As far as attesting to a fantastic Freshers’ experience goes, I know that I definitely can’t. I would be the first to admit that my first weeks in Durham were a jumble of anxiety, self-doubt, and regret. By mid-October, after what felt like the longest two weeks, I was ready to lug my bags up to the station and get on the train home for an early Christmas. Yet a short three years later, and three Freshers’ weeks wiser, I think I’ve just about cracked the key to survival.
The first and most crucial revelation – Freshers’ week can actually be really hard. If this is not news to you, then good. When I turned up in Durham it hadn’t even crossed my mind that Freshers’ week would be anything but the best week of my life. After a while it dawned on me; none of my mates in sixth form, or my newly found uni friends, had ever really realised that surviving Freshers’ was a challenge in itself until after the fact. Turns out social pressures, looming academic hurdles, a brand-new city (probably far from home), and mastering the simple task of keeping yourself alive whilst surrounded by people you’re keen to make a good first impression with, is actually kind of hard. If you manage any of these things you’re doing pretty bloody well if you ask me.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The important thing about this first bit of advice is that all you need to do is remember it. There’s plenty to look forward to, but expecting to have the best week of my life meant that as soon as I felt a twinge of homesickness or self-doubt the whole world, Durham and all, seemed to fall down around me. The chances are you will feel scared, alone, or unsure, even if for a mere 30 seconds, and that’s more than okay. If you choose not to go out, that’s okay. If you accidentally miss all of your introductory lectures (like me) I can promise you no one will remember. No one is taking notes, and you’re allowed to deal with what’s rightly one of the biggest things to happen to you, in your own way.
Expecting to have the best week of my life meant that as soon as I felt a twinge of homesickness or self-doubt the whole world, Durham and all, seemed to fall down around me.
Secondly, and yes – maybe obviously, Durham is small. Very small. In my first term, I ran out of ways to describe Durham’s smallness to friends back home. It’s easy to feel a bit trapped at times, especially with college life making it feel as if everyone actually does know everyone. When you can, make the most of the chances you get to experience life outside of college. The freshers’ fair, on the Tuesday and Wednesday of Freshers’ week, is a very good start. You will get to see the breadth of student life in Durham and get the chance to connect with people will all sorts of passions and interests. You can also get in touch with Durham’s Associations; students groups with special status who do great work to represent and support students including, for example, LGBT+ students, working-class students, people of colour and students with disabilities. You can find out more about these groups on the SU website and on Facebook.
The third piece of advice I’ve got is a bit contradictory. On the whole, when you’re given advice about how to do Freshers’ ‘right’, ignore it. I could wallpaper a small palace if one day I was compelled to print out the reams of online advice aimed at new university students; everything from ‘don’t take a cheese grater’ to ‘create an email address to use in society sign-ups’. As much as I would argue that a bathmat is the single most important thing to take to uni (honestly) if you’re sharing a bathroom, there’s very little advice that’s both applicable to all and actually helpful. So what if your flat ends up with seven cheese graters? All this advice will likely just pile on the pressure, make you feel confused, and take away from the really important stuff like settling in and getting to know your new mates.
So – try and remember that Freshers’ week is a pretty challenging week, and that you’re allowed to not enjoy every second. That said, there’s so much to be excited about. There are plenty of groups and societies who will be over the moon to welcome you to Durham, and there are lots of ways to seek help if you need it, like through colleges or associations. And don’t bother with the advice that makes your life harder. Most of all, Freshers’ week is just the start of your time in Durham. If you do have the time of your life, then lucky you, but chances are for most people the best, most memorable, most important parts of their time here will come when Freshers’ week has been and gone.
Photograph by Maddie Flisher