University is a unique experience, both in comparison to other students’ university experiences and the ones that you have later in life. Regardless, there are some things that are similar or identical across the board no matter what role you play at university, and quite often they are the things you aren’t told about, or are vaguely aware of but only fully understand when you experience them.
I, almost halfway through my four-year undergraduate degree, have already experienced all the points in this post to varying degrees, and can almost certainly expect the remaining half to be as turbulent as the first. These are the top 5 things I wish I knew or fully understood before university:
What (not) to pack
Being an overseas student, I was very wary about the realistic amount of clothes, shoes and miscellaneous items I could bring with me. I had even tried to do some research before packing so that I could use my luggage allowance effectively without feeling the lack of the things I’d be forced to leave behind. I went on YouTube, typed “what to pack for Uni” and proceeded to waste hours listening to students evaluate what to take and what to leave behind.
I tried to follow the advice from countless videos, admittedly finding excuses for a lot of my ‘miscellaneous’ items such as my favourite books and CDs. As a Modern Languages student and Potterhead, I was adamant about packing my growing collection of Harry Potter books in the various languages I study, and brought some CDs along for sentimental reasons, despite having just subscribed to Spotify Premium. Today, my Harry Potter collection sits on a dusty shelf, only one or two books fully read in 2 years; my CDs are propped up on the same shelf, the few I’d purchased on a whim still enclosed in plastic, and the CD player I’d convinced myself to buy in first year is sitting in the storage room of my current house.
The same happened with my clothes and shoes. I decided to pack a significant proportion of clothes “just in case”; now I only use most of the clothes from home when I’m avoiding doing laundry. Living in a room less than half the size of the one at home, most of the extra things I packed a year and a half ago sit largely unused and taking up precious space that I need for the assortment of files, textbooks and notebooks I have collected since starting my studies.
This is one of most important things I wish I’d given proper thought to before deciding to study at university. Being fortunate enough to have a relatively stable childhood financially, I was not entirely aware of the value of basic things like food, laundry detergent and toiletries and had no idea how to budget or make money last. Although I got a summer job before starting university and had a good base to live off, only when I started living independently did I realise how fast the money goes on the basics, not to mention the steady drain from monthly expenses such as Spotify Premium, my phone contract and utility bills.
On another note, I wish I had thought more about the impact of the tuition fees and accommodation on my parents. Despite my parents being relatively stable financially during my childhood, the year I started university brought on a lot of instability which they are still trying to stabilise; my dad became self-employed and technically had to start up his business from scratch, and my mum had her hours seriously reduced, working 8 weekly hours for a previously full-time job. As I mentioned earlier, I am an overseas student, which for studying purposes means I am not eligible for student loans from the English Student Finance department, and the government at home gave a small, means-tested grant, so my parents were forced to pay for the majority of my tuition fees and accommodation off their own backs. This was the greatest unexpected difficulty, both for my parents to make the payments and for me to watch them sacrificing everything to get me through the privilege of studying an undergraduate degree that they never had the chance to do.
Over the course of the last year and a half, I went from barely thinking about my financial situation to obsessing over every part of mine and my parents’ expenses. I am constantly on edge when I make any form of purchase and I always feel guilty when buying food or drink on campus because I hadn’t properly planned out my meals. I definitely wish that finances were something that were talked about more frequently, not only tuition fees and accommodation, which are unimaginably high at English universities, but also basic monthly costs and budgeting plans.
The reality of house-sharing
House-sharing is definitely a wake-up call to how different everyone’s attitude to living away from home is. I think that, no matter who you’re living with, there will always be clashes on one thing or another. The common struggle that everyone hears about is the housemate who steals everyone’s food, although to this day I have had no problems with food in either accommodation.
For my household, the biggest problem is cleaning-related. In first year, either students lived on campus in catered halls where a cleaner would frequently clean the bedrooms and bathrooms, or they lived off campus in self-catered accommodation where a cleaner would clean the kitchens every fortnight. I chose the latter and was able to become more aware about cleaning my room and bathroom over the year, which I felt better prepared me for my second year. From time to time, cleaning is still a chore, but on the whole I have a more mature outlook on housework than when I left home.
This is another important issue that I wish I’d known, not so much that I would get homesick, which I did not believe before coming to university, but more so how to cope with homesickness. I have always been somewhat independent and self-sufficient, so I had no doubts that I would not feel homesick at all while at university, especially considering the ease of messaging and calling my mum through Facebook messenger.
In fact, I was somewhat correct; I felt no homesickness whatsoever during the entire first year. Due to flight difficulties, I was only able to fly home for the Christmas and Easter holidays, something that I found no problem with, and did not envy those who were able to get a train home for the weekend. However, due to many changes over the summer between first and second year, I started feeling a lot more homesick in my first semester back, alongside other issues that amplified my homesickness into an almost unbearable state, in return amplifying the depression that I had slipped into since starting my second year.
Looking back, I wish that I had been aware of how to combat my homesickness. I’m still not sure today what I could have done to lessen the pain of homesickness, or indeed if it was inevitable to endure, but overall the experience was something I was not aware of, nor prepared for, before university.
Extreme highs and lows
This was undoubtedly the most surprising aspect of university life for me. The biggest idea attached to the entire university experience is that it’s the best years of your life. But, in contrast, it can simultaneously be the worst years of your life. There are a lot of expectations before starting university, with regards to the modules, course structure, workload and organisation. I believe the general consensus of every student I have talked to regarding our degrees is that the reality is the exact opposite of the expectations that we have when embarking on our undergraduate degrees.
In my experience, my first year was relatively stable, due to the grades not counting towards the final degree mark. As time went on I found that I was having more and more problems regarding the language I had begun learning at the start of my degree. The disorganisation in the teaching and no real module plan made learning the language all the more difficult and led to no motivation to progress with self-study, in no way facilitated by being put in classes with first-year post-A Level students from the start of my second year.
The unrealistic expectations and poor handling of my beginner’s language department, along with feelings of doubt in relation to my other languages, extreme homesickness and loneliness, and no longer wanting to be studying due to a lot of personal changes over the summer, led to me become depressed, which in return resulted in staying at home and not go to the majority of my lessons, at one point only leaving the house to see my best friend and buy food. As the semester went on it became increasingly difficult to catch up or start afresh, which heightened my depression and made me want to drop out of university more than ever.
Since my exams in January and the start of the second semester, I’ve gotten back on track after reaching out for help, despite some minor deviations, and am slowly but surely recovering. I could never have predicted my roller-coaster journey before starting university, which is only yet halfway done, but I am grateful to be coming out of it a stronger person.
The main piece of knowledge I have taken away from my experiences at university so far is to expect the unexpected. My expectations and beliefs have been completely subverted since making my aspirations of coming to university a reality.
Would I have chosen to do it again, knowing what I know now? No, definitely not. In fact, the only reason I have not already quit university is because of my parents – they have sacrificed so much for me to have better opportunities than they have had in their lives and I feel like to drop out of university would not only have wasted all the money they have so far spent on tuition fees, accommodation, and whatever they could give me for living expenses, but would also be an insult to everything they’ve ever sacrificed for me.
Do I regret coming to university? Again, definitely not. I have had so many incredible opportunities here; I met my best friend, I study at a beautiful campus and I have a brilliant relationship with the majority of my lecturers. I would not be the person I am today if I had not embarked on this journey in September 2015 and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity, despite having chosen a different path if I had considered all the options before making a decision.