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"Damn, That S**t Sucked"

Updated: Apr 5

The traumatic first-year that no one talked about

The mention of first year is enough to provoke a twinge of nostalgia for any university student. Memories of the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kid you once were might come to mind — navigating your new three-street home, nervously clamouring to 8 am lectures, and anxiously wallflowering the 601. Looking back, it was alright — but was it really

When asking three second-years to rate their first-year experience out of ten, without hesitation they all gave it a three. They confessed, though, it’s taken them until this year to realise that.

“I know [for] a lot of people [...] first year was really, really tough,” said second-year International Relations student Mathilda Briscoe, “and it wasn't until maybe the start of this year, or even this period now, that [...] they've started to feel the stability.” 

Second-year Computer Science and Economics student Kate Bell said she feels she ultimately made the right decision in coming to St Andrews, but says “it has taken me until this semester to figure that out.”

And with that admission to themselves, they realised that a lot of their peers actually felt the same. “No one has explicitly said, ‘Damn, that s**t sucked,’ until this year,” said Bell. 

They all recognised that had they disclosed their strife to the friends they’d made in halls and known only a couple of short months, it would have left them feeling a little too vulnerable.

“You don't have anyone around you saying, like, ‘Hey, I'm really scared and isolated, too,’ because that's kind of a vulnerable thing to say to people that you just met,” second-year International Relations and Sustainable Development student Ana-Lucia Chalmers noted.

Lorraine Callaghan, a Student Services Wellbeing Advisor and University alumnus, explained that students usually keep the reality of how they’re feeling under wraps. “That worry about how we are presenting to our peers [is a] huge barrier to students accessing [...] support,” she said. 

The discomfort does come to the surface one way or another, though. “Everyone’s going out pretending to have a great time and then [...] crying on the phone to their mum in the evening,” said Briscoe.

A lot of this struggle has to do with the extreme lifestyle change brought on by university, Callaghan explained: “You've got to live independently, you've got to live [...] in very close proximity to your peers, you’ve got to find the library, you’ve got to do your own washing, you've got to budget, and then we ask you to do the first year of a degree, as well.”

Briscoe also pointed out that, for most people, they haven’t needed to make new friends in a long time — she’s known most of her friends at home since she was 11. “You're a completely different person than you were when you were 11,” she noted, “and you're making friends again, and now you’re like, ‘F**k, I don't know if I know how to’.”

What’s more, these budding friendships usually only come to fruition because, by the stroke of fate (or maybe karma), you happen to live in the same hall. “I have this really bad joke,” Callaghan mused, “the reason why there are so many alleyways in St Andrews is so you can avoid the people you met in first year.” 

She also stressed the importance of “finding your people.” “They're absolutely there,” she said, “but you've got to find them.”

Though she pointed out that this isn’t a rushed process. “Students will come to us and say, you know, ‘I've been here four weeks and I've not made any deep friendships. And I say, ‘It’s week four — that's okay’.”

Chalmers feels a lot more herself now — whereas in first year, she recalled feeling “invisible.” “When I talk to people that knew me first year, like just from halls or from a class, they're like, ‘Woah, what happened?’” she said. 

Briscoe said she even contemplated changing aspects of her identity — from the music she listened to to the clothes she wore — to fit in. “I was like [...] if you do this, you'll just fly under the radar — and I don't think I was myself,” she admitted.

Before uni started, Briscoe imagined her experience would parallel the sitcom Fresh Meat. She wasn’t prepared for what she found at St Andrews: “It was people showing up to lectures in Louboutins and brogues, and going for casual pres at the Rusacks,” she recalled. “I thought pres would be squadka.” 

“Everyone's trying to be this St Andrews stereotype,” she added, “but who even is that?” 

All of them agreed that social media is largely to blame for this. As Chalmers recalled, everyone seemed “so f***ing aesthetic and beautiful” online. “Everyone's surrounded by hot, cool friends that I've never seen around,” she said. “[I’m] not sure they f***ing exist, but they're there and everyone seems to have them.”

But as Briscoe has come to find, “it’s all lies anyway.” 

“I started going to parties like that,” recalled Chalmers, “and I saw the photos being taken and I was like, ‘Oh, [you] aren't actually having that much fun’.” 

Come second year, Chalmers was determined to change her luck: “This year, [...] I just kind of stopped giving a s**t.”

She joined all of the things that she had previously felt too nervous to even consider, spurred on by the lengthy list of personal goals tucked away in her notes app: “I wrote down all the things that I was wanting to do, wanting to be.”

Chalmers went on to join Bee Society, DONT WALK, and now even writes for The Saint’s Sci-Tech section, though she admitted she had to muster up her courage to do so. “That's where you grow and thrive,” she said, “is in those moments of fear.” 

Callaghan referenced a 2010 TEDx talk by author and researcher Brené Brown: “Nobody’s courageous without vulnerability.” 

“This experience will set you up so well for when you go and start that new job in that new city, where you know absolutely nobody, where you've got to walk in the door to a load of people you've never met before,” Callaghan explained. “So, as painful as it is, it's a great experience.”

Briscoe, Chalmers, and Bell all agreed that the experience — as horrific as it might have been — ended up teaching them a lot about themselves. Bell referred to this as “the self-discovery [that] comes with being in uncomfortable situations.”

“I've talked to so many people about first year, and the consistent response is, ‘Yeah, it sucked, but on the bright side, I learned so much about myself,’” she added.

They insisted — in recognition of any first-year readers — that it does get better. Chalmers said that St Andrews has become “like a second home by now.” “For the first time, I'm not telling my parents how [...] excited [I am] to come home,” she said.

She admitted, though, that it’s taken her “a slap in the face” to recognise that. “Honestly, I just had to like, f***ing get over it,” she said.

“That's what first year is,” said Bell, “is you putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation and being told to figure it out.” 

Though Briscoe contemplated whether this is an exclusively first-year problem — or even one experienced solely at St Andrews. Maybe it’s just growing pains: “Is it this tiny Scottish town, or is it just a part of growing up?”

Illustration: Shalina Prakash


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