First days in college: Students tell what it was like for them and give a few words of advice
Third-level can be a defining stage of your life. How can you make the most of all the possibilities and experiences college offers? Those who have been there and done it offer some insights
Aoife McLysaght: “I would have loved to have had the college experience of living away from home”
Ian Power: “A lot of people don’t know what they want to do in college”
Roz O’Connell: “A large part of college, whether in your lectures and tutorials or talking to your friends, is about new ideas and opening up opportunities to grow as a person”
Jarlath Regan: “I never found university easy. At lot of the time it wasn’t fun the way people said it would be”
The rest of your life beckons, and the next few years of it may be spent in college. Third-level education can be a defining stage of your life and not just from an academic or intellectual point of view. The connections, interests, activities and friends from college years can be just as influential. As you face into this new world, a selection of people draw on their experiences to offer advice on how to get the most out of going to college.
Prof Aoife McLysaght, a lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin is one of the world’s leading genetics researchers. She started at TCD in 1994 and, as she says, never left.
“It was to be a big event for the Genetics Society in Trinity College, but somebody put the wrong date on the poster. So hardly anyone turned up, and we had too much beer. I suggested that everyone come back to my house. A gang of us landed in the sittingroom, where my parents were watching TV, and we changed the channel. They quietly retreated. We scattered ourselves around the room, and my all friends stayed the night, singing songs. The next morning, I was apologetic. My parents said it sounded like we’d had fun.
“Living at home during college is something that everyone navigates in their own way. I was never wild, and I’d always let my parents know if I’d be out very late or overnight, and they accepted that. We got along well. We still do.
“In some senses, I would have loved to have had the college experience of living away from home, but I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking my parents to pay my rent so I could live down the road. I often envied my friends from outside Dublin, but maybe they were living in some awful digs or under the thumb of a miserable landlord, envying the comforts of home.
“When I did my PhD, I received a stipend, which I used to move in with two friends from my course. It was so exciting for myself and one of the other girls, being away from home for the first time. We were chuffed with ourselves on that first day when we headed out to Tesco together to buy groceries. The novelty soon wore off. We struggled to budget, like every student. And we discovered the joys of baked beans and waffles. The Trinity College dining hall offered good value meals, so I’d have a big meal at lunchtime and a smaller dinner.
“In first year, I joined all the societies, with great plans and intentions. Great plans and intentions don’t always work out. In the beginning, I made friends with people from all around college. After a while, it was the Genetics Society that sucked me in, and I got involved in organising events and speakers.
“In college, you get to choose your friends, and this is a really liberating feeling. I will admit one regret: at one point in college, I focused too much on my boyfriend, neglecting my friends. I don’t regret going out with him but, if I could go back, it wouldn’t be so hook, line and sinker! I did learn the importance of a balanced life when surrounded by so many competing possibilities.
“I went to college and studied science because I had learned, in school, that I really enjoyed it. I like figuring things out; science is a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle in that respect. And I really, really love learning. Because of this, going to college was a revelation: I felt at home. I discovered opportunities that I never knew existed. I didn’t know that you could be a scientist for your job: I had never seriously sat down and given thought to who made discoveries.
“Some part of me, I suppose, had absorbed the image of the scientist as a man with white hair. There are lots of areas of life with unconscious sexism, including academia. It needs to be acknowledged so that people will be aware of an unconscious bias, asking themselves if they’re being fair. The worst ones are those who are so certain that they could never be sexist. But there are so many areas of life where women have, traditionally, not been considered as contenders.
“I have found my groove in genetics. I still get a buzz from it. I love my research; I love that I have the opportunity to share that with students. When it comes to it, college is fun, but is primarily a place of learning. I love learning. I have learned that there are people who feel the same, and who want to discover and to grow, and it is okay to enjoy that.”
Ian Power, aged 28, isexecutive director of spunout.ie, a not-for-profit website created by young people for young people, and president of the National Youth Council of Ireland. He has a BA in economics and politics from University College Cork. In 2010, he began work as a guidance counsellor in Hackney and established an organisation, Raising Aspirations, which helps young people from poorer backgrounds to go to good universities. He has an advanced diploma in juvenile justice from the King’s Inns.
