Shattering the Illusion


Illustration by Imogen Whiteley 

Last year, when I was helping out at an open day for prospective University of Glasgow students, a young woman in her school uniform asked me how I would describe my first few years as a student. I desperately wanted to tell her that the past two years were difficult and plain exhausting, but I gave her a slightly forced smile and settled for ‘very interesting’. She looked at me, a little bemused, as though she were expecting me to tell her that it was non-stop fun, with plenty freedom and with little responsibility. I instantly understood why she seemed puzzled: I had been told exactly the same thing.

Before going to uni, I had heard an awful lot about how great it was going to be.  They told me all about the parties, the eccentric lecturers, the Fridays off, the freedom, the likeminded people, the gigs, the societies, and so on.  To my seventeen-year-old mind, this sounded like the best thing ever: almost like a four-year-long holiday to Heaven.  But that’s not quite how it went down.

It’s not that I didn’t get to experience all of those things, but it came with lots of rubbish to sift through before achieving them. As a young person not long out of hospital, and with serious mental health issues and undiagnosed autism, I could have done with being informed of the not so good things about uni. The homesickness; the toxic flatmates; the loneliness. It would have also been good to know how to go about getting support from the university when I needed it. Because I wasn’t automatically delighted to be there, I quickly began to feel like an anomaly. Why was I the only person who didn’t like halls? Why did everybody seem like they were best friends already? Why did I feel so damn isolated in a university with thousands of ‘likeminded’ people?

Looking back, I realise that I wasn’t an anomaly. People all around me were no doubt feeling this way, but were too nervous to speak out, due to all the pressure they felt from being told it was going to be fun from the minute they said their farewells to their families.  It’s simply not the case that university is always fun, and I cannot understand why everyone I knew and trusted told me that it would be this way. I was in no way prepared for what I had gotten myself into. When I envisioned going to uni, I thought I’d change in the sense that I’d be come a cooler, wiser version of myself. I had built up an idealistic image of what I wanted to be, and what my new life would be like. I’d be one of the angsty cool kids and wear a bomber jacket and smoke roll ups, spend hours campaigning to save the planet, and still have time for a drink with my friends at the union at the end of the day. In the months leading up to the big move, I spent all of my spare money on decorations for my new room, and spent hours carefully choosing songs for my party playlists. I had an unattainable image of what university was going to be like, and I think that this contributed to my depression when I realised that it was nothing like I imagined.

Uni is so difficult – and I don’t just mean the work. Compared to the other things you have to learn, studying can often be the easiest thing about it. So I guess that it all boils down to this: uni does change your life, but just not in the ways you’d expect. It isn’t a case of turning up and being given a social life and a comfortable environment to live and study in. There needs to be some serious graft. You need to work to make friends and to keep them; you need to teach yourself how to look after yourself in your new home; you need to budget; and you need to learn to manage to do this while studying and keeping other responsibilities, from managing illness, to caring for someone, to keeping down a job.  

I never achieved the life I imagined for myself, but I’ve changed in other ways. I have learned to be more resilient. I have learned to always look out for my fellow students, because even if they look like they’re coping, it doesn’t mean that they are. I learned that I’m stronger than I ever thought I was. I put on a brave face for a while, but I have now learned to ask for help, and to reciprocate it. These are some of the most important life skills, and I couldn’t be more proud of myself for acquiring them. The angsty image and the edgy fashion sense will follow with time.

[Sarinah O’Donoghue]

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