very small subset of my friends where I can truly just be like, really like me. Just like a kid who grew up in this place, who likes these sorts of things, who cares about these sort of things.

And we talk in the way that I talk. I don’t feel I have to code switch. I don’t feel I have to sort of only talk about certain topics because, oh, for example, with a friend doesn’t understand basketball, I can’t talk about basketball. That’s not the case. If I talk about something with Maddie, even if she doesn’t know what it is, she’ll figure it out, right?

Which she’ll look at like, what is this thing? And like, why do you care about it so much? So just truly the thing that matters the most is I don’t have to ever think twice or I don’t think too hard about the version of myself that I’m bringing to this friendship, which is a really important thing.

And I think it’s a really it’s rare when it comes to the friends that you keep, because again, I have a ton of friends from work, for example, but I can’t bring every part of myself to those friendships because of the duration that I’ve known them and also the context in which I’ve grown to know them. Right. Friends from work are really different than friends that you kind of just like went to school with or friends that you grew up with.

Maddie McGregor: Yeah, I would say the same. From the get go, Fawad recognized the little quirks about me or that I took the time to that survey and him expressing gratitude for my candid answers on that showed he just wants me to be myself. And he’s never I’ve never felt judged by him when he said like an open door policy. I definitely abused that my freshman year and made himself available to me at all hours of the day. And I was in my most vulnerable state with him. And never once did he make me feel judged. And he made like a place of home, which is then definitely a struggle at Penn, which is a tough culture. Going back to your question, when some people say that I’m still best friends with Fawad, even in our hall, they’re like, “Oh, that’s crazy.” “I can’t believe you guys are still best friends,” or “you even are best friends.” Whereas I think they might have seen him as a resource, whereas I saw him just as a person and a friend who was a really good listener and made me feel welcomed. And so I think just the humanness of our friendship and goofiness is what I value and cherish the most.

Lia Howard: Excellent. And you anticipated my next question. I want to ask you a little bit more about the Penn community so Fawad, you might have to remember back a couple of years. But how does the Penn community make it easy for friendships like yours to develop and grow? And how does that maybe make it hard for unusual friendships to develop and grow?

Fawad Syed: So this is something that I think about quite often actually. I think Penn is really, really at the crux of it. I think it’s a really beautiful place because of the fact that you have people that come from all different walks of life, like international students, students from literally every corner of the globe, like different belief systems, different socioeconomic status is you have an opportunity to sort of meet anyone and everyone.

And I think it can be a little daunting at first because how are you meant to sort of get over those differences and how are you meant to sort of navigate those differences? Because sometimes, you know, these differences are a big part of people’s identities. And if you say the wrong thing or if you don’t really get it in the way that you’re meant to get it, it can really offend someone.

But I think that these differences are the sort of things that I embraced while at Penn, because it’s really it’s an opportunity to expand your worldview and expand your understanding of the world and people in general. It’s not often that you get a chance to sort of be around this many people from this many places, all in one place, like if you depending on where you grew up in the States, for example, you might have only ever been exposed to people who look like you or dress like you or talk like you.

And never in a million years could you have guessed that you were going to meet someone from, you know, the total opposite side of the globe. So I think in that sense and it’s the sort of and I would call like unusual or maybe just like not what you would have expected types of friendships because there are so many different people like that.

And you start to realize like, you know, there’s more that we have in common than we actually have that causes us to be different. On the flip side of it, what causes challenges with these sorts of friendships and I think just friendships in general at Penn, I think it just comes down to the academic culture and how fast paced it can be and how competitive that it can get.

And I don’t just think that it’s a Penn thing, I think any sort of college or institution of higher learning when the culture or the sort of standard is, you know, you perform this way, you interview this way, you go on to do really cool and impressive and amazing things. Sometimes you don’t necessarily feel like you have the time for other people and you have to be really tunnel visioned and type A about the things that you want to get done.

And I can, now that, you know, on the outside looking in and looking back on my time at Penn, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I don’t think it’s true. I think you can balance both. It’s really easy to get caught up in that. This person is now a Rhodes Scholar. This person’s going to med school. This person just got this total compensation package for their offer.

Like I need to you know, I need to go into a shell and I need to not talk to anyone. I need to just be super, super focused. But as time goes on, you start to realize that that’s not the most productive or healthy way to go about achieving your goals and that it is these friends that can actually help move you along and get to them in a more productive and healthy way.

Maddie McGregor: Yeah, I totally echo what Fawad said about meeting people from all walks of life and how that is facilitated at Penn and has really enhanced my friendships and I think my ability to be a friend to other people. I am an athlete and so a lot of my friends are athletes and so I’m not as familiar with what life is like to be a student without sports.

