How has the transition to university changed over the last decade?
With the new academic year rapidly approaching, three Unite Students employees share their experiences of going to university for the first time: what their check-in experience was like, how they adapted to being away from home for the first time, and what’s changed since they were freshers.
Natalie Abson, Digital Communications Executive
Studied Business and Journalism at University of Huddersfield (2012-2017)
Checking in to my student ‘digs’ was a bit of a blur. I arrived later in the week than everyone else, although that had its positives: I didn’t have to queue to check in. I headed straight to the reception area and was quickly handed my keys and a bunch of information leaflets before I followed the paper map to find my flat with my parents.
I’d visited my accommodation once before on a tour, so I knew what to expect. To my surprise, the girl in the room next to me was a friend from college. I was told by staff that shouldn’t happen, but it did – and I wasn’t unhappy about it.
During freshers’ month, my accommodation hosted some events at the on-site bar. I attended a couple with my new flatmates and made quite a few good friends there, but after that there were no more events. My accommodation was out in the sticks, in the middle of a field, and we had to get a bus or taxi to do anything, which I sometimes found hard.
I was incredibly homesick in my first few months. I found the jump from college to university a challenge that I wasn’t prepared for – it was so different from my A-Levels, and I felt totally out of my depth for the first time. At first, I regularly went home to spend time with my family and friends, and talked to my parents about how I was feeling. They were incredibly supportive of me.
However, after spending a few weeks at home for Christmas, something was different. I can’t put my finger on what had changed, but this time, I was ready. I knew what to expect on my course now I’d got over the initial shock of such a big change to my life, and I’d made an incredible set of friends beyond the people I lived with.
Although the first few months were a challenge, they don’t compare to my younger brother’s experience of moving into halls during the height of the pandemic. I definitely had it good compared to 2020’s Freshers, and I often feel sad that my brother never got to experience living in halls. Despite my first few months at university being a challenge, once I was settled, the remaining months in halls were the best time of my life!
Jen Steadman, Higher Education Communications Executive
Studied English at University of Exeter (2010-2013)
It’s only been 11 years, but I can feel the wrinkles setting in as I contemplate how much the check-in experience has changed. If we wanted to meet people before arrival, we had to seek out Facebook groups; digital check-ins, wellbeing guidance and life skills support were unthinkable. You turned up to the reception building, got your keys, and that was that. It was up to you to do the rest.
I didn’t know anyone else who was moving to Exeter’s Cornwall campus, which made me anxious. Luckily Thea, the first flatmate I met, took me under her wing; she was friendly, a few years older than me, and had everything I lacked in life experience. She took me around the small campus on the first evening and always made sure to include me when our flat went to Freshers Fortnight events, which made the first few weeks less daunting.
However, I’d been very sheltered prior to university and was unprepared for the experience. Like many students leaving home for the first time, I had next to no experience in cooking, washing up or doing the laundry, although I quickly adapted to it. More unusually, coming from a small town with a mainline train station, I had next to no experience of using a bus and didn’t realise that you had to request the bus to stop. On the bus back from a Freshers’ event, I noticed the bus pass through the campus, but assumed it would come back around. It was only when the bus had turned onto the A39 that I timidly approached the bus driver to ask when we were stopping at the university. In complete disbelief, they let me out at the side of the main road and left me to navigate back to campus on an unlit road of half a mile.
More difficult was settling in socially. I found it difficult to meet new people and, as an 18-year-old whose idea of a big night out was two bottles of WKD Blue, I also wasn’t comfortable with how much Freshers’ Week relied on heavy drinking back then. But sometimes, just one friend in your accommodation is enough, and when I think back to the difficulties of first year, Thea was always there for me.
While I don’t envy the difficulties they’ve faced as a result of Covid, I think I’d have found the university transition easier with the facilities available to this generation of students: more alcohol-free events, more support and more emphasis on building a community that includes everyone. It’s really reassuring to know how far the arrival process has come in the past decade.
Jacob Asghar, Content Creator
Studied Business Enterprise and Entrepreneurship at University of Plymouth (2017-2019)
There was a time in my life when I thought I’d never go to university. I hadn’t enjoyed my A-levels all that much, splitting my time between my sixth form common room’s football table and the most recent Call of Duty game instead of studying. My dad put considerable pressure on me to get the grades to go to university, which I didn’t think was the right decision for someone who didn’t know what they wanted to do.
By 2017, however, it was a different story. I’d missed the opportunity to learn and push myself academically – watching the occasional TED talk wasn’t enough anymore. So, without telling any of my family, I applied for and was accepted to study at the University of Plymouth.
As the start date approached, the nerves set in. I kept having flashes of myself sitting in the classroom and feeling completely out of place – a feeling that was amplified by the fact that I wasn’t living halls, but a private rental in a city an hour down the motorway.
But when the day came, it was a different story; I left my first class knowing that I was exactly where I was meant to be. The distance between my home and university didn’t stop me from making friends – it actually created a welcome separation between the two areas of my life. Though there were times when my course load was heavy (especially as I was on a 2-year fast-track course), my passion for the subject kept me going: there were still some long nights spent writing essays as a result of procrastination, but I always managed to get them done.
I’m so glad that I waited to go to university when I was ready, rather than being pressured into going straight from sixth form. The time that I had to grow was fundamental to making the most of the experience and achieving the best results, and it meant I had already developed the life skills that many of my course-mates had the pressure of learning alongside their studies.
Although I only started at university four years ago, the experience of this year’s and last year’s freshers are very different to mine because of Covid. I really feel for the students who started their university experience last year with online classes; the time that I spent in the classroom in those first few weeks was an invaluable chance to speak to my classmates, and it was reassuring to see that everyone had nerves about some aspects of the university experience.
In 2018, Unite Students launched Leapskills, a free toolkit to help young people understand more about the transition to university life and prepare for the experience themselves. Learn more about Leapskills here .