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  • Kindred Hurtado

To crack or not to crack under pressure: Students face peer pressure in college

Updated: Apr 30

by Kindred Hurtado

It's the long-awaited first day of your freshman year. Roommates are getting acquainted as dorm rooms have been accessorized, and parents have released the reigns.  

Students are hopeful, excited and usually a bit anxious as they dream about their next four years in college. 

It sounds like a dream, but often this isn't the case. Peer pressure can be a tremendous burden to navigate. 

The experiences of five college students and graduates shed light on some of the truths in dealing with peer pressure and trying to effectively manage it. 

Spoken peer pressure leaves lasting impressions 

Spoken peer pressure - defined as an individual or group coercing another verbally to participate in some act or behavior.  

Sofia Duff, a senior at the University of Oregon, said she was a victim of this kind of peer pressure.

"I would definitely say the peer pressure to do drugs (marijuana) was prominent for me.” 

Since marijuana was legal in Oregon, she had several friends who used it, but she never had the desire to try it herself.  

“Since Oregon legalized marijuana, I got a lot of pressure from my freshman-year roommates to smoke with them,”  Duff said.

The first time they asked, Duff just said no, and it didn’t seem like a big deal. They still invited her to hang out. 

She said no the second time, but noticed how much they bonded as they laughed at the simplest of things. 

Duff was worried that her “high” would be filled with paranoia and anxiety instead of goofiness and giggles. 

Her roommates started making it a big deal that she kept saying no, and the pressure escalated. 

“They called me a prude, a square, and a bore, but spiraled out of control when they would say mean things right in front of me,” Duff said, admitting that she hadn’t made friends beyond her roommates.

The peer pressure and bullying continued for two months before they got the hint and stopped asking. 

When the peer pressure ended, so did their friendship. It made Duff feel friendless,  “uncool,” and like an outlier in the group.  

“Now, looking back at the experience, I can see that I learned a valuable lesson about not conforming to what people want you to do just so you can fit in,” said Duff. 

Elizabeth Theriault, a senior at Regis College in Massachusetts, was often pressured to drink alcohol once she got to college. 

As a member of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, Theriault had no intention of ever drinking alcohol. 

“I met two girls in my lab class who I quickly became friends with. We had all made plans to watch ‘The Bachelor’ together, and when I got to their room, they were all drinking wine,” she said. 

“When I go to sit down, one of the girls offers me a glass of wine. I tell them I’m LDS and that I don’t drink, but thank you. I share with them that if I were to drink, I would feel like I would be turning my back on my faith,” she said. 

Even after Theriault told them she didn’t want a glass, one girl asked her to take one sip and try it. 

“They had a mischievous smile, and in a way, it felt like they were taunting me, like they wanted me to give in and have this to hold over me,” she said.

Despite turning them down, the girls were determined.

“You can only tell a person no so many times until you hit your limit and know that you need to remove yourself from the situation before you say something you’ll regret,” Theriault said. “I knew I was close to snapping so I just got up and left.” 

At the end of the year, Theriault found a group of friends through the local church, but she admits to being pretty lonely and hesitant to meet new people during her first semester. 

“I can happily say that I am no longer lonely and that I am loving college because I was able to find a group of people who respect my values and don’t belittle my religion,” Theriault said. 

Reality of giving in to peer pressure

Unspoken peer pressure is an individual's exposure to the actions or comments of one peer or a group and their decision to follow along with what their peers are doing.

Hope Hurtado, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, witnessed unspoken peer pressure during her plebe summer.

"We weren't allowed to talk out of turn, and we were constantly supervised by our detailers. If we didn’t follow orders, there were repercussions,” she said. “We were never allowed to express opinions that went against the Academy's Values." 

Hurtado knew that when she signed up for the military, she was giving up her right to  express her personal opinions or values no matter how much she disagreed. 

After all, a primary value of the military is that in order to lead successfully, one needs to follow orders successfully

Hurtado succumbed to unspoken peer pressure because she believed the discipline, focus and resilience being taught were more important than standing against something she disagreed with. 

Kelly Quinlan, a senior at the College of Charleston, experienced the unspoken peer pressure at her sorority. She joined the sorority as a freshman during the fall of 2020 when most classes were still online because of COVID, and she started getting more involved her sophomore year. 

“While living in the house, I became close with the girls, and they all held leadership positions,” she said. “When positions became open, I felt the need to run for one as well.” 

Quinlan said the girls didn’t tell her to run for a position, but she felt the need to because she wanted to have a responsibility and make an impact in the sorority. 

“Although taking on a position made it harder to manage school and my work, it is something I wouldn’t change,” Quinlan added. “And I am happy I got to experience it.”

Avoiding awkward situations

Sometimes peer pressure is blatant and direct

Emily Barbour, a graduate of Furman University, was asked by fellow students in class to share quiz answers when the professor left the room. 

"I basically told the students who asked to cheat off me to leave me alone," she said, adding that she was too afraid to get caught to entertain such action. "It felt unfair of me to share answers when I (and other classmates) had spent time studying, and they hadn't."

Duff also experienced this kind of peer pressure when a guy she had been seeing really wanted her to try drugs. 

“We went away together for his formal,” Duff said. “During this, he and all his brothers were using cocaine, and he asked me multiple times throughout the night if I wanted to, to which I replied no."

But turning him down meant rejection later.

"After he ghosted me, it hurt my feelings, and I couldn't understand why he would drop me just because I said no to him and his friends," she said.

Positives from peer pressure

There are some good things that come from peer pressure, such as striving to be better in all aspects, especially academically.

Hurtado is an excellent example of how peer pressure doesn't always have to have a negative effect.

"There was judgment for not excelling academically at the Academy and judgment from your peers on why you have to go to EMI (Extra Military Instruction) with your professors," she said.

Hurtado explained that giving in to that peer pressure helped her excel academically.

“I was inspired to become honest, courageous, and disciplined,” she added. 

Tanner Bates, a senior at the College of Charleston, also gained some positives from peer pressure.

 “When I was a freshman in College, I had a friend who enjoyed walking to the battery as a form of relieving stress,” she said. “She had asked me to join her a few times, but I was never in the mood.” 

During midterms, Bates was overwhelmed with school, and the friend texted asking if she felt like walking. 

Bates agreed and realized she loved exercise as a way to let go and decompress from a stressful day. 

“I have now started running as a way to decompress and take time for myself. I’ve found that being outside brings me a lot of happiness,” Bates said. 

Advice for incoming freshmen

Navigating peer pressure in college is a reality, but these students all believe it’s possible to resist the negative aspects and ultimately become stronger people because of that. 

"I think it's natural to be wary of peer pressure entering college, but there's no way to avoid it entirely,” Barbour said. “Instead, I'd make sure that you think about what you are and aren't comfortable with ahead of time and prepare what you'd want to say if a situation came up that made you uncomfortable.

"Your true friends will respect your decision to say no to something if someone makes you feel uncomfortable and continues to pressure you after you've said no, they're not a true friend" Barbour added. "Also, no one's opinion of you matters except your own in those situations."

Bates agrees that being true to yourself is the best way to go through college.

"Stay true to who you are and what you believe in,” she said. “Your real friends will support the decisions that you make that don't revolve around you falling into peer pressure."

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