And I’ve kind of got a taste of it this semester because I’m done with my sport. But I think it’s hard for athletes to meet people and other students beyond athletics community just because we spend so much time in our sport. And there’s a big difference, I think in understanding of what an athlete does on a day to day.

We also have huge time commitments traveling every other weekend and just being away, not always being able to be involved in clubs or their communities that other students spend a lot of time investing in. And so there’s maybe a misconception that athletes only want to be friends with athletes or we are too cool for the students. But I think my relationships with people from diverse backgrounds, non-athletes from different towns, studying different things, I really like what I have enhanced my experience and made me feel more at home at Penn.

And given that in high school and my childhood, like all my friends, were athletes. And so I’m grateful that the set up of R.A.s and the quad like where you have these events and situations where you get to meet the people in your hall who have different backgrounds and you like that always excited me just talking to people.

I don’t know much about basketball or I didn’t know much about what he was doing for recruiting or even when you just found this job. But I love hearing about other people’s passions and what excites them. And just the human foundation of finding the human connection and not just the labels that people have.

But I think another thing that’s been good for me is my sorority and meeting girls who are not involved in sports or involved in other clubs and seeing how much passion they have for the groups that are involved on campus and seeing how close their communities are and getting some insight into that and being able to support them and what brings them Joy.

Lia Howard: Well, thank you. So what advice would you give to other students who may want to have friendships that may be unlikely? How do they find folks? How do they cultivate personal dispositions that might make them open to unusual friendships?

Fawad Syed: I think the first thing that I can talk about is, you know, looking at the different parts of your identity that you don’t totally understand or you want to start to develop even further. So, for example, I both my parents are from Pakistan. They came here and like the seventies and eighties and then obviously I was born here.

But where I grew up in Philly, it wasn’t around a ton of Pakistanis or just like, you know, like South Asians in general. I went to a really small high school. There weren’t any other Pakistanis like maybe like one or two. And so the only real cultural exposure I had to it was like at home, I would speak the language with my mom and dad because that’s just kind of how they would talk.

I would talk to my grandmother, but I never really met and spoke with kids who were my age or around my age who were part of that culture from that culture. But when I went to Penn, obviously through different groups, through different clubs, just through classes, I was able to make friends who are international from Pakistan and ended up living with them, ended up being some of my absolute best friends in the whole world, speaking the language with them, connecting with them on a different way, simply because, you know, at the root of it, they are, we are very, very, you know, rooted just in like our makeup, I’m from Pakistani parents or from my parents. So that divided us or made us different was the fact that I grew up in the States and they grew up abroad. And so I think the first thing is coming into Penn, I really wanted to you know, I really wanted to explore that. I really wanted to develop that part of my identity because I think it’s one of the more important parts of my identity.

I think it’s the first thing that people probably see when they look at me. “He’s not just someone from the States, his parents are probably immigrants.” And so in doing that, I sort of tried to exercise my options at Penn to meet people from there, to talk to people from there, and to develop that part of myself and from that, like I was sort of the first thing I did.

But as time went on, I kind of just pushed myself to not stop at you see someone on Locust, you say “hey, let’s catch up let’s get coffee.” Like maybe their mutual friend. Maybe they’re , you know, two extrapolations, in a way a mutual sort of friend. Maybe it’s someone that you’ve literally only ever seen their face in recitation of lecture, once or twice. And it turns into this Locust eye contact, head nod, and then maybe it even gets to the point where it’s “Oh, let’s get coffee some time.” But it never happened. The biggest thing is to actually do that, actually make the effort and take the time to do those things because it doesn’t take that long.

Grabbing coffee is not you know, again, it doesn’t have to be your best friend in the world. It doesn’t have to take 4 hours. But you’d be surprised at how meaningful that sort of exchange can be for someone actually following up, actually reaching out and actually showing that, you know, you weren’t just exchanging pleasantries for the sake of making small talk, but actually doing so because you care about at least better understanding who this person is.

I think that’s the biggest step you can take is actually, you know, we’re not at this school forever with the same people forever. You don’t want to look back on it and be like, Man, I really wish that I spent more time with this person or I actually took the time to get to know this person better, right? You can do a lot of those things if you actually follow up and go through with the plans that you make or the times that you say are going to happen.

Maddie McGregor: Yeah, I agree. And just being able to remain true to yourself, I think everybody has something unique to bring to the table. And if you shadow your personality or you try to be a certain way in order to come across a certain way, it’s only a disservice to the people that you’re meeting.

