Life&Style writers give their top tips to first-year students, with advice on how to navigate university during the pandemic

Here at Redbrick, we understand that moving to university isn’t easy. Add a global pandemic to the usual Freshers nerves and matters are made a whole lot more difficult. One of the most helpful things can be to gain advice from students who have been in exactly the same position. With that in mind, Life&Style asked some of our writers, from a range of year groups and studying a range of subjects, to give their top tips to students in their first year. From games nights to zoom study groups, read below to find out how you can make the most of university during these uncertain times.

Olivia Platten – Seize the day

To all the current Freshers out there right now, I really empathise with your situation. Starting university is a big change even without a global pandemic thrown into the mix! But, even through the virtual world, there are still so many wonderful things about university that are out there waiting for you. My biggest piece of advice will sound so cliché, but there’s a reason people always tell you to seize the day. Putting yourself out there as much as you comfortably can, making the most of the chance to learn (even through a screen), and appreciating the experiences, places, people and opportunities still available to us, are the key to making all of this a little easier.

Even through the virtual world, there are still so many wonderful things about university that are out there waiting for you

Another cliché to remember is that you’re not alone. You’re not alone in feeling confused about all these new Zoom protocols and timetabling systems that’ve been thrown at you. You’re not alone in feeling nervous or awkward in that first society meeting. You’re not alone in comparing your experiences with others. We are all in one big moment of weirdness together right now, but rest assured that any feelings you have are valid and very often shared, no matter what year of study we’re in or our own unique university (and life) experiences. Every Fresher is going through the trials and tribulations of their first year together too. And sometimes, just remembering those small things can make those tough moments a little easier.

Daisy Kirkaldy – Beware of FOMO

I had a great first year at university, but if there’s one thing I wish I could go back in time and tell my Fresher-self, it would be to enjoy yourself. I wish I had concentrated on doing what I loved earlier on in my first year. University is also the best place to try new things! I tried out for the Cheerleading team in Freshers, didn’t get in, but the trials were actually really a fun evening and I didn’t regret it for a second.

Another thing – Fear of Missing Out is definitely a real thing. It’s inevitable that someone will suggest the pub on a night when you just really fancy a night in watching Netflix. My advice to my fellow FOMO sufferers would be to go with your gut. Yes, getting out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself is important, but I can almost guarantee you won’t regret staying in! You get to watch everyone else hungover the next day too, which is always fun.

Don’t worry if you feel yourself drifting from the first friends you made in Freshers Week. This is completely normal! It’s very likely that you’ll live with someone for a year and never talk to them again once you move out, but it’s also equally as likely that you could have one seminar with someone and become really close friends. Both have happened to me! Notice who you feel comfortable around, these are the friends to stick with going into the rest of your university experience.

Niamh Nicholls – Plan things with your flatmates

There’s the misconception that when starting university, you will be out meeting new people every night and relishing in your newfound freedom. What people don’t talk about is how, although surrounded by thousands of new people, starting university can be a lonely time when missing home. Given the current climate with coronavirus, you can find yourself feeling this way more often than not! My advice to all Freshers feeling this way is to plan things with your flatmates! Whether it’s staying in, cooking a meal together or having a games night, or going out for a Nando’s or having a game of bowling, there’s plenty to do in Birmingham! Plan to do one of these things at least once a week as a flat, you will create new memories and find yourself learning more about your new flatmates.

Even leaving the house for a walk or to buy a warm drink from Costa or Starbucks will lift your spirits and give you a break from being inside

If you’re feeling low during the day while everyone is busy doing work, it is not a crime to put your work away for an hour or two to facetime a friend or family to catch up! Even leaving the house for a walk or to buy a warm drink from Costa or Starbucks will lift your spirits and give you a break from being inside.

Aimée Calvert – Phone a friend

The first few weeks of starting university are full of a lot of changes, from where and who you live with to getting used to having to do everything yourself – oh how I missed my dad’s cooking. It can be very overwhelming. I found it really helpful to call a friend at another university when I felt like this because I knew that they would be going through all the same things I was and it’s nice to hear a familiar voice. Your flatmates are also great people to talk to when you feel overwhelmed or homesick because, odds are, they feel it too! Talking to them will also help strengthen your friendships.

