Failing at freshers week… and how I finally found my people at university

Living in a university town has got me reflecting on my own university experience…

I live in a university town, and you can’t help but notice when the students are back from summer. Tesco is suddenly full of wide-eyed faces buying toilet paper and ready meals for one, the bars that have been dead for months are rammed, and your peaceful Saturday evenings are no more, rudely interrupted by the dull, creeping thud of the bassline from the Union. Oh, and you might also have to step through remnants of vomit on the way to work.

What I have noticed though, is that these freshers all look pretty happy. There they are, roaming around the campus in packs, sharing anecdotes with their new flatmates, fumbling their way through the matriculations and introductory meetings of their first few days. Happy.

“I realised then who I would actually be at university with – not people like me, but people with privileged backgrounds who attended fee-paying schools in the south of England”

This got me thinking of my own university experience. I remember the day we left quite clearly. We left early, my stuff all packed up in the back of the car, and drove through to my halls in Edinburgh, arriving about lunch time. There were loads of people there already, all joking, shouting, laughing. I remember feeling like I was already late, already on the outside of things.

Everyone was English, and this was the moment when I realised who I would actually be at university with – not people like me, but people with privileged backgrounds who attended expensive fee-paying schools in the south of England. I’d never met anyone like them. I don’t think I even knew they existed until that moment. The door next door to me had the name Caroline on it, and I thought that was funny was my sister’s name is Caroline.

I remember she came out as we were moving her stuff in, with her friend, and looked at me like I was something of curiosity to them. “I’m Cally”, she said. As soon as she spoke, her voice all cut glass and silver spoon, I knew we wouldn’t be friends. She wasn’t like me and I wasn’t like her.

“Weren’t you supposed to make friends instantly? Wasn’t I supposed to be in a bar somewhere, drunk off my face on fishbowls?”

The next few days passed in a blur of anxiety. I thought something was wrong with me. Weren’t you supposed to make friends instantly? Wasn’t I supposed to be at a bar drunk off my face on fish bowls? Wasn’t I supposed to be having the time of my life? Instead, I listened to the sounds of people shrieking their way along the hall corridors, as I sat in my room alone, busying myself with unpacking and putting up posters on my woodchip walls. I knew I should go and knock on someone’s door and introduce myself, but I never could pluck up the courage to do it.

Instead, I went home. On day three, I took myself home to see my boyfriend, and spent the evening sitting on the sofa with him and his parents watching the soaps, like I’d never left.  

That’s not the end of the story, however. I did go back. And it didn’t get better straight away. My lowest point was in the catering hall at dinner one night, when I sat down at the only spare seat at a table of six, the one seat I could find in the packed hall, only to be told that ‘someone else’ was sitting there. I was so ashamed in that moment. I can’t describe how awful it is to sit in a hall with hundreds of people chatting away to each other, as you sit there in silence and listen to their second-hand conversations, their plans for the weekend, what they got up to last weekend. It’s an incredibly lonely place to be.

But then things started to change, just a little bit at a time. I went along to the introductory drinks in my hall’s kitchen one night, even though it was the last thing I felt like doing. I’d already given up on meeting any friends, and what says loser more than showing up at something like that by yourself? I almost turned around when I saw Cally at the door.

“They weren’t my people, my proper people. It took a lot longer to find them… but I did find them”

However, I actually met some people that night who were nice. They were friendly and funny and they invited me to the pub quiz they went to, and even to drink fish bowls with them on a Tuesday night. I went. More than once. We were friends for a while.

But they weren’t my people, my proper people. It took me a lot longer to find them, but find them I did. I met my best friend at uni at my first lecture, where we clicked over our shared love of eyeliner and the fact that we were both Scottish and studying the same joint honours degree. I met some of my best mates in the world (to this day) through my friend from school, who went to another university in the city. They were normal, from normal backgrounds like me, who liked the same things as me. We clicked, and I never looked back.

So I just wanted to say to anyone starting out somewhere new, whether that’s a new town, college, or job, don’t worry. If I can make friends at university, having never knocked on a single door in halls, anyone can. Just keep trying, keep smiling, keep hustling. You might think there’s no one like you, but there is, it might just take a while to find them.

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