Freshers week is soon to be upon us for most University students. On the 22nd, one day after turning 22, I will be entering my second year of studying English Literature at the University of Greenwich, alongside beginning a new job at the University also. I'm extremely excited and more than keen to get back into the swing of things, after having an extremely successful first year in terms of grades, friendships, learning, and having fun.
I remember being terrified to begin University for the third time, about to turn 21, predicting it would be another year of failure on my part. A year on, and despite some minor blips, I've learnt so much about myself through making the decision to try again and won't ever look back or regret that decision. So many of you that are regular readers of my blog I am very aware are currently in the position that I was/am in - perhaps you are about to head into your first year of University with a past or current experience of mental health problems, or this is your second, third shot at University and, like me, you're very scared of things going wrong or your health deteriorating. I'm going to therefore try and attempt a 'university tips and reminders' post today, if you like, with particular emphasis on those who commute into University, managing stress levels, and looking after your mental health whilst at University.
- Although I've never been a particularly socially anxious person, there's always that concern when entering any new establishment for the first time that you're not going to make friends. Usually these thoughts are entirely irrational, but for those who struggle with anxiety persist constantly and especially in these upcoming weeks can fester. This may not work for some people, but in both times I have begun at University (bearing in mind I have had experience of living in halls and commuting), I set up Facebook groups for my classmates, which I promoted on Twitter and some of the University Facebook groups that currently existed. Luckily, both times, they proved a huge success, and on the very first day of term last year I arranged to go for drinks with my classmates to get to know everybody and since then, we've all remained extremely good friends. The Facebook group has since stayed open and acts as a place where we can also aid each other if we're struggling with certain aspects of the course, and which we are now opening up to the next group of Freshers. I will stress, some people like to have the surprise of meeting people as they arrive at University, but personally for me as a first time commuter, it was really useful that we could all try and calm each other down and help each other so early on in our University life.
- Please do not be afraid to disclose your mental health diagnosis on your UCAS form or on any part of your personal University application, and if you are eligible, please find out more about Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). Many of those with mental health problems perceive that DSA doesn't include or refer to them, but there is plenty of support available for those who struggle with mental ill health that you may not even realise existed, i.e extra time in exams, sitting exams separately, extra tutoring, and adjustments that can be allocated to your specific needs if necessary. Please investigate all the help that is available to you, whether you are living in halls or commuting.
- Never perceive that if you are struggling, then you must struggle alone. Each University will have a Counselling and Wellbeing office (it varies to each University), where students will be able to access support. I know that for my University it is as easy as filling out an online form explaining your current circumstances/situation, to which they very swiftly make an appointment for you to speak to somebody, but it does vary to and from each University. A lot of Universities will also offer groups and workshops also. If you are moving to halls, take time to familiarise yourself with the health services available to you in the local area, which may be able to help you - as well as getting signed up to the local doctors surgery as quickly as possible.
- Alongside this, do not be afraid to approach your lecturers/seminar leaders or personal tutors for help. Yes, they are your lecturers and are there to teach, but have a heart and a passion for also ensuring that their students are well supported. I personally have two lecturers of mine of whom I tend to open up to regarding my personal issues, and whom I have trusted from the very beginning, one of them being my personal tutor, and I cannot emphasise how much of a difference it has made to know that I am well supported and not judged upon based on my illnesses. Do find those who you trust and don't be afraid to open up to them if you feel you are able to, you may discover that they may be more understanding then you originally think. In the last year these two lecturers in particular have helped me pick myself up when I've had mental health blips and always continue to reinstate their confidence and faith in my abilities, which tends to be just what I need to hear at the time. I'm very thankful for them both.
- One thing I've learnt is that you'll no doubt discover that your fellow peers, flatmates and classmates will be a lot more understanding and accommodating than you expect them to be. Remember that at University, everyone is sailing along the same boat and undoubtedly are carrying the exact same fears and concerns as you. I remember getting myself into a mindset that University was going to be too much like school, growing up disliking secondary school for being pushed to the side for being 'different'. University gives many students a means of independence and expression, and gives many the chance to discover not just more about themselves, but about each other, and I also find that people become a lot more open-minded to other peoples differences. In that respect, please do not also worry too much about everyone you meet thinking you're 'crazy', 'weird', or 'different'. In the last year opening up about my own mental health problems meant that many of my University peers have opened up to me about their own experiences and consequently we have been able to turn to each other as sources of support.
- You'll be very surprised at how many of the other students sitting around you in lecture halls are not fresh out of Sixth Form. Many students choose to start University later on life for a variety of different reasons, some take gap years, some like me have had health/mental health problems, some have also had difficulties at other Universities, and some may just feel as if now is the right time to begin a degree. My best friend at University is also a mature student, and is three years older than me, and I talk to other students in their 40's and 50's, even 70's when I was studying at Kingston! You are more likely to find this diversity in age in a city based University as opposed to a campus University like mine - but regardless, if you are entering University a few years later than you expected, do not belittle yourself thinking that you're 'too old' or 'too late' for this. You'll be surprised at how many people are mature students, for different reasons. You don't need to explain why or how you've got to this point to anybody, the most important thing is that you're doing something you care about and that you are ready to do.
