Birds of a feather: UA siblings provide support system for each other

Reed OMara

When students set sail to college, many find themselves alone and free to establish themselves away from their families. Others, however, have the support of a sibling, sometimes whether they like it or not.

Katie O’Harra has found herself in such a situation. A freshman majoring in dance and chemical engineering, Katie has a busy schedule, but she said she sometimes feels as if the shadow of her older sister has her standing in the shade.

“I sometimes get the ‘Oh, you’re Holly’s sister’ thing, but it doesn’t bother me too much because she’s established a good name and reputation for herself here,” Katie said. “But one annoying question I get is, ‘Did you pick Alabama because your older sister goes here?’”

The older O’Harra, Holly, a senior majoring in public relations, said she harbors a different perspective on having her little sister on campus, as she’s tried to figure out the parameters of their new relationship. She said she thinks their differences in age and interests helps them give each other space, saying they’re “removed enough for it to work well.”

“I think being an older sibling at the same university has to be a balance,” Holly said. “I want her to be involved and integrated well, but just because I’m involved in certain things doesn’t mean Katie has to be. Finding that balance of helping her transition while not trying to push her to join activities [or] organizations I love has been the most difficult thing.”

(See also “Siblings take to the field and the sideline as player-cheerleader duo“)

Older siblings can provide a support system for their younger siblings, offering insights that aren’t necessarily available to other students, even if the two have different majors, Katie said.

“I can usually find a friend [of my sister] that’s taken a class, so I can use her as a reference for finding teachers, seeing things about campus, what’s the best place to eat, what’s the best time to go here, there,” Katie said. “But I try not to be over-dependent.”

Holly O’Harra is a residential advisor living in the same dorm as her sister, but she said this doesn’t mean that they see each other every day or that their living situation has interfered with their sense of privacy.

The Counseling Center has seen its fair share of sibling rivalries and dramas play out, Lee Keyes, executive director of the Counseling Center, said. Keyes said that, although he generally only sees the unhappy sides of siblings, he is not ignorant of the positives resulting from those relationships on campus.

“The big one is you have local family support,” he said. “I’ve worked with many students who have relied on their sibling for emotional support, even financial support, or handling problems like car trouble.”

When it comes to fighting and miscommunication among siblings, Keyes noted the reason for this behavior is usually a type of triangulation, a concept in which a third party interferes with the relationship between two people. In these cases, the third party is typically a parent.

Keyes also said that UA siblings normally fight because campus polarizes issues the two already had at home by putting their issues in a new, independent light. In addition, when siblings room together, he says the problems roommates face can manifest into more harsh conflicts.

(See also “Counseling Center offers personal, group sessions“)

“Whatever dynamics that were going on at home continue here, both in terms of their relationship with each other and their relationship with their parents,” Keyes said. “We encourage students to develop the assertiveness and skills it takes to sit down through conflict negotiation with someone – and that’s true with anyone, not just siblings.”

Mario Maggio, a freshman majoring in aerospace engineering, has his own take on sibling interactions, as his twin brother Michael, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering, also attends the University and lives in the building opposite from him. Furthermore, the two are in the same fraternity.

“We do see each other a lot,” Mario said. “There’s ups and downs. I think it’s fine because we aren’t living together and can avoid each other if we want to, so there’s enough space.”

Despite coming from a small high school and despite the current proximity of his twin brother, he said the two of them have found freedom.

“We definitely have our own lives now,” Mario said. “We’re not attached at the hip like I know some twins are. We just sort of do our thing, but we do hang out like normal friends would.”

Mario said that of the few times he and his brother have had conflict, he has learned that, in a college setting, the resolution lies in maintaining space. He also said the two will probably not live together, as being apart lets them interact more purposefully as friends and fraternity brothers without getting on each other’s nerves.

Holly O’Harra agreed, saying that having a sibling on campus is beneficial more often than not. She said the key to sisters or brothers syncing in college is to find an equilibrium and be available without being in the other’s way.

“I’ve been realizing more and more that there are so many experiences you can have here, and just because my experiences have gone a certain way doesn’t mean [my sibling’s] won’t be entirely different,” Holly O’Harra said. “And that’s perfectly fine. We’ve been different our whole lives, so it’s good for us to pursue different things in school.”

(See also “Living on-campus adds to the freshman experience“)