Freshers’ week is messy but that’s okay – go with it

Have fun, make mistakes, don’t try to live up to dreams, accept change and learn when to say ‘no’

Freshers of 2014, wear sunscreen. The Baz Luhrmann song says it best, as does David Foster Wallace's This is Water. But you probably heard enough advice when you got your Leaving Cert results and were too overwhelmed with counting CAO points to listen.

Which is where freshers’ week, that messy mass initiation into the college bubble, comes in. My own first week at college in the UK was one of terror: the 19-year-old who was treated for cirrhosis; the dismal T-shirts we got for the traffic-light ball, printed with tick-boxes for “Single”, “Attached”, “It’s complicated”.

I’ve found, through my undergrad, and postgrad this year, that freshers’ week is similar wherever you go. You’ll be given a bag of free stuff, most of which will lurk neglected in your bedroom all term (my advice is to go through it for pizza coupons and throw away everything else).

You’ll lack important domestic items like an iron or salt and pepper shakers (regrettably, I stuffed sachets into my pockets from the college cafeteria) but will find yourself rich in curious freebies like condoms, corporate notebooks, and sachets of sweet chilli sauce, forced on freshers as the solution to every culinary dilemma (bored of baked beans? Throw sweet chilli sauce on them. Vegetables? Sweet chilli sauce. Life? . . .)

That first week is spent being herded from fresher’s fair to nightclub to matriculation speech, being fed measures of discounted alcohol in between. One former Dublin college ents officer explained: “The first night is usually the messiest. As the money runs dry things get a little tamer, freshers become a bit more astute at finding free booze. It’s good training for college.”

Surely what separates the men from the boys is an ability to skillfully smuggle vodka into the fresher’s ball. Trinity’s ents officer Finn Murphy has a more optimistic take: “I can understand people being negative towards a bunch of students going partying for a week, but it’s the partying and the madness that help people settle into college.”

This baptism of fire – along with an inaugural Coppers visit, for some – is what cements a bond with the people you’ll know for the next few years.

There are no hard-and-fast rules: you don’t have to get drunk, or even go out, though you might regret it if you don’t. You don’t have to pull all-nighters in the library writing essays. You don’t have to have “freshman 15” weight gain.

It took me a long time to work out that the mark of the grown-up is knowing when to say “no”. This applies to every part of the university experience: from paying for every ball or ski trip to writing convoluted essays in “academic” language you barely understand (if you don’t know what you’re saying the person reading it won’t either).

To be told you are having the best time of your life, over and over, is a recipe for disillusionment. Your first year might be tough: you might not work enough, or work too hard. You might see your group of school friends splinter and life take on an unfamiliar shape. First year is the year in which it is easiest to lose proportion, to collapse under others’ expectations. If I could give advice to my 18-year-old self, I’d say not to be scared and remember everyone else is scared too.

A memory of my first year is that sense of having to measure up to someone else's ideal of college life. Call it the et in Arcadia ego effect: I'd got into Cambridge and believed I was stepping into an Evelyn Waugh novel. My classmates were superhuman and I'd been admitted by some terrible mistake. Well-adjusted students rode bicycles and acted in plays, while I spent increasing amounts of time in my room, Skyping friends in Dublin to check they hadn't forgotten me. It took the best part of two years for the imposter syndrome to go away.

My college, Magdalene, was grand and forbidding, and full of very strange, very English rituals, like the Wyvern Club, a drinking society not unlike that depicted in The Riot Club, only without the fatal violence.

Freshers’ week in Dublin looks a lot more fun. Some societies promise events with “raunchy pub games” and “serious amounts of shifting”, but parties at Trinity (a Two Door Cinema DJ set at Opium), UCD (a giant dance party) and DIT (“the messiest night of your life”) will likely be gleeful.

Freshers should be allowed to make mistakes. First year is the one in which to experiment: try something new like knitting, coding or stand-up comedy. Get locked out of your room. Forget your lines, get dumped, fall into a pond. It’s all learning.

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