Change Your Mind: Does Freshers' Week Do More Harm Than Good?

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Freshers' week starts in less than a fortnight and many students across the country will be preening themselves for a week-long stint of partying.

But some are left dry-mouthed, sweaty-palmed and nightmare-ridden by the thought of thrusting themselves on strangers for the best part of seven days in the name of "mingling".

So we asked Sebastian Salek, Clare College, Cambridge student and The Tab news editor, and Emma Williamson, UEA student and The Concrete lifestyle editor: does freshers' week do more harm than good?


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Freshers' Week Does More Harm Than Good

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Emma Williamson English and American Literature student at the University of East Anglia

The fact that alcohol-free freshers' events are labelled as 'alternative' by universities in the United Kingdom speaks volumes about their reliance on alcohol-based orientation weeks.

University freshers' weeks are fuelled by alcohol. By and large, the first week of the university calendar is structured by strategically planned nights out and hangovers (perhaps with the odd introductory lecture thrown in for good measure). The age-old formula of placing x amount of first years and an abundance of alcoholic drinks within a dark, pulsing room continues to be seen as a success by student unions up and down the country, but is it really what all incoming students want?

Philip is a third year undergraduate. As a moderate drinker, he loved his university's freshers' week, and adds that alcohol made him feel more fluid, encouraging him to be more outgoing and forthcoming in meeting new people. Whilst Philip enjoys alcohol and its effects on his persona, the same cannot be said for all students. Sam, another third year undergraduate, remarks on the isolation he felt during his university arrivals week. Sam felt side-lined by the emphasis on alcohol during his orientation week, and felt that his freshers' week lacked events for students who abstained from drinking.

When everyone stereotypes students as alcoholics, from the press, to the public, to the club promoters and the student unions, is it really that surprising to hear of students being pressured into drinking? Or, if students like Sam do not succumb to pressure, is it fair for them to feel out of place and incompatible with the university which they've worked so hard to get into?

Whilst British universities have long condemned the abuse of alcohol during freshers' weeks, with universities such as the University of Exeter and the University of Newcastle banning sports club initiations for their dangerous and dehumanising exhibitions of binge-drinking, their lack of investment in alcohol-free freshers' events stifles their efforts. A sole emphasis on booze puts unnecessary pressure on students to drink, leaving some students drinking amounts they would never usually consume and leaving others alienated and uncomfortable in their new environments. Students need to be given other ways in which they can engage with their peers, be they organised trips by their universities to tour their local areas and attractions or taster sessions of their sports clubs and societies.

Alcohol will always have a place in the SU bar, but that doesn't mean it should be all that freshers' week has to offer. Universities and student unions owe it to their students to offer a diverse range of freshers' events, for both drinkers and non-drinkers.

Emma is an English and American Literature student at the University of East Anglia

Sebastian Salek Law student at Clare College, Cambridge

The exams are done, the results are in, and next month a new band of fresh-faced young'uns will be pulling up outside universities across the country, ready to embark on the 'best years of their lives' and hopefully get a degree in the process.

Among the UCL cohort is my little sister, who admits that she's a bit apprehensive about the prospect of a week of being forced to drink and go clubbing with complete strangers. Either that or getting lumbered with the sort of people who'd prefer to play Warhammer. Fortunately, she's buying into a stereotype that needn't be the case. The truth is this: freshers' week is what you make of it.

Of course the stigma exists for a reason - most people do end up having a drink or two - but you'd be completely mistaken to assume that that's all on offer. Student unions and JCRs go to a lot of effort to cater for everyone: a quick flick through the handbook I was sent this time two years ago reminds me that there was a pub quiz, film nights, a theatre trip, and speed dating (it's not how it sounds) for those whose world isn't rocked by the thought of necking a few pints before heading out to Revs to party like it's two-thousand-and-late.

That's all well and good as an argument for why freshers' week shouldn't be abolished, but why bother having it in the first place?

Most people are at least a little bit nervous about going to uni, but there are some who are really very shy indeed and who need that extra push in order to socialise and form a friend group. A bad start can mean the beginning of a downward spiral - depression rates in students are high, but being actively encouraged to take part in activities at an early stage helps to reduce the number of students who could just disappear into the shadows. If no one knows you exist in the first place, the chances of anyone noticing something is wrong are slim.

Most universities also have some sort of buddy support system. At Cambridge, for example, it's done as college families: two second years are assigned a few freshers, they cook for them on the first night, and the favour is returned later in the week. No alcohol need be involved and it's a good chance for freshers to meet fellow students new and old in a less bustling environment.

But it's not only the shy ones who benefit from freshers' week. Let's make no pretences, grad jobs are getting harder and harder to come by. We're forever being reminded how unemployable we all are and how we need to make our CVs 'stand out'. So what could be better than one whole week before lectures begin in which to pick the activities that will one day be the answer to "When was the last time you faced a challenge?", not to mention helping you retain some level of sanity once the stress of term kicks in. I don't see any other plausible time when the freshers' fair - typically a two-day mêlée during which freshers inch through an over-populated and under-ventilated gym hall to decide which societies will be spamming them for the next three years - could possibly be held.

People say you'll probably never see the people you meet in freshers again, but the memories I have from that week have formed the basis of many of my closest university friendships today. So let the new kids settle in and get the excitement of leaving home out of their system, and they'll be much more receptive to those little nuggets of wisdom thrown at them every morning for the next ten weeks. Incoming freshers: worry not. There will be something for you and someone for you to do it with. Even if you love Warhammer.

Sebastian is a Law student at Clare College, Cambridge and founder of Guestvibe



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