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Illustration by Chioma Opara @helaneus

University isn’t great for everyone – and that’s okay

How writing provided an escape from the challenges I faced in my first year

During my last year of college, university was presented as the ‘obvious next step’. Although other options were briefly mentioned, the general conclusion sold to us was that university was the fixed route that needed to be taken in order to reach your ‘dream career’.

And it wasn’t just being pushed as the right professional choice either. Being ‘away from home’ was also presented as independence, an almost rebellious practice. It looked intriguing. University web pages were inundated with short videos, designed to ‘sell’ the university experience through a glossy highlights reel. They made the process look easy, fun, and a chance to ‘find yourself’. 

In light of this very one-sided view of university being the fixed future, it felt daunting to realise that I didn’t know what to do with my life yet – I didn’t even know what the next five years would hold. It was up to me to reassure myself.

How social media added to my social anxiety

With personal circumstances at home adding to this rather fragile foundation, I was unsure as to whether university – immersing myself in an environment with other 18 year olds, alcohol and no restrictions – would be a good idea. Besides, now was not the time to leave home, and my little world with my mum, so I decided to take some time to think about it. 

During this year at home, I found myself suffering from social anxiety. Everytime I would go out, thoughts circled in my mind telling me to go home early – wherever home was at the time. This presented an invisible block when speaking to my friends. I could act through it most of the time, but comments about me being the ‘uptight one’ were frequent.

I often felt like a spectator, watching my friends who had gone to university post endless stories on social media. Short clips of reckless nights out with an overwhelming number of people was very disconnected to what I was coping with at home.

Beginning my journey at university

I eventually started at the University of Goldsmiths in 2019 to study Music. 

After facing such an intense period at home, making the decision to participate in a creative practice for three years felt like the relief I needed. I have always used music, singing and songwriting specifically, to engage with what’s going on in my head. It’s always been a private daily ritual to help my mental health, as vital to me as some people’s coffee fix. 

However, I still felt apprehensive about the thought of sharing this central part of my daily routine with the strangers on my course. 

Coming to terms with false expectations

I thought that studying music was going to be the perfect opportunity to write and find my ‘artistry’, but interweaving threads of therapy sessions and mental health battles ended up shaping my experience instead. I wasn’t able to jump into the social aspect of uni life, I was the quiet girl found sitting in the smoking area on the steps.

I would sit in my secluded spot, watching relationships being built right in front of me, and I would feel disconnected. Thinking about my responsibilities at home, the excuse of being there to make music didn’t feel right. Instead of feeling ‘free’ through doing what I loved, I felt lost and disappointed. The glossy university ads had sold me a dream. 

Coping through writing

To combat these feelings, I started writing on the steps in the smoking area. Just me and my notepad. Interrupted only by people asking for a lighter, I was soon back in my circle of comfort. Mostly, it was free-flowing writing about how I was feeling, and it kept me present.

Six months in, I was met with another obstacle to the ‘perfect university experience’: lockdown.

Surprisingly, lockdown actually provided me with room to recharge. During my physical time at Goldsmiths, my music had started to develop negative connotations – particularly when performing it. I still enjoyed singing, but the stage had become more daunting. Lockdown provided a space for me to explore a safer way of creating; one which didn’t involve all eyes on me.

So, during the pandemic, I redoubled my efforts to write. I’ve always used writing as a form of therapy, but it now  took on a new importance. It became a space for me to draw on my own experiences; to shed light on social issues and taboo subject matters. The process itself kept me grounded, and writing lyrics which were so personal to me actually went a long way in improving my own mental health. 

The importance of staying present

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to stay present. And just like in other chaotic chapters in my life, to find refuge in my writing. 

Writing frees me; it’s a transportable art form that I can do by myself. When finances at home were not stable, writing with a pen and paper was always accessible.

Just like my moments on the Goldsmiths steps, I used to sit on the steps as a child, wherever we were based at the time, and journal. I’ve found that returning to this has been my support system.

Now, I want to facilitate spaces for other people to be able to start their creative process. To improve accessibility for those from deprived areas who might not think they can express themselves. It can all start from a pen and paper.

Taking the pressure off

External pressures about knowing what you want, who you are and how you get there will always be a constant throughout life. However, no time is this more keenly felt than in that transition to adulthood, which for a lot of people in the UK, going to university signifies. I want to reaffirm that it’s ok to not know if you want to go, put off going, or end up not enjoying it when you’re there. 

All these are valid experiences and they deserve to be recognised and heard. They’re just unlikely to be featured in glossy university advertisements or your mates’ Instagram stories. 

What can you do?

With support and guidance, I have been able to platform my work, gain confidence and network with other creatives.

Organisations I would recommend:

To read more on the experiences of mental health at university read Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan

 

Illustration by Chioma Opara @helaneus

Artist concept: “I experienced significant traumatic experiences and consistent struggles at university and in my childhood. These events continue to affect me. I suspect my trauma will be like this for most of my adult life. Despite this, I aim to transform and combine surviving into thriving 🙂 I have a few coping mechanisms that help me deal with recurring downward spirals, difficult decisions or planning exciting events. They have helped me since I was little. And that includes drawing, writing and listening to music. It involves picking up a pen and paper. I wanted to focus on how we use our hands to express and heal ourselves. I also wanted to celebrate the joy students (and everyone) can find in our own company – even if the pressures of being at university tell people otherwise.”

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