Five First Year Lessons
I’m aware by now that by the time I’m writing this, it’s exceedingly closer to the beginning of second year at university than it is to me finishing my first year. And while looking forward is good, and helpful – and there’s more of that to come – it wouldn’t feel quite right starting to think about next year, without first commenting on some of the valuable lessons I learnt over the last year.
Without a doubt, university is a place of growth. And growth is something that doesn’t happen out of a place of comfort, but instead, a position of challenge. The lessons that I learnt, as with all lessons in life, are possibly ones that I’ll have to learn again when the context changes, but for now, they’re worth noting.
If you’re a fresher about to embark on a new adventure at university for the first time – then maybe these words will be of some comfort. If you’re about to be a second year like me, then perhaps you can find the truth in these lessons just as I did, and perhaps they’re things you need to learn yourself. I know for a fact, that these only skim the surface of what there is to discover, and what God’s got in store for me to learn as part of my life at university.
But as I’ve said before – the things I’ve learnt outside of the lecture theatre are some of the most important things – and lessons I want to share with you now.
1. “Freshers Friends” are a thing
Freshers week for me, was one of the scariest weeks of my life so far. It’s the epitome of an introvert’s nightmare. To go from a place of comfort and safety (i.e. home), to a place where all of a sudden you know nobody, nowhere, and feel entirely lost is a daunting prospect – and I know that this time last year, I was dreading it. Deep down, I knew that if I could get past freshers’ week, I’d be fine.
And get past it I did – but it doesn’t have to be that scary. It helps to know that everyone is in the same boat – and everyone is looking to make friends. But, it is also helpful to be aware that “freshers friends” are also a real thing. There are people that you may become friends with in Freshers week, and then never see again. Treat them as a safety blanket if that helps, because sometimes it takes the courage of a small group to face going to something new – but don’t be too disheartened if they’re not the “forever friends” that people talked about before you come to uni.
Those people will come – and trust me, it’ll be worth the wait. There are people at your uni who will be the friends you’ve been looking for for years – the people who you just “click” with, and can be safely called “your people”. And if that doesn’t happen in the first month, semester, or even year – don’t lose hope – I firmly believe that God cultivates not only you, but those people before placing them in your life in the right time, and for the right reason.
2. There’s always more to do
If you’re anything like me, you probably have a to-do list of some kind. Whether that be a good old-fashioned one on paper, a digital one on your phone, or just an attempted list stored somewhere in your brain, I think we all somewhat run off the “what job needs to be done next?” mentality. Over the past year, I’ve found that while keeping a list is helpful to keep on top of everything that needs doing – there comes a point where you have to learn that the list will always keep growing.
No matter what you do, there will always be more to do. Whether that’s in life, academics, or what – I’ve yet to find a “finished to-do list”. And when it comes to university, and an arts degree in particular, there’s a particular lesson that’s essential to learn here, and swiftly, if you’re going to succeed and avoid burn out.
Whereas at school, your homework tasks would be fairly cut and dry, and explicit about what needed to be done (unless, of course, like me, you were also an over-achiever and a perfectionist and went above and beyond regardless of what the teacher said….) – those helpful guidelines don’t exist at university. There will always be more reading to do – lecture reading, extra bibliographies – you name it, there’s always more. BUT: and this is a big but – it’s not all necessary. The lesson comes down to – doing ‘enough’, and being content with what you’ve done. Unless you’re at university solely for the academics (and even then I doubt it’s possible to read everything that’s set and suggested), there aren’t enough hours in the day to complete it all. Coming to terms with that, and working out what your happy medium is, was one of the lessons I really had to tackle last year. I couldn’t be the one who did everything and more – because I couldn’t keep up.
Uni for me isn’t just about the academics, but about the people, relationship building, church things, and extra-curricular that all contribute to a well-rounded lifestyle. And in order to be able to do that, I had to make a ‘sacrifice’, in the scheme of my to-do lists.
3. Saying ‘no’ might just save your sanity
I find saying no hard. On principle, I want to be helpful. I want to feel included, and be part of what’s going on. You could say that ‘FOMO’ (see linked blog post) plays a large part in this lesson. It’s hard to say no when you think something is worthwhile, or something you could be good at. It’s hard to say no if you then see your friends go on ahead without you, knowing you could have had fun.
But without learning to say no – there comes a point that even if you did go, it wouldn’t be fun, because you’re just burn out. Having experienced burn out – let me put it this way: if you can avoid it, do. It’s not fun. It’s not a nice place to be in – but part of that is learning what your limits are, learning what is necessary, and when it’s time to say no; whether that be to a night out, a new commitment, a position of responsibility, or even just seeing someone for coffee. As much as we try and live a non-selfish life, sometimes we have to stop and take care of ourselves so that when we are looking out for others, we’re in the best position we can be to do exactly that.