I would advise to try and stay as busy as you can, I know it is going to be harder than it should be for Freshers this year but I cannot stress enough how much better it will make you feel – you can also make some great memories too. Try and do things as a flat whether it’s quiz or game nights in the kitchen or a cheeky takeaway. But, also, don’t forget you still will feel homesick and that is completely normal! Everyone will have those days, but they will get better, as well as few and far between, as the year goes on.

Bethany-Jo O’Neill – Stay organised 

My first piece of advice would be to make sure you have fully unpacked and found a home for everything. This will help you feel more in control and less stressed as there is organisation and you know where to find things. It also means you have more space in first-year rooms (which are notoriously a bit cramped).

Next, find time to video call your friends and family. Actually seeing their faces can make a whole world of difference and make you feel more connected. In addition to this, if you are on your own and feeling a bit lonely, try listening to the radio or watching live TV. Listening or watching things in real time can ease loneliness as you know what you are engaging with is happening at that exact time.

Physical face to face contact and interaction is so important in combatting loneliness

Another suggestion is to try as much as possible to eat meals in your designated communal area. Physical face to face contact and interaction is so important in combatting loneliness. Being around other people gives you time away from your thoughts and is a distraction from anxieties.

Finally, be assured that other people are feeling the same. Even without the current uncertain times, going to university is a massive change and no matter how well people appear to be coping, everyone has worries and anxieties sometimes. You are definitely not alone in your worries nor are you abnormal in having them!

Emma Walker – Keep a journal

Daily journaling is an easy step into mindfulness that I wish I had taken up during my first year in Birmingham. Not only does it make you more aware of your thoughts, but it can give you a sense of routine in an otherwise volatile academic year.

For many people, the prospect of journaling can be daunting as they feel their journals need to mimic the ‘aesthetic’ bullet journals of Instagram.  However, you can use any kind of notebook, simply jotting down your thoughts and feelings about the day.  A good starting point is to think of three things you have achieved throughout the day and how you felt about them.

The main difference between reflective journaling and writing a to-do list is that you should focus on things you have already achieved

The main difference between reflective journaling and writing a to-do list is that you should focus on things you have already achieved, rather than things that you would like to do going forward.  The word ‘achieved’ is used loosely here – those things could be academic achievements like completed assignments or seminar preparation, or downtime activities such as Zoom socials.  In the short-term, it will allow you to unwind and feel a sense of accomplishment.  As time goes on, you will be left with a written reminder that despite starting a degree in incredibly challenging circumstances, you were able to achieve some brilliant things in your first year at university.

Tilly Peterson – Stay busy

Leaving home can be extremely daunting as many people have only spent a week or two away from their families before moving to university. Settling into university does take time, so my first piece of advice would be: do not panic! There are hundreds of other students dealing with the same feelings as you. Try to organise Zoom calls with home friends or family at least once a week so that you can feel a sense of comfort even when you miss them.

The best way of coping with homesickness can often be what you least feel like doing – keeping busy! There are lots of societies and sports still running despite Covid-19. Try to look for an activity that is outdoors or that is socially distanced so it will be likely to run throughout the year. Even if there is not a society that appeals to you, go along to a taster session to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Everyone is nervous, but do try to speak out in Zoom calls to make friends with course mates. From your classes you could organise Zoom study sessions where you go over your notes for the week and talk about other issues you’re facing. Make sure you do not sit alone in your room and let your thoughts and feelings consume you, socialise safely where you can and organise virtual group sessions to make different friends.

Emily Burnett – Avoid comparisons

My advice to Freshers would be to avoid comparing your university experience to other people’s. When I was in first year, I was not only comparing my social life to that of my course-mates and flatmates, but also to my friends from home. It’s difficult not to question whether you’re doing university ‘right’ when you can see your friends’ university experiences playing out over social media. When you constantly compare yourself to other people, it’s easy to start doubting whether you’re at the right university, doing the right course, or even if you should be at university at all.

Remember that there’s no such thing as the right way to do university, or a typical student experience

Remember that there’s no such thing as the right way to do university, or a typical student experience. It’s completely ok to not drink, or to not want to join a society. There’s so much pressure for university to be the best years of your life, but only you can choose how you want to spend your time. If university is the best time of your life then that’s great, but it’s fine if not. Just enjoy the experience and do what you want to do.

We hope that this article has provided some welcome support for anybody who is struggling at the moment. If you are feeling lonely, homesick or just a little bit lost, it’s important to reach out, which you can do through the university’s dedicated wellbeing service. And if you’re looking for a friendly, rewarding society to be part of, then join us here at Redbrick! We’d love to have you.


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