I remember my first freshers week really vividly – I felt a strong mixture of emotions, from anxiety to hope. I think the strongest feeling I felt was the sense of possibility, that my life would finally begin in college – I envisioned myself living the ‘perfect’ student life. In my mind, this included a wardrobe of trendy clothes, an instant friend group full of cool and intellectual people from all around the world, endless parties and social events, and even more endless romantic opportunities – I saw visions of myself having accidental meet-cutes with mysterious strangers in lectures or in the library, having a different date every week, and finding the love of my life. Needless to say, this was not the college experience I had in first year.
I remember feeling bitterly disappointed in myself come Christmas of first year. Not only had I not attended a single college party, I was also too awkward and nervous to approach people on my course – it seemed to me that they had all already found their own friend groups, and that I would be considered an unwelcome intruder if I tried to break in. So here I was, the same old me, but in a different environment. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t been so hard on myself – the transition from school to college can be really intense, and I had given myself all of a couple of weeks to completely change myself into this new, cooler person. It’s really no wonder that I was so frustrated with myself, for not being this ‘perfect’ student.
The anxiety I felt about myself really snowballed throughout the year, and led to a lot of insecurity and self-dislike. I would feel intensely embarrassed attending lectures alone, and thought that everyone was looking at me, this friendless nobody. Of course this wasn’t the case, but I couldn’t see the wood from the trees. This perceived judgement from other people really added to my sense of insecurity and loneliness – I just really felt like I didn’t belong in college. It seemed that everywhere I looked, people were having the ideal college experience – I would see groups of people laughing at the Pav, couples holding hands in lectures, and people in my course attending balls and parties throughout the year. The sense of isolation I felt was really upsetting at times. I think the crux of this feeling was one Friday night, around 9:30pm, when I was walking through front square after a couple of hours in the library working on a lab project. I remember just thinking to myself, why am I not out enjoying my life, partying with friends, like everybody else does on a Friday night? Why am I not having the normal experience that seems to come so easily to everybody else? What’s wrong with me?
Things got better for me throughout second year. I started a part time job, which gave me a bit more confidence making friends and interacting with people. Soon, I started chatting to people on my course about assignments and projects, and slowly I began to forge meaningful friendships with these people. That’s not to say that this year was totally smooth-sailing – I still suffered with bouts of anxiety, and sometimes severe feelings of sadness and loneliness, but on the whole, things got better. I started to go easier on myself, and began to accept my experience of college life. It was in the Summer following second year that I signed up to volunteer with NiteLine.
Throughout my third year in college, my experience improved drastically. I cemented my friendships with course friends, and through volunteering with NiteLine, made a lot of new friends. I think the act of putting myself out there, doing something that I really wanted to do – volunteering – gave me a lot of confidence in myself. My personality began to flourish, and I became a lot better at small talk and getting to know people. This carried on into fourth year, where I was finally enjoying my college experience. The main change that I saw in myself, was that I was no longer holding myself to this impossible standard – the perfect student, with the perfect social life – and I was just living my life, day to day, as best as I could. I was seeing friends for coffee, attending lectures (sometimes with friends, sometimes alone – ironically, the more comfortable I became in myself, the more I enjoyed going places by myself!), going to social events, and doing things that felt good to me – reading in the park, seeing films in the cinema, and volunteering. My student life finally felt good, and although I still sometimes felt the old pangs of anxiety and self-doubt, I can say that I finally felt happy.
If I look back at the person I was in first year, I can barely recognise her. And although I feel a lot of empathy for myself in those dark first years of college, and wish that I could go back and change things, I know that those years shaped me into who I am today. If I could go back now and have a conversation with myself, there are a few things I would say. Firstly, It’s OK to not feel OK, and there are a lot of supports around you that can help you to start to feel better. There is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ student experience – everyone around you has their own struggles and problems, and everyone is adjusting to this new way of life – so stop comparing yourself to everyone around you. Finally, be gentle with yourself when you’re not feeling your best, but also try to challenge yourself – sign up for a few societies, and go to a couple of events – if you don’t like them, you don’t have to go back. Put yourself out there – go to that party alone if you can, and be proud of yourself afterwards – this is a really big accomplishment when you’re feeling anxious. Most of all, I would tell her that she is valuable, even if she doesn’t have a lot of friends, and that things will get better in time.
If you are interested in volunteering for NiteLine, please check our ‘Volunteer With Us’ page by clicking here.