Backpacker’s Guide Education

Cliques and cohorts

It is important to accept others who are different from you to make your experience as a student richer

The first experience of a new place can be quite scary, especially if there are no familiar faces around you. In new contexts, people converge in different ways, and a loose gathering of individuals very soon begins to show lines and boundaries, with some people in tight-knit groups and others hanging a bit awkwardly in ones and twos.

It is great to achieve a sense of belonging to a new place, of feeling like there are others to whom you can turn and who in some small way “have your back” — for instance, to get notes to a missed lecture, or to pass on your assignment to the teacher when you are down with a fever. But how is that comfort zone created? What is the process by which those groups form, and how do we choose members?

In the process of gathering a net around us, we sometimes end up either consciously or unconsciously closing ourselves off to the rest of the classroom. We form immediate friendships with those who are most like us — so students from a particular region or language group tend to cluster together, as do those who come from similar social or cultural backgrounds. This can have the effect of making those who are in a minority, or individuals who do not really match these group characteristics, feeling quite left out.


Most educational institutions in India have a degree of diversity, with large public universities having the widest range of students, a rich mix of individuals from many linguistic and cultural backgrounds. So, a cohort of students who enter the university at the same time can represent multiple perspectives and experiences, creating wonderful possibilities of learning about these different viewpoints and life stories. When students instead form groups around similarities, they lose the opportunity to learn from the differences.

It is true that most communities are built around similarities — religion, language, occupation, even class. But they can also grow around common interests and the simple fact of being in the same location. In a classroom or on a campus, there are several issues and themes around which commonalities can be discovered, while differences can be explored and negotiated. Such communities do not have to be homogeneous; in fact, the more diverse they are, the richer the experience that each individual has access to.

Making space

How can a new cohort of students move from a set of small cliques (often brought together by shared anxieties when faced with unfamiliar diversity) to becoming a community that exchanges experiences and ideas? How can they discover commonalities of interest — in the shared space, the academics, the many social, political and cultural concerns that form a part of student life?

This does not always happen naturally. Individuals have to be open to it, and groups need to recognise the dynamics and the danger of becoming exclusive cliques. This does not mean that you cannot have some friendships that are closer than others, or some people with whom you share deeper relationships. But it does mean that you need to also watch out for the rest of the cohort, that there is a spirit of sharing when it comes to the issues that are pertinent to everyone. It means being sensitive to differences, and appreciating where each individual is coming from. It means making space for many languages and ways of being…and over time, learning from all of them. This could end up being the most rewarding part of university life.

The writer teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 7:19:09 AM |

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