- Have safe zones. Once you've become acquainted with your University and the campus/city itself, I'd suggest especially for anxiety sufferers like myself is to find a couple of quiet spots where you feel safest in the event of needing to be alone or to just get away from a situation where you feel uncomfortable. It's even important in your first year to start finding the spaces in which you work best. In the last year, I took to sitting on a bench by the River Thames if I ever needed a quiet and reflective space to think and cry, especially as watching water tends to calm me down. (I'm very lucky to have a University which is literally next to the Thames!). In regards to working spaces, there are a number of coffee shops in Greenwich which have been tried and tested and many which I'm eager to try next year, but it depends on my mood as usually I tend to work best in silence. My University has a lot of quiet spots and nooks and crannies which no-one ever seems to think about, which make for perfect working environments. Being so close to Greenwich Park is also something I wish to take full advantage of in my second year in regards to engaging in mindful activity. It's all about exploring and finding the places where you feel safest. My anxiety is triggered by places where I feel unsafe, and Greenwich is one of the only places I know where I feel 100% safe in my surroundings.
- Societies are there to help make new friends and explore different interests and is something I wish I could have engaged more with in my first year. This is a lot more challenging for me as I live a sometimes 2 hour commute from University, but I really would advise attending your Freshers Fair and checking out the societies that are available. Sure, it's fun to stick with a hobby or interest that you know and love already - but I would suggest branching out of your comfort zone a little and trying something new - you'd be amazed at the variety of different societies out there. If you have the chance of ever attending the University of St Andrews, they have a Harry Potter and Gin society. Yes, really. But seriously, trying something new and exciting is one way to challenge your anxiety and find something for you to focus on and possibly take your mind off things.
- Get organised. For many of you, your first year of University technically 'doesn't count' towards your final degree mark, but if you're anything like me, you'll work just as hard anyway. It's really essential to get into a good frame of working and to adjust to a mode of working which suits you, and first year is all about discovering that. Take time to take in lecturers comments, listen to the advice they're giving you, and just take time to adjust to a very different style of learning. Don't be alarmed or disheartened if your grades do not begin to be what you originally hoped they would, remember that the transition from A-levels to University can for some (especially those who have had a break from education), be difficult to adjust. Let your first year of University be your learning curve and a way to determine what method of working suits you. I'd also suggest purchasing a customisable academic planner from my good friend Charlene over at BusyBourdon - where you can include essentially whatever you like, from timetables to therapy diaries to goal-planning pages keeping track of health and fitness, to to-do-lists, anything you require, Charlene can rustle up a little something for you to aid your time at University and make it so that you are able to concentrate and focus on other areas of your life, too, and overall to just be more organised. If you're a perfectionist like me, the concept of structure may put you in a very happy place and getting organised early will certainly help simmer down the craziness going on around you as you start your University journey.
- If you're anything like me and experience extreme anxiety on public transport, you may wonder, as a commuter, how to cope with your journey. I chose to commute to University for personal reasons but also to actually push myself to conquer my anxiety, which is a learning curve and a struggle at times, I've had many the panic attack on a packed train or busy London street. Embarrassing, yet necessary on occasion to push myself to try harder. The ways in which I deal with my commute essentially is entirely dependant on my mood - sometimes if the train is quiet I find it therapeutic to stare out of the window and think, or more often than not, I'm reading and making notes, which is perfect for my course. If neither of these are useful distractions from my current surroundings - the classic option is some headphones in your ears to blast other noises at bay. Make your commute fun and comfortable for you, most importantly. I have certain seats and carriages which I insist on sitting on or near on the DLR, the tube and the bus because my head tells me that they are 'safer' or they just make me feel calmer. Don't be afraid to do whatever you need to do in order to feel comfortable in your surroundings.
- A lot of people have also asked me to address the issue of jobs and working whilst at University, and whether you 'should' get a job whilst at University. I guess, personally, it depends on the individual. Through both of my times at my two Universities I have remained within the same job, in the first instance relocating to a new store, and then back again when I moved home. As I was already working, it seemed silly for me to not continue working at my current job, and when I begun at the University of Greenwich I dropped to one 8 hour shift a week. However I've now managed to get myself a new job working at the University - which many Universities offer, opportunities to work in student bars, for the Student Union, as Student Ambassadors, and in my case, a Student Receptionist. University jobs are useful in their terms of flexibility, especially if you struggle with mental health problems, but saying that, my current job is also very flexible around my hours, plus I work constantly in holidays. If you feel that you're not able to commit to a job alongside your studies, voluntary work is an excellent option, as it gives you the opportunity to work when YOU feel able to and there's nothing that needs to be committed to in particular. Most Universities have volunteering schemes (I know mine certainly does) where you can sign up to work and volunteer in a variety of places as and when you like. It also looks excellent on your CV once you graduate. One thing to stress, is too not put too much pressure on yourself to maintain a job and studying, and don't be afraid to say no if things become too much. You must put yourself first.
- Most importantly, love what you study and what you do, and if you don't, change it. It's so important to be studying a subject which you love and are passionate about, and in a place which you also love and care about. Please don't remain in a subject you dislike for three years, only to look back on the experience with regrets. Many Universities offer students the opportunity to switch courses/modules after a month, or even the first year - it's never too late to make a change. The same goes for lecturers and classes - if there is a lecturer you're dissatisfied with or a class you cannot quite grasp, make it known. I knew that when I went to University this time I wanted to make it the best possible experience that I could, even as a commuter. I changed my personal tutor within a few weeks of attending and it was the best decision I've ever made, and haven't been afraid to provide feedback. We can't all be perfect, and if people don't know what they can do to make this experience better for you, then they can't do anything at all.
I think I'm going to leave this post here for the moment, but please comment below if you think there's anything else I need to address and I'll answer your query in a separate blog post, or will edit this one. I hope it's helped in some way. Good luck to you all!