‘The freedom to start fresh and create yourself in the way you want’

Soon-to-be graduate Louise Lawless has some practical advice on what you should expect as you start off in third-level

Third-level institutions host Fresher’s Week events to encourage students to meet and join societies. Photograph: iStock

Third-level institutions host Fresher’s Week events to encourage students to meet and join societies. Photograph: iStock

 

And so it begins, the next part of your life – you’ve made it: college is almost here! Amidst all the excitement, relief and curiosity, it is natural to also be worried or nervous.

There is so much to know, even if you have older siblings or friends who have gone through it already. As a soon-to-be graduate, I’ve assembled what I’ve learned both inside and outside of the lecture halls, in the hope you don’t make the same mistakes as I did.

It goes without saying that college is different to school. At its most basic, it is merely the jump from being a school child to a student. But, as you will come to realise before long, it is much more than not having a uniform to wear or homework to complete.

These years hold the potential to build the foundation of your future career, and of creating the life you want to live. Coupled with this will come the realisation that you can be a very different you to the person you were in school. This transition has granted you the freedom to start fresh, and to create yourself in the way you want.

The change can be overwhelming. Finding your way around a vast campus and being bombarded with information takes some getting used to. No matter what institution you go to, it’s easy to feel like a small fish in a (very) big pond; suddenly knowing few people, if any at all, in a place where only a handful of the buildings are relevant to your course – a far cry from the comforts of school, where you were so aware of your surrounds.

To the uninitiated, everyone else might seem settled, clued in and confident. How are you supposed to have the best time of your life when it’s hard just to find your feet?

Life delivers unforeseen events, both positive and negative, and college is no different. Relish the good, but be prepared for the bad. Know where to go, and who to talk to. Some of the anxiety can be mitigated by knowing where to go when things arise and hopefully this article will signpost the essential services before they’re needed.

Accommodation

The consequences of Dublin being one of the most expensive city in the EU is keenly felt by students who need to rent. Putting a roof over your head is guaranteed to be a costly, frustrating process and sorting out your accommodation will be one of the harder aspects of third-level life.

For those who are anxious about leaving home for the first time, digs can be a happy middle-ground between moving out and the comforts of living in a family home. Alternatively, if you live close to your chosen university, you may commute – which invites challenges of its own. With a bit of luck, you will be awarded campus accommodation; if not, it’ll be a seemingly endless hunt for the perfect home.

Many colleges provide campus accommodation, and advertise deadlines well in advance.

“All hope is not lost when students are rejected from campus,” says Aisling Fagan, vice-president of Welfare and Equality for DCU’s Students’ Union.

She encourages students not to panic or stress, as there are plenty of resources available “whether that be an accommodation page on Facebook, links from their college website, advice from current students or information from their welfare officer”.

As well as that, most colleges offer support, with UCC and UCD providing ‘Studentpad’ – a service listing houses, flats, and available rentals in the surrounding area. Campus accommodation does not come without its problems though and rent increases last year led to strikes in DCU and NUI Galway. Fagan, who lived in Shanowen Square student accommodation in her third year, says “there is no way in the world” she would be able to afford the increased rent of the accommodation, and demands that more “needs to be done to facilitate students” as they are being “priced out” of their chance to avail of a third-level education.

Accessibility

Finding your way around the campus is something to accomplish before first week rolls around. UCD has a handy video series that enables you to plan your journey the most accessible way. Trinity has a podcast series that does something similar and both offer handy maps that will help you get to know your way around a bit better. Maynooth University assigns students with additional needs an adviser to ensure they know what things to do and what forms to fill in. Either way, check it out beforehand.

Course

Whether you got 15 or 615 points in the Leaving Cert, college will be academically challenging. The high of achieving the requisite points for the desired course will soon fade in the face of the increase in standards you are expected to meet. Despite this, the average first-year student will spend less time consistently studying than they did in their last year at school.

Attending seminars will mean not having to read it in your own time, and they are where exam tips are often shared.

Listen in lectures: leave social media at the lecture hall – spending time on Twitter or Facebook during a lecture is a waste of your time.

Classes that offer reward for attending should be non-negotiable: your tired, or hungover presence is better than not going at all and missing marks just for turning up. It will save a last-minute scramble for marks before the exams.

