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The transition to university

By QMAdvice 02 Aug 2021

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This blog was written by Jonathan Pinto who is an Integrative Counsellor working in the Advice and Counselling Service at Queen Mary.

This post is aimed at those of you planning to start university this September. Whether you’re travelling from far across the globe, within the UK or merely ‘down the road,’ adjusting to university life is different for everyone and by no means an easy feat. Particularly off the back of a pandemic, which has kept us in lockdown, house-bound and online for most of the last year. The prospect itself can be exciting, but also daunting, so don’t worry if you’re feeling anxious – it’s completely normal. In this post, I’ll explore the impact of the transition to university on your emotional and mental wellbeing and offer ideas for supporting yourself through this period.

Settling in

For many of you, attending university might be the first time living away from friends and family, including looking after yourselves and managing your own busy schedules. If you’re an international student, the impact of this might be tenfold, with the addition of language and cultural barriers to adjust to.

It is also natural to assume that the further you’ve travelled, the greater the cultural shock and the more likely you are to experience homesickness or greater difficulties settling in. So, be kind and allow yourselves enough time to become acquainted with your new surroundings.

Regardless of our origins, it is worth remembering that we all come from varying personal, cultural, socio-economic and/or religious backgrounds that make the adjustment period unique to us all. Not to mention those less obvious and often hidden aspects of our internal selves that people don’t always see or understand, yet can sometimes lead to tensions, frictions or misunderstandings. The truth is we all have our ways of doing, thinking and feeling things. Neither is necessarily right or wrong – just different.

University promotes international-mindedness and fosters a learning environment built on understanding and respect. This is why it is important to be open-minded, non-judgemental and respectful of each other’s’ different views, perspectives and needs.

Managing expectations and uncertainty

Before arriving, all of you will in some way shape or form, have an image in your mind of what your university experience will look like. From the societies you will join, the people you will meet and the course you will study.

But managing expectations is important, particularly during a time, which has brought with it much change and uncertainty. For example, you might be wondering if teaching and social events will be held face-to-face, online or whether there will be a blend of the two going forward.

Managing uncertainty is perhaps one of the hardest things anyone can do or tolerate. Therefore, having a flexible and adaptive approach, compared to fixed ideas in a bid to control or pre-empt outcomes, will better equip you to deal with any sudden changes and/or disappointments.

University is more than the degree

University is far more than simply the subjects you will learn and the degree you will ultimately achieve. Like a stepping stone into the professional world, it teaches you self-management: organisation, affective and reflective skills, enabling you to find a healthy balance between work and play.

It will also teach you to be responsible, accountable, to meet deadlines, overcome challenges, adversity, relationships, to manage stress and anxiety, to plan, budget, to communicate and above all, to learn to support each other and to reach out for personal support, as there are systems in place to guide and counsel students.

Life can be hard and will knock you down at times, but learning to overcome challenges and adversity is key to your success. Accept that you will learn from your failures, and this in turn will build resilience, persistence and personal growth, allowing you to reflect on what went wrong, and how you could do things differently next time.

Keeping a healthy study/life balance

University places the responsibility on you to find the right balance between studies and the rest of your life and this can be a difficult change to manage. It may take time to work out what works for you. With less structure and contact hours compared to school, it’s easy to get carried away or lose motivation, or to find yourself working too hard and not getting enough down time.

The prospect of newfound freedom and a step towards independence can seem exhilarating or overwhelming. You decide when you go to bed and whether or not to attend lectures. You decide whether to study or go out at night. You decide what to eat and when; whether you tidy up your room or do the laundry etc… By all means have fun and enjoy this freedom, but be mindful of finding a balance that works for you.

In the words of William H McRaven, “if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”  Accomplishing small tasks will give you a sense of pride that will encourage you to take on further tasks. This in turn will reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter and will allow you to take on bigger challenges. If you can’t do the small things correctly, chances are you won’t be able to do the big things correctly either.

It can be overwhelming managing studies, juggling deadlines and revising for exams, especially online without the nurturing experience of physical and social contact with teachers or peers. Most of you are probably experiencing thoughts where you doubt yourself on a personal level, questioning yourself: “Why am I doing this?” … “Am I good enough to do this?” … “Others seem to be more on top of things than I am” … “What if I do badly?” … “Where is my future going and what do I want to do?” These thoughts may be subtle, but can lead to difficult feelings that interfere with your studies.

Ways to support yourself practically

  • Establish a healthy routine and take a time limited approach to scheduling your tasks, including breaking things down into manageable bitesize chunks.
  • Set yourself an objective/goal each day. This helps provide focus, motivation and a sense of direction/ achievement.
  • Don’t merely focus on what you need to do, but remember to reflect upon and acknowledge what you have done so far.
  • Take regular breaks and factor in some (guilt free) ‘me’ time.
  • Identify when you are procrastinating. Some people work well under pressure, but finding that ‘sweet spot’ is what matters.
  • Lastly, looking after yourself can be hard, especially when tired, stressed and over-worked. In these moments, remembering that the basics such as eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep, will help with your physical and mental wellbeing

Ways to support your emotional and mental wellbeing

There is still much stigma and confusion in how society views mental health. We seem to have no problem working on our physical health and going to the gym, yet we are scared of appearing ‘weak’ or ‘vulnerable’ for seeking emotional support. It can be helpful to think of counselling in the same way as going to the gym. Only instead of working out your physical wellbeing, you are focussing on your emotional wellbeing.

Many people don’t consider speaking to someone about their emotional wellbeing, but some of you might find yourselves struggling and in need of a little support. Whether it’s a long-standing issue, a sudden event or you’re simply looking for a safe space to gain further clarity, do get in touch with us and make an appointment with one of our team at the Advice and Counselling Service.

Final thoughts: you’re not alone

Often students say they shouldn’t be struggling when they see others who appear to be fine. We are all unique, so try avoid comparing yourself to others. If you are one of these people, remember you are not alone –and while we might think others are coping better than us, everyone in some way shape or form is in the same boat; each one of us scared or anxious on some level and longing to fit in. Talking to others about how you feel can help you to realise you are not alone and is a good way of making friends. So be kind to yourself and others, and allow yourself time to settle in.


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