Going to university: what's not to love? Over years of hard slog on the education conveyer belt you've justified the effort on the grounds that one day you'll reach that Everest of academic achievement - a veritable holy grail for every hard-working A level student. "It'll be the time of your life," people tell you. Most of them went to university 30 years ago, but that doesn't matter, because you know that weeks and weeks of alcohol-soaked relaxation lie ahead of you, and nothing stands in your way. Ask a random member of the public, and they'll probably tell you that the average student is essentially a carbon copy of a member of the cast of The Young Ones - but that's fine because, hey, isn't that what uni life's all about?
Unfortunately, it's not really like that. Yes, there is certainly some drunken horseplay and, yes, a lot of students are mind-bogglingly lazy; but those who fill their university days with nothing except sleep and sex and shun those other potential pastimes, study and sobriety, are the exception and not the rule. Not everybody is cut out to fulfil the role that society seems to have assigned to them, but everybody - from the painfully shy maths student, to the Chinese kid who can't speak English, to the confident and outgoing arty type - is expected to conform to the one-size-fits-all student stereotype.
When the alcoholic haze of freshers' week clears and cold hard reality hits home, it really can be quite a shock. For every seemingly flawless, outgoing and successful kid who skilfully juggles academic work, a packed social life and commitments to various student societies and sports teams, there's a less confident, anxious new student who's lost, out of their depth and seriously homesick. A sizeable though silent minority - or maybe even a majority - of students are finding that university life isn't living up to their expectations. Or perhaps it's that they're failing to live up to university life's expectations.
I don't doubt that many students do indeed have the times of their lives. Good on them. But the truth is that a great many of us have found the university experience a little out sync with what we were promised. I don't regret coming to university - far from it, it was one of the best decisions I ever made - but I wish that somebody had managed to cut through my naivety and given me a reality check. My unrealistic expectations didn't just lead to mild disappointment. They led to a real struggle to adapt to life in an intimidating, alien environment where everybody else seemed to be an infallible walking ball of self-confidence.
I was able to get things back on track, but not everybody is. Levels of anxiety and depression in students are on the rise. Behind the promises of the best days of your life lurk the pressures of a whole new level of academia, the trials and tribulations of looking after yourself properly and making friends and, even more so now, financial woes. Universities are making steps in the right direction when it comes to looking after the mental health of their students, but the wait to see a counsellor at my university is still a matter of weeks - not days. That's not the sort of time period a struggling fresher can cope with.
I don't believe, of course, that any university or union is endowed with the power to help every new student settle in perfectly. I do, however, think that they could do more to show that not everybody has to be a hedonistic drunkard. They must do more to let students know that it's OK to work hard. That it's OK not to go out every night. That it's OK to be homesick, anxious or lonely - that it is, in fact, perfectly normal. That way, those who are struggling with their new lives can find the confidence to get the right sort of help.
Students, in short, are fallible and sometimes vulnerable creatures. Please, let's start recognising that.
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