Be aware of deadlines and due dates for essays or assignments. Eleventh-hour essays are still better than losing a minimum 10 per cent for an unjustified late submission.

This will require that you know how to access your library and avail of printing services. Colleges generally offer support systems for teaching these and library staff are more than willing to help. You’ve worked hard to get to college, the next step is to work hard to stay there, but regardless of what you’re studying, “don’t underestimate yourself”, Shane Rice, TCD Student Union president advises, remembering the “immense stress and anxiety” he felt at the beginning of first year having chosen to pursue German and Irish – despite never having been to Germany nor the Gaeltacht.

Looking back, Rice realises there was “no need to be afraid” as everyone makes mistakes, and no matter the course, everyone has different abilities, and ultimately “the reason you are there is to develop yourself”.

Health

As with every stage of life, self-care is of utmost importance. College promises its own challenges and you have to be equipped to know how to deal with them. College is a time for learning, and inevitably mistakes will be made. But there are people on hand to offer support and assistance – from the unions to class reps.

Fitness

All colleges have health centres/gyms of some sort – find out whether they are included with the fees or are extra; if you have to pay there should be a discount for students. Find out how to use them – most require registering in person before the first use. Doing this in first year actually helps with becoming more active, as students are often too embarrassed to register in the middle of term, and might wait until the following year instead of worrying about feeling awkward in the unfamiliar surrounds of the gym.

Mental health

Given the increase in mental-health issues among Irish students, it is crucial to be aware of the supports on offer. Arm yourself with the available resources: Niteline is available in a number of colleges across the country and provides free, anonymous, listening services from 9pm both on the phone and via messenger. Trinity grants eight free counselling sessions per term to every student (a little-known fact!). Different universities offer specialised services – NUI Galway has alcohol and drug counselling, while UCC has an occupational therapist and a life coach for those who need them. The services are there, you just need to know where to find them.

Sexual health

Sexual health may be something you’ve thought little about but it’s important to be cognisant of it, and given that it can be awkward to ask for advice on, better know before you need it. Welfare offices provide free condoms, and no matter your gender or orientation, be sure to have one for when it’s needed as STIs are something that are becoming increasingly common in Ireland.

Advice

Most colleges will offer some form of peer support. The premise is simple: they assign you an older student who is able to answer your queries . This person will be an invaluable resource. It’s a friend you don’t have to even try to make. They’re already there, a fountain of wisdom and collegial confidence, and better again, will have already stood exactly where you are – they too were once nervous, excited, and maybe felt a bit out of their depth. They can help, if you let them.

Social life

There are plenty of opportunities to meet new people, but you have to be proactive and brave in seeking them out. Irish colleges encourage ‘mixers’ and host Fresher’s Week events to get students to meet, a welcome initiative as meeting new people can be exciting for some, but nerve-wracking for others.

Saying that, meeting people is one thing, making friends is another. Often you meet people once and really get on well, only never to see them again, or just occasionally around campus.

Don’t be afraid to get someone’s contact details, and arrange to meet – chances are the other person will be glad you made that leap.

The advice from TCD’s Shane Rice – whether you’re coming from a big Dublin school and half your year is there, or a small school of 20 pupils in west Donegal, “everybody is starting college in the same situation”. He urges students not to be afraid of throwing themselves in at the deep end: “Talk to the person next to you in your orientation, or the somewhat-intimidating second-year at the Fresher’s Fair stand – literally everybody is eager to meet new people, you just have to make the first move.”

To make friends in college, you’ll probably have heard by now that your best bet is to join clubs and societies. Chances are you’ll join a whole slew of them during Fresher’s Week.

Although this is almost a rite of passage, it’s important not to let the socialising opportunities pass you by. It may be impossible to keep up every club you’ve initially signed up for, but do commit to a few. Pick one or two you enjoy, whether they be sports, politics, volunteering, or debating.

Returning to the same activities and meeting people with a common interest week-in, week-out is a more sustainable way of making friends.

Nothing’s perfect

Things will not be picture perfect, nor should you aim for them to be. Rid yourself of that pressure from the get-go, and college will become a lot easier, the burden of social media alleviated before it truly hits.

It can be a slow process, but eventually you will get used to being there and if you let it, college will become your second home.

To conclude: be brave, for the best things happen outside of your comfort zone. Be confident: You deserve to be here.