University doesn’t have to be the best time of your life

A letter from a graduate to a Sheffield fresher

“You’ll have the time of your life”. The well-meaning words uttered by so many around you when you head off to university for the first time.

Yet for many, three years later, you can look back at your 18-year-old self and realise that it was all a myth.

For many people, the myth begins its journey in sixth form. Teachers especially encourage you to apply to uni, enticing you in by saying how much fun there is to have and how many new friends you’ll make.

Then come the university open days. Those, of course, never suggest that you might not have the best three years of your life – even if it is in your best interests for them to say it.

When you get to university and you don’t enjoy Freshers’ Week (as so many people don’t), you think there must be something wrong with you. Are you some kind of anomaly for not enjoying the fact that your only commitment is the tickets you’ve bought for a night out?

Or sometimes you get to second term and you still can’t understand why you feel so lonely surrounded by so many other people laughing, drinking, and partying alongside studying the one subject you actually enjoyed.

All of these feelings are completely normal, with around 50 to 70 per cent of students feeling homesick in their first few weeks at university. It’s just that we don’t see this side of the uni experience all over social media.

Instead, we see post after post on Instagram and the regular topping up of Facebook photo albums subtly suggesting someone is having the best time ever – no questions asked.

This is quite obviously a myth. Why? Because over a quarter of students in the UK report that they experience a mental well-being change for the worst after starting university. Add to this coming out of a pandemic and coming into a brand new city, clubbing again or for the first time, and all the anxiety of socialising… of course university might turn out not to be the best three years of your life.

Although it’s possible to have fun with a mental health condition, the rise in poor mental wellbeing at university obviously demonstrates that this period of time is one where a lot of people find themselves struggling. And that’s ok. Even homesickness demonstrates an initial challenge to settling in.

So, when people tell you that you’ll have the best three years of your life, you don’t have to buy into that idea. And you absolutely don’t have to criticise yourself, your preferences, and your actions if you don’t feel you’re ‘living up to’ the expectations.

University is not the epitome of young adulthood. For most of us, it’s just the start, and it will come with all the lumps and bumps in the road that life brings anyway.

The best advice we can give freshers is not to tell them they’ll have the time of their lives. We should encourage freshers to do what makes them happy, put themselves out there, and see what happens.

Expectations rarely live up to reality, especially when that reality is one crafted by photographs plastered on a social media app.

And anyway, wouldn’t it be sad if, by the time you’re 21-years-old, you’ve already had the best years of your life? I think so.

Chin up, and good luck.

There are lots of websites and support services at both Sheffield Hallam and the University of Sheffield for mental health support. For more information on the mental health services offered at your university visit Uni of Sheffield support or Hallam Student support.

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