I have always wanted a sister.

Don’t get me wrong here. I was more than ecstatic when my younger brother arrived, and I wouldn’t change him for anything in this world.

However, I can’t help but recognize that very deep desire. I can’t tell you exactly why either. All I know is, due to certain circumstances, my parents will never be able to grant that wish. 

Alas, perhaps it is this resignation that has brought more value to the relationships I am so blessed to possess.

For the longest time, I believed that there existed a strict hierarchy with these relationships. Parents, brother, family and a romantic loved one all the way at the top, followed by friends, followed by acquaintances, etc.Fernando Espino, a junior at Harvard University, stands with two of his close friends, Aya Alame, 20, from Texas on the left, and Casey Fleeter, 20, from Columbus, Ohio, also juniors. (Submitted photo courtesy Fernando Espino)

You get the point. The way we could relate and be connected to people was very clear and differentiated within these groups.

Throughout my teenage years, through middle school and high school, my understanding of friendship and those I considered friends reinforced those beliefs. There are certainly several individuals whom I call great friends and hold very dear from high school, relationships that I’m glad have carried into college.

Coming from Marquette University High School, the idealization of being part of a brotherhood with my classmates was real and true, but it was one which I never compared with family. If anything, it created a new subset of friendship, but one which was not to be confused with my brother.

I thought I knew about friendship as something completely different from familial love, but college has a funny way of blurring and shaking even the most foundational of values/beliefs.

I have made friends since the first day I stepped foot on Harvard’s campus – and the summer prior, if you count Facebook – but something has changed specifically with four friends.

I’ve only known these four (my roommate and three female friends) for about two-and-a-half years (and one-and-a-half in the case of one) but I have felt like I’ve known them all for at least 10. The level of comfort, of connection I share with them is surprising. Gratifying, but quite, quite surprising. 

To a certain extent, my close friendship with my roommate is one I can understand. I have a brother, I went to an all-male high school, and most of my closest friends were guys. I know what it feels like to have a male friend in that respect.

It is my friendship with the others that I find intriguing. They are three wonderful, bright and beautiful young women from various areas of this country with some of the most diverse backgrounds and interests.

I have spent countless hours with each laughing, talking and crying. They know even my smallest idiosyncrasies, as I do theirs. We have shared so many great and painful experiences together during these last few years.

That is, you would say, a perfectly normal description of close friends. Nothing special here, right? Well, my connection with each of them in many, inexplicable ways, feels unique and unprecedented. One could immediately dismiss this as some sort of romantic attraction, but that wouldn’t capture it. 

These women are my sisters. Their company makes me happy much in the same way as my brother does. Their mistakes and occasional stumbles disappoint me and frustrate me with the same intensity as when I observe my brother do the same thing.

I love these women, but not in a friendly way, nor in a romantic way. They, as does my roommate, feel like family to me. 

My story is all over the place, but here’s my point. Time and experiences truly provide the emotional value for the relationship, not the simple labels of “friend” and “family.”

Friends aren’t what we can call the people who can see our profile on Facebook. That doesn’t give the word, and those people close to us with whom we associate it, justice.

Friendship is a blessing that we all have been granted, and it is one which is as dynamic and strong and valuable as anything in our lives.

This isn’t any different for family. Family and friends don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We don’t live in a world where our relationships have to be neatly and clearly categorized into this hierarchy of affection.

I’m glad, so very glad, that in these years away from my family in Milwaukee, that I know and realize that friends can be family, too. 

I don’t have a biological sister, and that’s OK, because I’m happy and honored that I have found three of them in college and that they are the best of my friends.

No, they are family.

(Espino, a 2011 graduate of Marquette University High School, Milwaukee, is studying economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. His home parish is St. Vincent de Paul, Milwaukee. Email him at fespino@college.harvard.edu.)