4. Sabbath is important
Sabbath is something I’ve grown up knowing about, but never really knowing how to put it into practice. I didn’t ignore the importance of it: but at the same time, I’m not sure I ever understood quite how crucial it is. Towards the beginning of semester one, I heard someone talking about how they’d managed to get through uni, keeping on top of academics, society commitments, church, sport etc. – you name it, they were busy. And they had said, the only way they managed it, was by taking and committing to Sabbath. To some, this may seem counter-intuitive. How does taking a whole day off, actually help you get more things done?
But – as humans we’re not designed to work 24/7. Even though we live in a culture that never stops: the phone buzzes, emails ping through, something or other demands our attention. Whether or not we realise it, we’re almost always on the go. Sometimes even at sleep, when we’re supposed to be the most calm, we still struggle to ‘switch off’, as our brains go into overdrive and over-thinking becomes the norm.
One of the key things about Sabbath that I’ve learnt so far, is that a huge part of it is about trust. Trusting that God is in control of what you get done, and what gets left off the to-do list. Trusting God in how you prioritise your time, and who you prioritise. Trusting that He will provide, even when you feel incapable. I know I’ve got a huge deal more to learn about this ancient art, but I do know it’s really, really valuable. Spending a day away from the desk, the books – anything that is considered “work”, and doing things that are “restful” (whatever that looks like for you) – not only does it lead you to a closer relationship with God (part of this Sabbath time is time spent in worship, and with him), but also, I find, I work better during the week when I’ve had some decent time off.
Sabbath is not only a really important spiritual practice, but a crucial one for physical, emotional, and mental health too.
5. Tutorials aren’t as scary as they seem – they’re for learning
At first, I was terrified of tutorials. Part of that is a wee bit of social anxiety playing into the mix, but there’s also the propensity for a real feeling of inadequacy, as you’re surrounded by people who are intelligent, forward thinking, and often, not afraid to put their opinions across. It’s really easy to feel intimidated, especially if there’s a particular area which you don’t understand, or struggled to grasp in the lectures or reading. In those moments, we have a choice.
You can either stay quiet, keep your queries to yourself, and avoid the embarrassment of showing that you don’t know something. While that may be better in the tutorial room – it’s not going to help you long-term, especially when it comes to exam time. Or, you buck up the courage and ask the question – ask for more clarification – because, chances are, 99% of the time, somebody else in the room has been thinking exactly the same question. Not only does it allow you to talk things through (and by doing so, understand it more) – but it prompts the conversation into a line that will be helpful.
Let’s face is – university is expensive. We’re paying over £9000 a year for our tuition, and if you’re doing an arts degree, not much of that is contact time. Make the most of what you’ve been given – and use the people who DO know, and whose job it is to know. We’re at uni to learn, not to show up and know all the answers already. In fact, turning up with an open mind is sometimes more useful than having all your opinions set in stone from the word ‘go’.
Tutorials are a safe space – and once you’ve worked out it’s okay to ask questions, and that we don’t need to know everything, they can actually be quite fun.
6. (A wee bonus lesson) – Ask for help
Part of going to uni is about learning independence; creating a new life for yourself away from home, and growing up a bit. Sometimes, when all that’s going on, it feels like it’s not okay to ask for help. But, regardless of what stage we’re at in life, we’re going to need help. University isn’t like school; you won’t be given any help unless you ask for it. Your tutors are there to help – but you have to make the first move.
If you’re struggling with an essay – send an email. If you’re not doing okay and need to request an extension – then ask. More often than not, they want to help – but the initiative has to come from you.
Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. It may be a way of accepting our own humanity, but people will think no less of you for asking. In fact, you show yourself to be a bigger person if you’re willing to admit that you can’t do it all by yourself.
There’s always going to be more to learn – and the likelihood is, I’ll find out more about the things I’ve talked about here over the next year. If you’re about to start university – I hope some of these tips help calm a few of your nerves. It’s normal to be nervous: but remember, everyone else is feeling the same way. If they’re not, they’re lying. If you’ve been at uni for a while, but still have good solid life lessons to share with me, then please tell me! And if you graduated years ago, but have advice that you can send my way, maybe something you wish you knew when you were at uni, then I’d love to hear from you.
Life has been designed for us to live in community, and that means the highs and the lows. You’re not doing life by yourself, even if you think you are.
If this reads as if I sound like I know it all – then I want to correct you now. I don’t. I have so much more to learn, I’m going to continue to fall down – but I’m also going to continue to pick myself back up again (or rely on others to help).
Anyway, long ramble over –