Friday 22 November 2019

I'm a new student - get me out of here now!!

If you're struggling to settle in at college, you're not alone. Andrea Smith reflects on her own disappointing university experience - and offers some advice

Sometimes college dreams can turn into a nightmare.
Sometimes college dreams can turn into a nightmare.

Congratulations. You did it. You put the head down, worked your butt off, and now you are a few weeks into college life.The world is your oyster and this, my friend, is where your dreams begin to come true.

Or is it? While their time at college represents the best days of their lives for some people, various studies suggest that increasing numbers of college students are suffering from anxiety disorders, depression and other mental health issues.

Even if you don't experience serious problems, the transition from secondary school to college can be overwhelming, and it often takes a while for students to find their place.

When you think about it, it's hardly surprising. Sixth year is pressurised, but between graduation ceremonies, the excitement of the debs, and being the tops dogs at school and practically running the place, you will never feel as close to your classmates as you did at the end of sixth year. Then you scatter your separate ways, and head off to different colleges, jobs, cities and even countries, and, well, you're on your own, mate.

The Leaving may have been an appalling type of Hunger Games challenge, but the whole country was united in sympathy for you. You'll never again experience those levels of sympathy, support and encouragement, and nobody will indulgently excuse your bad behaviour and short temper on the grounds of 'exam stress'.

Just wait until you're heading into your end-of-year college exams, and nobody gives a flying fig aside from your parents, and you'll be yearning for the days when endless column inches, TV and radio airtime and online attention was given over to analysing your exams and potential career choices.

Some students thrive on the freedom and new experiences that college offers, while others grow disillusioned with the realities of student life and don't end up making the most of the experience. I was one of the latter, because I spent four years at college and didn't really enjoy it.

I wanted to study drama, but back in the recessionary 1980s, the emphasis for parents was on you getting a job for life with the civil service or bank, or taking a course that would lead to a steady job.

Back then, as is probably still the case today, if you did well, you were automatically expected to embark on a course with high points. When the CAO places were allocated, I was thrilled to get my first choice of psychology and English at Trinity.

It was before the Internet era, so we weren't armed with a lot of information when it came to choosing courses. There was a leaflet in the school's career guidance office that sketchily outlined the bare bones of what the course was about, and at 17, I fancifully imagined it would cover feelings and body language and all that kind of warm, fuzzy stuff.

I pictured myself emerging as a youthful agony aunt, able to tell at one glance if someone fancied me or what they were thinking, and solving all my mates' romantic problems.

In reality, my course covered none of this stuff, because psychology is a science and the emphasis was on research and methodology and maths. Bloody maths!

Having done ordinary level maths for the Leaving, I was thrilled skinny to leave the horrors of trigonometry and quadratic equations behind. So you can imagine my devastation to land into a baffling module on complicated statistical analysis on my very first day at college, which made honours maths for the Leaving look like kindergarten stuff.

I didn't enjoy my course, and never went on to use it in my career, so while I got my degree, those four years were probably pretty much wasted.

Which Is why I hope all those medicine, veterinary and law students with their 500+ points have chosen courses that really suit them rather than merely because they were high-achievers who got the points.

Looking back, I've since come to the conclusion that you don't immerse yourself into the college experience as fully as you should while still living at home. I had my meals handed up and washing done, and hung out with my old friends from school, so didn't make the most of college socially either.

It might have been preferable, in retrospect, for me to have gone away and been thrown into a shared, bonding experience with college mates, learning to fend for ourselves with beans on toast, having wild parties in our grotty digs and hanging around drinking cheap warm wine out of plastic cups at student gatherings.

While Trinity is beautiful and historic and I loved the actual campus, I think the very thing that makes it such an attractive choice can also work against it when you're a student there. The fact that it's slap bang in the middle of town with the city's transport network on its doorstep, means that the whole of Dublin becomes your extended campus.

Socialising at Trinity was fractured as we were spoilt for choice. We'd spread out all over town, meeting pals from home, having coffees here, there and everywhere, attending non-college events, frequenting bars and nightclubs, and nipping up to our part-time jobs on Grafton Street.

I've noticed that colleges in the suburbs, like DCU or UCD, become their students' social stomping ground. With fewer external attractions, free periods are spend hanging around together on college grounds, and friendships blossom based on shared proximity and experiences.

I was only in college eight hours per week (four by fourth year) and on many wet, cold days, it seemed like too much palaver to actually turn up. Nobody cared a jot about attendance, so I frequently didn't bother. A more structured course would have suited me, as it turns out that left to my own devices, I didn't have much discipline back then.

I also worked part-time in a branch of a well-known supermarket near my house through college, so I was forever running off to do shifts there.

I often didn't have a choice about that, because part-time jobs were scarce, and my manager would frequently phone me in the morning to demand I skipped college to come in to work, on peril of losing my job if I didn't.

Our shared loathing of the dictatorship style of management bonded my colleagues together as these situations tend to do, so I spent far more time socialising with them than the people at college.

Now that my student days are long past, I regret that I didn't make the most of them. I wish I'd studied something that made me happy, immersed myself in the college life by joining societies and socialising there, and disentangled myself more from the attractions of my home life.

I grow wistful when I hear about those who had a great experience, like Caroline Grace-Cassidy, author of Already Taken, who chose to study broadcast journalism at Senior College Ballyfermot.

"It was 100pc the right choice for me, and I loved every second of the two years, plus I met my husband there, to boot," she says.

"I learned so much and made amazing contacts, and most of my friends today are people that I met on that course. To sit through college classes every day and have complete interest in what you are being taught was invaluable, and I listened as I wanted to take it all in."

While Caroline went to college more recently than me, her course was new and the parents of her classmates weren't convinced as it wasn't conventional. "They'd say, 'You want to do what? Broadcasting? Sure there's no jobs in broadcasting - your granny can get you into the ESB," she laughs.

"I researched the course myself as my career guidance counsellor had never heard of it. My advice is to study what you're most interested in and not what you're most likely to find employment in, as you can only be a first-time student once. I'm proud that I made the decision to follow what I knew I always wanted to do."

Irish Independent

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