The New Student Experience

This weekend sees the beginning of young people leaving their nest and migrating to universities across the country.  It is an exciting time but it also comes with some considerable anxiety.  I went to university many moons ago and then I was incredibly fortunate to have an academic career for over 10 years with the University of Winchester.  Thus I have interviewed thousands of prospective students and guided hundreds through their first semester and onwards.  Beyond that my daughter left the nest in 2011 to study Conservation Biology at the University of Lincoln.  This coming week we are off to Lincoln for her graduation ceremony.

For many years I have had the joy of working with a range of young people applying for university and I had often written about it.  However, I have not taken the time out to write about the experiences I have at the stage when the nest is being emptied a little.  There are, of course, two different sets of experiences – that of the new student and that of the family, especially parents, left behind.  I will try to reflect on both and hope that my commentary is of some use.

mollyLet us start with the new student.  It is something you will have been looking forward to for quite a while and this means you will be excited and that is a delight in itself.  That excitement will carry you through Fresher’s week  where you will spend  time orientating yourself into your new environment and socialising with your new friends.  In my experience first years feed off that excitement for the first month or so but then the vast majority hit a bit of a wall.  This wall is constructed by fatigue and related minor illnesses and a growing feeling that you are missing loved ones back home.  This is a critical time and I used to get dozens of students turn up at my office in tears.  For some students the answer is to go home for the weekend but that might not be possible for all students.  Skype has made a massive difference to the early student experience and I would always encourage students to have as much contact with their family at this time as possible.  It helps to ground you again and move forward knowing that you are very much loved.

Once the new student powers through this stage they often find a new rhythm to their life and things  begins to settle down.  As first assessments become evident the mind is naturally focused and this can only ever be a good thing.  That focus will see you through to your Christmas break when you will be able to recharge and touch base with your roots.  Once the second semester starts many students report that they really feel that they have come along way emotionally and begin to enjoy their first sustained experience of living independently.  Student life continues within this more measured framework until the final year of the course.  This final year is a whole new experience and a  big test for the individual.  Focus has to step up to meet the demands of the final year and social opportunities have to take a step back to allow for the student to achieve what they are capable of achieving.  At the very least the third year makes up for 60% of the final degree classification  so it is clear how important this year is.  There is a huge amount of pressure on graduates to ensure they get a good degree classification and a first or upper second class degree will set them up very well.  I would just stress that relevant work experienced is a growing factor in the student’s profile.  Molly volunteered across five different conservation contexts and I am quite convinced that it is this experience that sets he apart.  Her upper second class degree will play its part as well and, of course, we are very proud parents.

Max, George & Molly on a visit to the stones.

Let us look to the experience of the family, especially the parents, back at the nest.  It is normal to go through some very strong emotions and even though I knew they were coming they still affected me greatly.  I missed Molly the instance we left her at her student halls and for the first few weeks I did pass through some dark times.  That said these dark times were balanced with excitement about all her new experiences and growing pride at how she was handling it all.  Molly couldn’t really pop home to the island from Lincoln so we went to her instead to celebrate her birthday in the November.  That was a watershed time for us as parents because we could see for ourselves how well she was settled and meet her friends.  These friends all remained close throughout the three year experience and they will all be celebrating together later this week.  These friendships have been vital to Molly’s undergraduate experience and I am sure she has made friends that will last a life time.  Once I got used to Molly being away I was absolutely fine and you will be too!  Hearing all Molly’s news was always a delight and I learnt to let her grow in her new situation and did quite well at resisting interfering.  The only challenging times came when she was ill but they were always going to be difficult.  I always told myself that if I was needed I would be there but thankfully her wonderful friends took my place and all was well.

molly and friendsI would just like to say that not all students find themselves on a course that they enjoy.  It is very common for students to want to switch courses and as long as they do that within the first semester it is usually quite straightforward.  If this occurs my advice is to work together to find the right solution and accept that this is part of the process for many students.

So, I hope that these musing and reflections have been of some use.  To parents I would always advise ‘keep busy’ and you will be absolutely fine and to new students I would always advise ‘make friends, sleep and eat well and all will be fine.’  If things are not fine seek out your personal tutor as they will be able to help you considerably.  You are never alone at university and there are lots of people available to help.

brodick castle july 11 051I wish all new students the very best of experiences and I am sending a virtual hug to all the parents of new students out there.  As we prepare for the inevitable tears of joy later in the week and the immense feeling of pride I will keep you all in my thoughts. 

Love to all.

Speak soon.  xx

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