And so I would say, if there’s somebody you see and they look cool out there, compliment them, or if there’s somebody that you see in your class and you want to get to know them better, just do it because they’re probably thinking the same thing and for us, and we’re only at this university in this really unique situation where you are exposed to a lot of different people from different backgrounds and walks of life, why not just take the time. You might learn something about yourself.

And I think that’s equally as important. But I would also encourage people to not be afraid or shy away from people with different backgrounds and having conversations with them and really getting to know them. I think one of the greatest moments for me, in our friendship, is when Fawad code switching around me and I can call him out on it and be like, it’s me. It’s Maddie, you don’t have to be a certain way around me. I just want the authentic Fawad and I want you like just how you are and recognizing that it’s not always easy for everyone to present as their authentic selves. But I think, like Fawad said, because he did that work where he got closer with his identity, like he was able to open up to me about his background and his past and me as well.

Fawad came to my birthday party in Chicago and got to spend time with my friends and my family and in my house and got to see how I grew up as well. And so I would just say, stay true to who you are and bring your whole self to the table and all the conversations or friendships or encounters that you have because who you are is your superpower and your unique and who you are and trying to be something that you’re not is only going to hurt your friendships.

Lia Howard: You both have been so generous with all that you’ve shared with us. And I just want to ask you, is there anything else you’d like to share in this conversation?

Fawad Syed: From an R.A. perspective, and from an alumni, I don’t say former student, but alumni perspective, I think the biggest thing is, sometimes you hear the sentiment, “college, it’s the greatest years of your life. You’re going to meet the best man at your wedding.”

You don’t have to necessarily set that expectation on yourself. You don’t have to come into it with this mindset of like, everything has to be picture perfect. Otherwise I didn’t make the most of these four years. It is truly some of the most challenging times that you’ll go through, both academically, personally, however, it’s hard, right?

College is a very difficult time and trying to navigate it on your own, it makes it a near impossible task. And so this is sort of where the plug comes in for your R.A.s or whoever else it may be. But the resources exist for a reason. They’re not just there to check off boxes. They’re there because these have been identified as ways in which it makes it easier and it makes it more palatable for people to experience their time at the university, utilize those resources and whether that be the actual centers at Penn or whether they be individuals who have just been there longer than you have really take advantage of that.

You know, ask them any and all questions that you have because again, no question is a dumb question if you don’t know the answer to it, especially in this context of navigating the school. Additionally, because of how hard it can be to sort of navigate those four years, this is sort of where these quote unquote, unusual friendships come about, we’ll never know who you become friends with simply because you never know who is going to contribute to your time at the school in a positive way.

Someone who’s a 180 of you, totally different than you. You would have never expected to talk to them, ever be their friend. That person just might be the person who helps you get through that really, really tough class. Or really, really tough semester or tough recruiting season that you had to experience.

Maddie McGregor: Yeah, I would say once you do have some insight or if you’re frustrated with the lack of resources or you don’t know where to turn like these out for somebody else, if you can this for being such a great mentor in my freshman year and kind of being that resource for me, I wanted to be that for the freshman, my team, just remember we all are in this together and we’re all going through similar things and so don’t let, I would say don’t let labels or people’s involvement overshadow that. They may be struggling. So I say it starts with being vulnerable in your friendships. So then you create a space where they can be vulnerable back, even just for somebody asking you how you’re doing on a bad day, you don’t have to answer with what you think they want to hear.

You can be honest because it facilitates more vulnerable and honest conversations and makes everything seem a little less scary and a little less intense. If you know that somebody is going through or experiencing the same emotions that you may be or even if they’re not going through the same thing that they’re human to. And it’s nice to have somebody who’s just a friend and not have all these walls up.

Keep Reading

three women facing camera smiling

Connecting with Philadelphia’s Green Spaces While Fostering Community

Throughout my time at Penn, I have taken several Paideia courses, one being Nature Rx with Dr. Elizabeth Mackenzie this past fall. The… Learn More
square image of that includes four inset travel related photos from Mexico varying in size

Most People Don’t Know Who You Are, and That’s Okay: Sense of Self and Humility at Penn

In my life, I’ve been self-centered—as is typical. As humans, we focus on our own needs and lives more than any other individual’s.… Learn More
Award presented to honoree by speaker holding microphone. Recipient accepting olive tree sculpture.

SNF Paideia Program Celebration Honors Inaugural Faculty Director

The Penn SNF Paideia team, members of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, with honoree SNF Paideia Inaugural Faculty Director Michael Delli… Learn More