Many new students who come to university feel painfully dislocated from their familiar home. For me going to university never felt as if it was a conscious decision; I just found myself, like many others, just drifting towards what felt like the next natural step lying for me at the end of the summer holiday in 2015. It seemed no different from my climb up from GCSE to A-Level despite the academic rigours required for many to be accepted at Exeter. My difficulty to cope with this new, terrifying and obscene freedom led to a drawn out period of loneliness and self-imposed exile. At times, we all had no recourse but to withdraw to the tiny cabin of a student-room first-years were given, to our loose collection of belongings brought with us from the old life.
Students, new and old, have often become lost in the dominant ideology of freedom at university.
This new style of freedom is very different from the structurally imposed rules of secondary school. It is in a sense much more oppressive and anxiety-ridden as we are left to flounder and make our own choices not only to build a new social network of friends but to also chart the course of our academic adventures alone. Our mental wellbeing as well is now totally our responsibility too. People struggling with loneliness are often told to build a healthy routine to fill their day and so placate the aching feelings of homelessness that come with an empty first year schedule. My advice at this point is to try not to be too rigorous with your individual timetabling of the day. What you don’t want is to desperately compress your university experience into a rigid series of petty chores and responsibilities that will sooner or later just make you feel more anxious or guilty.
On the other hand, there are hidden, unwritten rules in places most would not expect to find them. When I was dragged against my independent free-will onto numerous journeys to nightclubs in the early period of the first year, I began to feel the weight of certain expectations and laws in this supposedly spontaneous free-for-all of rave and boozing. There are certain social injunctions, from heavy drinking to covering up all your inner gloom with a selfie, that are felt as unprompted for some and deeply formulaic and exclusive for others. Because nightlife has now been popularised as one of the crucial ways to find friendships or even just something simple and fun to fill the meaningless gaps in university, many feel compelled to do it as something they must do rather than choose to do. This is not to say that no-one should try nightlife nor that it does not have its moments.
So what should we do in our wonderful yet horrifying predicament that we are paying £45,000 for? The naïve (yet true) answer is to do for you what feels the most comfortable in the moment and never have to be obliged to do anything. It is always better to feel content on your own than uncertain or anxious in a crowd. But what if you are uneasy on your own but don’t want to see anyone? Then open yourself up to the raw newness of university, attend a society or muster the courage to contact a new friend. In this new world what have you to lose?