The need to fit in on campus

Scenario 1 Nightclubs, long nights of partying, music and smoking. This is what college student Ahmad Mustafa became addicted to after befriending a group of people whom he said "knew how to enjoy life and have fun".

Marwan Saeed, a student at the American University of Sharjah, knew Mustafa before he fell into the rhythm of his new life. "He started to go to nightclubs just for fun," he said.

"After a while he started drinking. Those he was hanging out with had a strong negative influence over him. In the end he fell under the spell of their nightlife."

Scenario 2
Mehvish Shahzad, a student at Skyline College, is fun and intelligent. She always tries to help others, is there for her friends, does well in her studies and avoids what she calls "bad company".

"I have a good friend who is always there to say a kind word, give me advice and look after me. She always has a positive effect on me," she said.

T wo words can sum up what these two different scenarios are all about: Peer pressure. Many of us fall victim to peer pressure. It is very natural.

We all want to fit in, to look thin, beautiful, be cool, become successful and to simply belong. Nobody wants to be shunned or considered an outcast.

During our college years, students are constantly searching for an identity, a goal and an enriching social life, which is why many fall under the influence of their peers.

"Almost all human beings are influenced in some way or another by their friends and the groups they belong to," said Dr Leijla Vrazalic, assistant professor of the College of Business at the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD), and coordinator of the Project for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (PELT).

Many give in

She said: "Most people give in to peer pressure because of their desire to fit in and be one of the crowd. There is a fear of standing out, being an outsider or being made fun of. Generally, people prefer to conform rather than stand out."

Peer pressure results from association. "For example, you may find that you change your dress style when you move from one job to another, or when you hang out with certain types of people who have a certain style.

"You do not make a conscious effort. You just want to fit in better with your surroundings," Vrazalic said.

Saeed, who is about to graduate, said students may conform to whatever their peers do, whether right or wrong, because it means they are one step away from loneliness.

Suhad Hatem, a student at UOWD, said students are always searching for an independent character for themselves.

"They always try to outperform others and show those in their age group that they have been able to achieve the unachievable," she said.

"This puts so much pressure on other students who want to join these groups and become the best."
Peer pressure manifests itself in various forms. Some are positive and others are negative.

"For example, some students will start missing classes because their friends don't go and it's not considered cool to attend lectures," said Vrazalic.

"On the other hand, some students have discovered talents and skills they weren't aware of because their peers convinced them to try for the college basketball team or apply for a summer job."

Starting to pray is the best example of positive peer pressure, according to Saeed.

He said: "A person may not be a practising Muslim, but has friends who pray and fast. Initially, this person might not join his friends. But after a while he might start going to the mosque and praying with them."

Suhad was one of those who fell under negative peer pressure.

She said: "I started smoking because some of my friends used to. I was willing to try new things. People around me were doing it, so I thought, why not?" Suhad has since stopped smoking.

But how hard is it to say "no"?

"Saying no to peer pressure can be very difficult and often takes time," said Vrazalic. "Students need support from their parents, school counsellors, teachers and friends."

According to her, it is very important to show students that walking away from negative peer pressure does not mean they will be ostracised. Also, having strong beliefs about certain issues help students say no.

Students can also try to explain to their peers why they disagree with certain attitudes and behaviour.

"They may even exert some positive influence of their own. If peer pressure develops into bullying, students need to make their parents and teachers aware," she said.

Parents play a vital role in reducing the negative effects of peer pressure. "Parents help by developing their children's self-esteem," Vrazalic said.

"Having open communication lines with children is a key factor that makes children less susceptible to peer pressure."

Suhad also believes that the solution starts at home. "Parents always want their children to be the best at everything. As a result, children become insecure. If they are not the best, they would feel that they have failed lots of people," she said.

"Parents should encourage their children to be good at what they do. As a result, they won't feel less successful and won't be more vulnerable to peer pressure."

Adolescence is a very critical time

"Peers tend to replace parents and family during this period, in social and leisure activities," said Vrazalic.

"Students identify strongly with their peers because they go through a process of physical and emotional development, which seems to disassociate them from parental guidance and supervision. As a result, students become more susceptible to peer pressure."

Wissam Al Atawi, a student at Ajman University, believes students are more influenced by peer pressure during school than in college.

"At college, students are adults. They might give in sometimes, but not all the time. It is easier for them to say no when they mean no and yes when they mean yes," he said.

Mehvish Shahzad on the other hand believes that it becomes tougher during college. "At school it is different. You already have friends from grade one. In university you will feel the need to fit in and hang out with the right gang," she explained.

"It is very hard to say no sometimes or be who you truly are," said Vrazalic. "However, always keep in mind that this is not impossible."