“A lot of people don’t know what they want to do in college. I was one of them. I asked my parents for a year off to figure it out. But they resisted because they feared I wouldn’t go at all.
“So I went with an arts degree. The course was good, but it just wasn’t for me. Still, I stuck it out. If I was doing it again, I’d have cut my losses in those first few months, while there was still a chance to move course or drop out with a view to starting a new course the following September and still be eligible for free fees the following year.
“For all that, I hugely enjoyed my time in college. I threw myself into student life. During my time at UCC, I was deputy president of the students’ union, editor of the college newspaper and president of the societies committee. I set up an independent magazine, Motley, which is still there.
“All the work and job experience I’ve done since, including working as a guidance counsellor to young people at a sixth form college in London, has been connected to the skills I learned in college, outside the formal setting of the lecture hall or classroom. It’s all been related to the extracurricular side of college life, because while I was never very good at going to class, I was good at the skills of event management and communications.
“My friends and my professional network now are largely based on the people I met in clubs and societies. Get involved from the outset. There will be a societies or freshers’ day at the start of term, with societies or clubs based around your interests. The second and third years will be keen to have new members and they want you to get involved. There is a club or society for everyone on college: if not, it’s easy to set one up.
“I was in the choral society, the journalism society, the commerce society and, because it was a really fun, good group of people, Macra na Feirme. I ran for class rep. I threw myself into the student newspaper.
“All this time, I was working a part-time job as a manager in Penneys. I’m from Waterford, so I had to live away from home, and I had to pay my way. It’s not always easy. One useful piece of budgeting advice is to join the credit union and save up what you can. I had to pay for accommodation upfront at the start of the year, and credit union loans, along with a grant, were crucial.
“There are times when you might struggle, but there are supports in place, such as a students’ union emergency fund or a student assistance fund.
“In first year, I lived in a house on College Road, with nine people in an eight-bed house and a tiny kitchen. If you’re living away from home, it helps to live with friends: if you’re close enough to them, you’ll forgive almost anything. Don’t be that passive-aggressive housemate who marks all their food with a post-it note. Learn to communicate with the people you live with.
“Maybe I should have struck a better balance between the social and academic sides of college. I left a lot of study until the very last minute. Instead of doing a little bit often, I crammed. Sure, it gets you through the exams, but if the aim is to actually retain and use that information, cramming is a bad idea.
“Before I went to college, I thought that your degree defined the course of your life. I expected to emerge and work in a corporate environment; instead, I work with young people on social issues and I’m friends with engineering graduates who work in human resources.
“College is about learning and growing and seeing all the different opportunities it offers. I’ve learned that college is not as linear as we think. It will be one of the best experiences you ever have, if you fully embrace it.”
Roz O’Connell (27), a recently qualified barrister, studied economics, politics and law, a programme offered by the school of law and government at Dublin City University. She subsequently studied for a master’s in law at Trinity College, Dublin and worked as a legal researcher at the Law Reform Commission for two years. She was called to the bar last July and is currently devilling (serving as an apprentice) in civil law.
“I’m conscientious. I’m a worrier. I worried about whether I would get in to the rightcourse. I worried about how I would do in my degree. I now worry about my career.
“Study was my primary focus, but far from my only one. One of the most important things is making sure you always get to class. If you go to class, and if you engage with the lecturers, you will do fine. I found it really helped to read the material before class; it helped it to come alive. It became less of a lecture and more of a conversation.
“A large part of college, whether in your lectures and tutorials or talking to your friends, is about new ideas and opening up opportunities to grow as a person. There were all these great discussions and debates about politics and law, which really moulded my experience and allowed me to develop as a person.
“College did take some getting used to. You’re so used to being spoon-fed in school and given out to if you don’t do your homework. In college, nobody cares if you don’t do your homework; it’s not their responsibility to get you through.
“I was lucky with my course. It had a broad sweep of topics that allowed me to consider the world from a few different vantage points. I hugely enjoyed it, and there was so much support, both from DCU and from the faculty itself.
“I lived at home during college. I was never one of those people who are dying to leave home, because I have a great relationship with my parents. They gave me such support and strength in getting through the pressure of exams; their support and encouragement was important during times when I doubted myself. We got on well because, I think, they gave me great freedom, and I never abused it.
