As I face the daunting prospect of graduating in a couple of weeks, I find myself thinking back on my time at university. And although, as for many people, my time as a student has been an amazing, exciting, formative period of my life, I cannot deny that there have been times where it has been a real struggle and quite an isolating, lonely experience.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret coming to Durham, overall I think my time here was positive, and I’m sure after a few years of hard graft in the real world I’ll look back on my carefree student days with nothing more than misty-eyed nostalgia. But now while the experience is fresh in my mind I think that some of the things we tell naïve young freshers about what university will be like can be quite misleading.
The way we idealise “the university experience”, a time when everybody makes friends, is constantly socialising, constantly happy and constantly positively learning and growing, tends to sweep under the rug some of the less savoury aspects of university, which I think are also important to talk about so that people can get help and know that they’re not alone.
Yes, university has unprecedented opportunities to socialise and pursue your interests. But with no family around to provide the constant support and social contact you take for granted, and without the same daily interactions with people on your course that you had with your classmates at school, it is also ludicrously easy to fall between the cracks.
They say that at university people are supposed to have become mature enough to get over the petty cliquey-ness of secondary school, but from my observation it seems to be the direct opposite – scared of being left out in the cold, many people find a group in Fresher’s and cling to it for dear life, scared of being the one person without an Amazing Group of Friends™. And this can create some quite toxic, exclusionary dynamics. I know of no fewer than three people who have been unceremoniously booted out of a group to get a house for the next year, several more who fell out with their housemates during the course of the year and were treated appallingly by them.
In fact, I have been one of the lucky ones. Although I found them late, I found an amazing group of friends and a great society which has helped me grow and learn in so many amazing ways. I had the stereotypical university experience of finding myself in activism. But even though my experience was mostly positive, even I had moments where I felt lonely, isolated and deeply insecure, plagued by the feeling that “I wasn’t doing university right”. In reality, from conversations I’ve had on the subject since, I think my experiences were pretty normal, and what I really wish is that someone had told me that right from the beginning so that I could realise that was the case.
Why does no-one tell you about how you blink in the first term of Fresher’s and find that everyone is suddenly finding houses together for next year? About the awkward in-between phase of second year where you find yourself drifting in between the group of friends you rushed into at random in Fresher’s and the actual friends you end up with at graduation? About how for every fun night you spend out with your friends there are at least two other nights where you stay in, Netflix on one tab and Facebook on the other, feeling lame for enjoying the time on your own and enviously looking at other people’s posts, certain they must be having more fun than you?
And for many people, it must only be worse. If you are not so fortunate as to eventually find your feet socially, if your mental health suffers from isolation or if you find yourself struggling to cope with the stresses and strains of your work, university must be truly hellish, and the idea that you must be having fun can come across as even more of a cruel joke.
I’m not trying to be relentlessly negative by highlighting these issues. I just feel that it is important to talk about every university experience, positive or negative, so we don’t leave people out. I also believe that the best way to combat this isolation that I think everyone feels a little – even the popular ones (the happy smiles in those constant Facebook updates sometimes seem just a little too wide to be convincing) – is by making people aware that they’re not alone.
Sometimes university can be far from “the time of your life”, and that’s okay. It’s a life stage which, like any other, has major positives and some pretty bad negatives. I think we need to move away from idealising it as the best thing ever so that people realise this and don’t beat themselves up when things aren’t completely rosy the whole time. As for me, I look forward to the different set of challenges and perks which the next phase of my life throws my way.
Photograph: Patrick Brennan