As the start of the new academic term rapidly approaches, new and returning students alike may be feeling anxious about what’s to come over the next academic year. What will your classes be like? Will you get the lecturer who understands the difficulties of 21st-century studenthood or the lecturer who seems determined to make your life hell? Will you stand awkwardly outside of lecture halls, unable to talk to anyone or will you quickly find yourself immersed in a large group?
From the moment that acceptance letter lands in your lap, you may have found your mind drifting off to one or more of these scenarios. Unsurprisingly, we hold a lot of expectations about what our uni experience is going to be. We are constantly assaulted with ideas and images of what “uni life” is going to be like from wild hall parties, cold showers in grubby student houses, never quite getting your seminar readings done, hanging around at multiple society events, and developing lifelong friends. But what happens if you get to university and find none of these things happening to you?
Well, I am here to tell you that it is 100% okay. And you are not alone.
I went to Goldsmiths University where I did a BA for 3.5 years and I was plagued by expectations of what my university should be like. I looked around at my fellow classmates and saw them having a great time; heading to the pub together, cracking in-jokes with one another outside of lecture halls, doing last minute readings together at the library on their mac books, and just generally seeming to have a pretty great time. Meanwhile, my housing instability continued so I was constantly moving around, I was estranged from the majority of my family so couldn’t afford a proper laptop or to go out drinking, I ended up being bullied by a society committee the one time that I braved actually joining a society, and my depression and anxiety meant that I was often crippled by self-doubt, paranoia, and social anxiety. There were times when I would go home and just cry, and cry, and cry because I felt like a complete loser. I had had a great time with an awesome friend group when I did my Access course before university and had hoped that that experience would be replicated at university. Instead, I felt isolated, lonely, and a complete outcast for almost the entirety of my degree.
It wasn’t until halfway through my last year, while I was campaigning for the position of Education officer in the student union elections, and I started speaking to other students and alumni about my experience of uni that I stumbled upon a revelation.
Almost every single student and alumni that I spoke to felt the same way.
Why? Because “THE university experience” is a complete myth. It just doesn’t exist.
The only people I spoke to or that I had come across in my university who had something resembling a “perfect experience” were those who were aged 18-21, had ongoing parental support, were well off, had lots of free time to get involved in student life, generally able-bodied, and white. Whilst many students who were disabled, working class, people of colour, parents, mature students, immigrants, or carers found that their experiences of university lay far outside of what they had imagined.
This becomes a huge problem when you consider the detrimental consequences which can come from this. Students not seeking support because they think that they’re making “a fuss over nothing”. Internalised negative views and blaming themselves for being different. Social withdrawal. Depression and anxiety. Self-harm. Suicidal thoughts. Or dropping out from university altogether.
With numbers of marginalised students continuing to fall, more needs to be done to combat the myth of “the student experience”, encourage marginalised students to enter higher education and actually supporting them while they are there. Too often, marginalised students are treated like cash cows with universities using clever advertising to portray themselves as inclusive while continuing to deny marginalised students representation in the curriculum, proper support for students harassed by staff members, and lack of funding for better pastoral support. Likewise, student unions need to be doing much more to engage marginalised students who may not feel able to attend events, and who do not have as much income and/or time to invest in “student life”.
Despite knowing that my institution and my student union should have done a lot more to support me during my time at university, I find that I frequently blame myself for not being able to better participate and have a better time. In writing this blog, my biggest hope is to let you know that if you don’t have a great time at university it is not your fault and you are not alone. We’re constantly told that “your university experience is what you make of it”, but life is not so black and white. There are so many things that determine your university experience from your institution, the societies available that year, your identity, and luck of who happens to be in your year that year.
Whether you’re just embarking on your journey at university, are making your way through to the final year, or have already left, share your experiences of your time at university. It is so important that we let each other know when we’re not having a great time because there are so many others out there who are feeling exactly the same, and nobody should ever feel like they are alone in their struggles.
For those of you who are new or returning students here are a few tips based on my experiences on coping with isolation, feeling left out, etc:
- Contact your Student Centre (or Wellbeing team if you have one) to talk about any issues you are having and to see what help they can offer. Student Centre’s are a great resource that you can access for any number of reasons including disability support, counselling service, getting set up in a new area, or signposting you to student organisations who can also help
- Check out your student societies and email ahead if you’re anxious. Many societies are friendly and are happy to help new members integrate into student life. In addition to societies like the English, Film-making, Zines, and Tabletop Gaming societies, your university may also have a range of identity societies where you can meet people like you. This can be a really useful resource particularly if you are LGBTQ+ or an international student as you can meet with other students like you!
- Your Student Union can also be a good place to look into. Student Unions drastically vary in terms of what they offer, but it seems that most SU’s are quickly catching on to the need to offer more in terms of inclusivity and wellbeing. You can pop into your SU to ask for more information, or officers are usually more than happy to help students who are struggling to settle in. Check out to see if you have any officers who relating to Wellbeing and Diversity, LGBTQ+, Mature Students, Disability, Women’s or International officers.
- Stay in touch with any friends that you have outside of university. It can be really easy to get sucked into university life, even if that just includes readings and essays, and accidentally forget about everyone else!
- Don’t forget that university is only for a few years of your life (unless you refuse to leave). It can feel like it is never going to end, especially if you’re having a bad time, but it will be over. Like the suggestion above, if you’re not having a great time make sure you set up some things outside of the university environment. That could be anything from going to galleries, events, meetup’s, non-student friends, volunteering, or even just going to the library!
- Lastly, my absolute number one tip is… Always ask for help. Don’t leave it until you feel like you’re drowning under everything and are on the verge of dropping out. There is lots of support available to you in a number of forms, whether that’s through staff, students union, or other students. There is always someone to talk to and can help you through whatever it is that’s going on for you.
For those of you, like me, who have already left university, regardless of whether you completed your degree or not, remember that your time at university does not define your self-worth. Regardless of what happened to you at university, it is just a small stage in your life and by no means determines who you are, what you are capable of, or what you will achieve in the future.
Life at university can definitely be overwhelming. If there’s anything that you’re unsure about or would like any more information on, or maybe just someone to talk to who can point you in the right direction, please feel free to drop me a comment below or tweet me @redrocketpanda