University is meant to be the best time of your life – but if it isn't, you're not alone

© Alamy Stock Photo

For many first year undergraduates, fresher’s week is a time for boozy nights out and making new friends

– Alamy Stock Photo

Many fresh-faced and artless 18-year-olds are getting ready for their first experience of university, which often includes studying in bed, plenty of booze and surviving on baked beans on toast.

I always remember the nervous trepidation that lay in the pit of my stomach when I picked up my envelope from sixth form back in 2012. Opening it with trembling fingers, the letter revealed I had surpassed the entry requirements needed to study English at Nottingham University. I remember the tidal wave of relief washing over me as I realised I could escape from my infamously crap hometown of Slough and never look back.

As someone who was, speaking frankly, a loser and a nerd at school, I couldn’t wait to start university. It was proffered to me by those older and wiser as being my window of opportunity, my time to shine. It was less about getting the degree itself (I reckoned it would probably be a doddle, after A-levels) and more about “discovering my true self”, as embarrassing as that sounds.

University would be the place where I’d meet my real, proper friends, bound together by a series of misadventures involving terrible fancy dress and stolen traffic cones. The three years would be like one long sleepover, spending days snaffling cold pizza from the kitchen and eating it in bed, occasionally attending lectures about Shakespeare before heading on yet another big night out, fuelled only by takeaways and – let’s be honest – alcohol.

The rest of my life would be spent fondly reminiscing about these halcyon days with my veritable smorgasbord of pals, and we’d meet up for dinner regularly to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly three years we spent together.

However, like many things in life, it didn’t turn out quite like that. While I have friends who talk at length about how university was the best time of their life, all I can think is: “Can’t relate.”

I knew university wasn’t going to be for me after about two weeks into my first term. Instead of meeting the other bespectacled bookworms I was promised, I was living slap in the middle of a crowd of first years all coming from elite private schools, complete with received pronunciation. Many had been entangled before, having met at “Hugo’s wild Henley pre-sesh” or at lacrosse tournaments in the far-flung corners of Buckinghamshire. One girl even flew in on a private jet from the faraway climes of Essex, for some reason. I didn’t realise people like this really existed outside internet memes and articles.

My course itself provided little to no refuge either. I wasn’t used to the difference in studying English at university level, so forget engaging in a debate in front of the whole class whether Marlowe or Chaucer was better. I had never studied Latin, I didn’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Elizabethan history and I didn’t give two hoots about what FR Leavis made of Charles Dickens.

But the thought of quitting, and heading back to Slough, seemed even worse than university itself. I was the first girl in my family to go to university, and I remember the misty-eyed smile of my mother when I tearfully told her I had got into Nottingham. Quitting felt like admitting defeat, confirming I was a failure. So I plodded on, doing my best to make those three years bearable.

It’s little wonder I was depressed throughout university – and I’m certainly not alone. The 2018 University Student Mental Health Survey found one in five students have a mental health issue, with that number rising to one in three students feeling they need to seek professional help. Meanwhile, 33 per cent of students admitted to sometimes or “always” feeling lonely.

While there’s a number of reasons why this may be, the way young people are sold university certainly can’t help. There’s too much emphasis on university as being this life-altering, vital time of your life. If you’re 18, and on your own in a new city and not having an absolute blast at all times, it’s understandable you’d feel miserable. The often boozy culture, change of pace in study and fear of being left debt-riddled and unemployed is unlikely to help either – particularly in this current climate.

Young people who choose to take further study should be taught that university can be just the start of the so-called “adventure” of adulthood. Despite what we’re led to believe, graduates don’t become soulless, boring droids chained to desks after they toss their cap in the air. There’s no time limit to the experiences many face while at college. All the things you’re expected to do while on campus grounds (one-night stands, dancing until the sun comes up, making real, solid friends for life) I did once I left university behind.

I “grew up” and “found myself” after I had ditched this infinitely suspended adolescence, and had a far better time with an actual salary and people I actually get on with instead of desperately scraping pennies together to go to a sticky-floored nightclub with girls I openly hated.

It’s also important that people aren’t made to feel they’re missing out because further education isn’t for them. It’s fair to assume that many people would rather not be ladened with £50k worth of debt just to go to two lectures a week and watch a grown man fumble with a PowerPoint presentation.

This isn’t to put anyone off heading to university. You may find yourself at your halls of residence this September and have the absolute time of your life. You’ll meet a new gang of housemates, dress up as Where’s Wally? and start a passionate, but brief rendezvous with the physics student that lives in the bedroom opposite you. Or, you might go, muddle through lectures, have a small set of acquaintances and leave feeling nonplussed about the whole thing. Either way, life doesn’t cease when you graduate. For many people, university is only the beginning.

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