This article will discuss some of the challenges that students face in their first year at university. It will discuss some of the difficulties faced both internally and externally in the student’s life and will explore how students react to feelings of stress and offer a simple method for relieving this stress.
As a counsellor working as a mentor at a large university, I noticed how much of a big change students face, both emotionally and practically, when they are away from home for the first time. They are faced with all the responsibilities of shopping for themselves, cooking for themselves, and learning how to share their living arrangements with a new set of peers as well as all the challenging personal dynamics this can bring. They may feel the pressure to be ‘The Student’, which can bring with it the pressure to party, drink and keep late nights.
When these pressures become too much, students will often see the student mentor or counsellor. When working in this role, the main issue I identified with students was their lack of ability to form a structure in their life with all these new pressures. Initially, I found students can be resistant to the idea of a developing a structure, but those who are open to the concept find it to be a real relief and benefit them in all areas of student life. Students seemed to thrive once we sat down with a dairy, worked through their schedule and identified their priorities, for example:
- Attending lectures
- Writing assignments
- Revising for exams
- Meeting deadlines
- Having fun
- Going to the pub
- Having nights out
- Having nights in
What became clear was that following our structuring work and developing a plan, students didn’t follow it to the letter. I worked hard to reassure them that this was fine to do but that the plan offered a good base-line for them to gauge when things started to feel out of control and why and when things were OK. It’s important to emphasise to the student that it’s OK to not fill out, or follow, the plan perfectly because there is an increasingly recognised problem of students being hard upon themselves for not being perfect.
(My Brain Feels Like it’s Been Punched: Guardian Article)
However, on the whole, students’ feedback stated that they could not enjoy a night out because they felt guilty due to their unmanageable workload. Now, by knowing that they had planned nights out they reported finding it easier to stay in sometimes and complete some outstanding work. In short, they could own their days again and enjoy them.
The issue of perfectionism can also affect whether or not students ask for help at all, with many reporting that they think it is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ to be struggling. This appears to be linked to feelings of shame which, if untreated, can be a driving force in keeping their struggles a secret. This can have a catastrophic effect on the pressure built up in a student’s world.
Much of the work of a mentor is to help students feel OK with struggles and to speak about them, and paradoxically it is by keeping it a secret that the struggle becomes worse. By sharing their stresses students begin to take the power out of them. Asking for help might be hard because we first have to admit to ourselves that there is a problem. It appears that there are still many people for whom it is not OK to be seen struggling, fall behind with studies or to not be perfect, leading to feelings of shame, pain and isolation which many students battle by ignoring and hoping they will just go away. When students have the opportunity to learn that its OK not to be perfect, and how they can give themselves this permission rather than being hard on themselves, the door is open for positive change and development.
My experiences working with first-year university students have highlighted how easy it can be for them to become isolated with feelings of shame around their course. Working with practical tools such as planning, as well as exploring and offering support for emotional distress, can be extremely beneficial to the student’s well-being and self-empowerment.