“I probably could have been more involved in clubs and societies while I was at DCU, but I was quite focused on my study, and I was also already involved in a hockey club outside of the college. Now, there is a Free Legal Aid Centre (Flac) Society, where people come in and discuss any legal problems they might have. That would have been something of interest to me at the time; as a qualified barrister – albeit a junior barrister – I sit in on the clinics at DCU. It’s a nice way to give back to the university.
“I do think it’s worthwhile to get involved in college life, in some capacity. If there’s no society that relates to an issue you care about, set up your own society. Be at the forefront of change. That was really brought home to me during the marriage equality referendum: it is students and student groups that have been pushing for this for years.
“If there’s an issue you care about, find other like-minded students and champion something close to your heart.
“While I wasn’t setting up societies or clubs myself, I did have a really good time in college. There are student nights almost every day of the week, which I used to really enjoy; I was out socialising a lot. No matter how hard you work at college, it is really important to let off some steam, which I did.
“I met great people. I made wonderful friends; there’s a small handful, from various courses, who I’ve stayed connected to. There are a few people, in particular, that I know I can always turn to for support, or just bounce an idea off.
“My last bit of advice: find a balance between social life and study, because it’s the one time in your life when you’ll be in such an open, exciting, carefree atmosphere. College is full of opportunities. Take them.”
Jarlath Regan, aged 35, is a comedian based in London. His podcast, An Irishman Abroad , in which he interviews well-known Irish people for an hour, has more than one million listeners per episode. He studied arts in University College Dublin and was auditor (president) of the Literary & Historical Society in 2002-03.
“Back then people used to say there was ‘no talking to me’. So if I could go back to 1999 and give myself some wise words before I went to UCD to study I’d be very careful. The me that headed up to the lush green playing fields of Dublin 4 from the mean streets of the lush green horse-filled playing fields of Kildare was a very impressionable, mixed up and headstrong lad.
“Both of my sisters had gone to UCD, lived on campus and had a great time despite their ‘nerdiness’, as I saw it. Both Maeve and Caragh were high achievers and I lived in their shadow. I felt like I could never live up to their insane academic achievements, so I had nearly accepted I would not excel at the books in UCD. On the one hand that was a mistake, but on the other hand it opened me up to what would eventually be the thing I do for a living and to meeting my eventual wife, Tina.
“Like most people, it took me a good month to settle into life in the sprawling Dutch Gold-fuelled metropolis of Belfield. It would have been great to have a Chris O’Dowd in Moone Boy on my shoulder advising me how to recognise things that were not for me, and members of the Commerce & Economics society, who only wanted me to join so they get their hands on one of my shiny silver punts.
“I was very low on cash and not in the fun ‘I spent all my money on beer’ kind of way. I had about £25 a week to live on and that had to pay for the Silver Dawn bus back to Kildare on a Friday.
“I got a job designing posters and got a few quid from my sister to make ends meet, because being too poor to eat can get you down, particularly when you’re surrounded by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly types in the student bar who ‘couldn’t give a fock’. Were it not for my low tolerance for alcohol and the Fosters Dollars System (buy three pints, get a fourth free) I have no idea how I could have gotten drunk back then.
“I struggled academically in first year. Coming from the spoon-feed-and-regurgitate method of learning we get in secondary school, I found it really hard to get my head around three things. First, none of the academic staff cared if you didn’t do the work; it was totally up to you. Second, you were expected to write essays where you argued for a theory you put forward and believed in. And finally, I had more free time than I’d had since I was four years old.
“Those three things combined are why so many people used to drop out of arts in UCD. If I could go back like Biff in Back To The Future, I wouldn’t grab the old me by the lapels and give me the exam papers for all three years of my course. I’d probably try to help the old me make sense of these three things, give me some money and a few tips for the horses.
“On January 17th, 2000, I met the love of my life in UCD student bar. About the same time I started getting up in front of lecture theatres and trying to make them laugh at the Literary & Historical Society debates. Both of those things changed my life forever and neither would have happened if I’d listened to the advice of others.
“I never found university easy. At lot of the time it wasn’t fun the way people said it would be, and that’s probably how I got so much out of it. But nobody could tell you that back then and nor should they.”