Looking back over the first eight months of university, I can count on my fingers the number of times my experience as a fresher matched up with the stories I had been told. The archetypal first year – alternating between blackout drunk and hungover, scraping the 40% at the end of the year and having casual sex whilst making ‘friends for life’ with the girlies – is something I am sure lots of people experience, and more power to them. But I am equally sure that I am not the only person who stepped out of their last exam and felt an overwhelming sense of not having done first year ‘right’, or a distinct feeling of relief that it was all over.
A quick google of the threads in Student forums shows that whilst you may think everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing, we’re all just fumbling through. ‘How to lose your virginity? How to deal with anxiety? What to do as a teetotaller? How to deal with binge drinking?’ Everyone is trying to conform to the university experience they have been sold for years by friends, family and the media. But I would say around a third of my friends have told me they cried almost daily during Freshers’ Week, and getting drunk with a group of strangers in a foreign place is rarely everyone’s idea of fun. There is much discussion about the sensibility of millennials. A 2017 Telegraph article noted that 40% of under-25s are teetotal, quoting one student from Kings London who commented that he only really goes out once every 2-3 weeks. I don’t doubt that there are people who limit themselves and enjoy exercising self-control on a night out, but they were few and far between in my experience. There are two clashing images of a millennial university experience; it is either a raucous, drunken, rebellious three years, or a period dedicated to study and tutting at those who didn’t get the memo that we’re a ‘sensible’ generation. The last eight months were neither of these things. Some bits were hugely enjoyable, some bits were emotionally draining – to be honest, it was much like most of life.
There is an element of Fresher’s Week that is grin-and-bear-it. I had taken a gap year, and several of my friends from school had confided that Fresher’s Week was not all that, but that first year in general was a total blast. So I gritted my teeth for the first week, joined in the forced fun, dressed up as Harley Quinn, a pick-and-mix bag, a stuffed olive. I made some of my closest friends, and I also rang my parents probably twice a day. I had lovely nights out full of silent discos and dancing, and I had days where I felt hopelessly lost. But I felt comforted by the fact that several of my friends had experienced a similar first couple of weeks and that they had finished first year proclaiming that it was the best time of their lives. Instead, for much of first term I felt that I was learning constantly in every part of my life and it was exhausting. Constantly being open, friendly and enthusiastic was draining when sometimes all I wanted to do was spend the evening curled up with Netflix.
Like 1 in 4 people, I struggle with my mental health, which undoubtably didn’t help. Being prone to anxiety is unhelpful on a night out; depressive tendencies are never fun, but I have friends who have never dealt with either and who also found first year hard work. It isn’t that its more challenging than the rest of life, but it is sold as the time of your life – free from parents, no real academic pressure, surrounded by other hedonistic, interesting people. All of these things are true, but there are also times when you are cramming for an exam, deep into an overdraft and scrolling through instagram seeing what seems to be the entirety of your timeline on one big night out. You might be homesick, you might be stressed, you might simply be a bit lonely. Freshers’ is not one big high, its not one big low – it is a middle ground, it is fine, it is sometimes even good, but it is not all that.