How to stay true to yourself at university
Features Editor Catherine Stone explores the social pressure connected to university life and how to balance experimentation and self development with staying true to yourself as an incoming student.
For many young adults, university is the first period of all-encompassing independence in our lives – an opportunity to start fresh in a new city and develop your ‘true self’ socially and intellectually. The social pressure placed on these years as a bridge between adolescence and entering the ‘real’ world of mature adulthood is significant.
Students should never feel pressured into anything that makes feel feel unsafe or out of control, or that conflicts with their values
We are paradoxically told that university is a time to experiment and to make as many mistakes as possible in order to forge our own path; and, at the same time that it should be the best time of our lives, with the most freedom and opportunities. These two narratives build a stereotypical picture of university as a chaotic, dramatic place where sex, drugs and alcohol are an expected part of university culture and reckless behaviour is forgivable. But students don’t need to drink to excess or take part in hook-up culture, let alone take drugs, in order to have a ‘proper’ university experience – because there is no such thing. As a place for self-development, students should test the boundaries of their comfort zone but never feel pressured into anything that makes them feel unsafe or out of control, or that conflicts with their values. Every student experience is unique.
University is a place to form your own voice, opinions and values. Arriving as a Fresher, this pressure can mean throwing yourself at every event and opportunity, both academic and social. Encouragement from flatmates and new friends is great for trying new things that you hadn’t even considered. However, sustained high levels of commitment to many things can lead to burnout from exhausting too much energy. Students often feel by third year, they’ve found a balance that feels comfortable for them, with different sets of social circles and, if not a well-managed workload, at least one with a steady rhythm.
Finding yourself can happen in dramatic events and extreme highs and lows, but also happens every single day, in the way you shape it
Marina Keegan called finding this community at university ‘that indefinable, inscrutable, opposite of loneliness’ from the ‘tiny circles we pull around ourselves’ of societies, friends, jobs and classes. The truth is, the loneliness can sometimes be intense, if or if not you’re out every night partying or at a different society event each day. Homesickness is a natural psychological result of the sudden change from home to university, and it can hit hard just when you think you’ve avoided it completely.
The perfect veneer of university as endlessly dynamic can sometimes echo as hollow as the impression of a hedonistic culture because neither reflect the mundane hour-to-hour reality of university life. Simple choices every day dictate your path, and you can shape it minutely over time to what you want it to be. The glossy graduation pictures and the wild videos taken in the club at 4am both look cool on Instagram and form amazing core memories, but the quiet joy in the everyday – studying with friends in the library or sitting outside to soak up the last of the autumn sun – needs to be appreciated too. Finding yourself can happen in dramatic events and extreme highs and lows, but also happens every single day, in the way you shape it.
And finally, there is no such thing as a finished product of self. You don’t need to have figured everything out by graduation. The social media pressure to have read the right books, have a perfect wardrobe that encapsulates your individual sense of style, to have a fulfilling romantic relationship, is unattainable. Character growth is achieved in stages and the notion of self is, by definition, transient.