How to navigate one of life's biggest watersheds: starting at university

Making friends is a priority, but keeping up with the course is also important

Navigating student life is not always easy, especially if you're far from home. EPA
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Going away to university is a true watershed experience, but such a major transition is not going to be all plain sailing.

Students are often living away from home for the first time, possibly in an unfamiliar country, and will have to get used to their new life while dealing with the academic challenges of their course.

Each year, vast numbers of young people experience this upheaval, with World Bank figures indicating that there are about 220 million students in tertiary education around the world — twice as many as two decades ago.

New social circle

A central issue that “freshers” face is making friends. Students may choose to get started with this even before they arrive on campus, because Facebook groups may offer them to opportunity to get to know some of their peers before the start of term.

Even if it is not something that comes naturally to them, students should take “a proactive approach” to making friends, recommends Soraya Beheshti, regional director for the Middle East, Africa and Turkey at Crimson Education, a university consultancy.

She suggests that, early on, students attend as many as possible of the events put on by the university, as this allows them to meet new people and reduces the time they spend alone.

“I would also highly recommend people to choose accommodation that’s on campus, at least for their first year,” she says.

“I think maybe people don’t realise how much of your university life exists on campus. Even if you don’t live very far away, you’re going to find it a lot easier to be social and to connect with others when you’re all living on campus and you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to get home.”

Some students may have rarely had to get themselves up in the morning without their parents’ help.

Ms Beheshti suggests that people who may struggle with, say, an 8.30am start should choose lectures and classes that give them a schedule more in tune with their sleeping patterns.

Something for everyone

While having peers to socialise with is important for almost everyone, Ann Starkie, who runs a consultancy, AS Careers, suggests that students who are more introverted should not feel that they have to embark on a hectic social life.

“There’s space for everyone at university, you have to find your own niche,” she says.

Joining a club, such as a reading group, may be worthwhile, as it offers the chance to spend time with students who may not be on the same course.

“If you join a club, you will really get to know the core people,” she says, adding that it may be especially important to have a separate group of friends if a student has little in common with those who live in the same hall of residence or apartment.

While many university students will be experiencing life away from home for the first time, others will continue to live with their parents.

For this group, joining university clubs and societies might be less about preventing loneliness and more about ensuring that they do not miss out on campus life.

“Even if they’re going to live at home, [students] can consciously try to develop some of that independence by committing to, for instance, cooking their own meals or doing all of their own chores or housework,” Ms Beheshti adds.

The benefits of joining university clubs and societies may extend beyond the immediate. Alan Bullock, a UK-based consultant who runs Alan Bullock Careers, and who has given talks to UAE schools, says participation can improve a student’s CV and make them more attractive to a potential employer.

“Societies you join and responsibilities and achievements and skills you gain, these additional things at university can actually make a big difference to your career prospects,” Mr Bullock says.

One example he is familiar with concerns a female student who joined a taekwondo club at university and went on to become the secretary of the organisation. This proved crucial to her securing a sought-after position with a major employer.

“That’s how she showed her leadership skills to bag this very competitive graduate job at the end of the degree,” he said.

An additional piece of advice for students who have disabilities or other specific medical needs is to get the necessary documentation, such as a doctor’s letter, in advance.

“Then make contact with tutors and student support early on so they know what support you need,” Ms Starkie says.

Life at university will also be easier if students keep up with their studies and do not take shortcuts. Ms Beheshti says many students do not read the texts they are set and, instead, just skim through notes.

“I have been there myself,” she says. “But your parents are forking out tens of thousands of dollars for you to get this education from incredible professors.

“If these incredible professors think that reading this text is important for your intellectual development, then you should absolutely do it.”

Moving away from home

For Kateryna Golovko, 18, a Ukrainian in Dubai, her biggest fear around starting university is moving abroad and living by herself, never having lived away from home.

The pupil at Gems Metropole School achieved two A* grades and two As and will be studying medicine at First Faculty of Medicine Charles University in Prague.

Kateryna Golovko, a pupil at Gems Metropole School in Dubai, celebrates with her father Denys, after receiving her A-level results. Pawan Singh / The National

Ms Golovko has visited Prague and the university she will be attending so that she would feel less apprehension when moving there.

“The only part that I'm nervous about is living on my own since I've never done that.

“I have only stayed without my parents for a couple of weeks, but now it's completely different.

“It's going to be a few years, and that's the part I am most nervous about,” said Ms Golovko.

She said the university had a few clubs and a medical society which organised events for students.

“Since I was 6, I used to play the piano and took a few years break since I was focusing on exams and school. I'm thinking of just rejoining the music club and playing the piano again,” she said.

Though Ms Golovko believes in making friends organically, she was excited to be part of a group of UAE students attending the same university in September.

“We already have a separate group where we're talking are also planning to hang out in UAE before we go to university so we already know each other. It is so much easier when you're in a new country all alone and you already know people,” she said.

Being independent

Welsh pupil Cerys Isaac, 18, will be heading to Cardiff University in the autumn for her bachelor's degree in psychology.

“I am nervous about the change going from living at home to living on my own. Leaving is a huge change,” said Ms Isaac, a former pupil at Dubai British School, Jumeirah Park.

She said she was nervous about taking on budgeting and shopping independently, having lived in Dubai with her family for the past 11 years.

“I haven’t lived alone before this, so that’s the biggest change, and there will also be a big culture change. Hopefully, I will be joining some kind of book club and baking club, and maybe a sports club.”

If the transition to university life does prove difficult, Ms Beheshti says students should remember that this is normal and that it does get easier over time.

“Take it a semester at a time,” she says, adding that, if a student is able to, he or she may want to consider taking a semester off.

“Whatever way you can make it work for you, that’s the right way. If someone needs to take a gap in the middle, by all means do that.

“More students need to be shaping their university experience to what suits them personally.”

Updated: September 08, 2022, 12:38 PM