Remembering my first year at Lancaster

Something for freshers starting this week!

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Image courtesy of Joanne Skelton

At the beginning of Welcome Week, my dad drove our family past a wall of older students who were grinning, waving banners and demanding that we “Honk for Furness College!”. I avoided these students’ crazed eyes just as I avoided bar crawls, society socials and drunken midnight chants for the rest of my first year. I don’t necessarily recommend this approach to student life, as I hear that socialising can be useful, but the “settle in quietly” method is a system I’ve carried into every public space I’ve ever been forced to enter: it’s tried, tested and approved, by me, myself and I.

I was left alone in my accommodation for the first few days and foolishly thought this solitude might be permanent, but then my two flatmates moved in. I wasn’t raised to be rude, so I emerged from hibernation and informed them that: 1) My name is “Joanne”, 2) I come from Manchester, and 3) I intend to study English Literature. I would advise that you share wittier anecdotes with your neighbours if you desire more than a civil or passive aggressive relationship.

If there were any anxiety-inducing disasters in my first term, such as coursework flops or the Storm Desmond catastrophe that took place one week before term was due to finish, followed by a power cut in the middle of a Doctor Who episode and evacuation of students, then I hope I can say I dealt with the anxiety accordingly. You will soon learn that student life is about learning to cope with unexpected messes in a calm manner rather than becoming a tidier person. Don’t turn into a perfectionist. If you are already a perfectionist, as I was and still am (now probing this article for typos), then sort that out immediately.

You will also learn that meandering in the fresh air is a better way to heal your tired soul than binge eating Monster Munch. You don’t even have to walk off campus. Plug yourself into music and marvel at the way the University transforms from a heaving establishment to an eerie ghost town at the weekends. I spent a lot of time investigating the campus’ Woodland Walk, which I recommend. But please ignore that recommendation because I would like the trail to remain peaceful.

I was still afraid of my tutors in my second term, although the seminars moved so quickly I was eager to contribute when I could, in case we next discussed a topic I had “forgotten” to study. But it did get to the point that I no longer minded feeling scared. So what if I disagreed with which film adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew is worthiest of praise? I soon realised that debating is what “serious” learning is about. While some of my peers might have disagreed with me about Conrad’s portrayal of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, after the seminar ended the need for a nap was unanimous. That will be the same whatever you study.

Whereas I floated through primary and secondary school on praise and rewards, University and real life are not like that. You won’t always be presented with the kudos you think you deserve. You need to learn how to take comfort from challenges, critiques and the shared building of a hypothesis, which communicate greater respect than a “well done” or smiley face sticker.

Despite these second-term epiphanies, the first weeks back after Easter were painful: I’d forgotten how to read and write over the break, and a more literal pain followed me in the shape of a sprained ankle. As well as having to wear hiking boots and an agonised expression to my lectures, this meant that stringy bandages decorated my room for a fortnight, hanging off the doors and radiator and bearing a resemblance to centipedes if I glimpsed them in the dark.

But it wasn’t all bad. Lots of yellow-black fluffballs were beginning to waddle round campus. Hobbling outside to take blurry photographs of the ducklings became a useful form of physiotherapy. As did getting locked out of my flat, which resulted in a barefooted, pyjama-clad trek to my Porter’s Lodge. Tip: Braid your keys into your hair or something.

In my third term, I was still too awkward for face-to-face interactions, but I was an active participator in multiple group chats. Ostensibly used for planning seminar tasks, these chats were 65% Shakespeare gifs and 5% complaining that Spar was out of ice cream. But they were also used for support. That sounds corny, but joining in with the banter and shared sense of despair, which pervaded these disjointed conversations, was the most effective way to get over a writing block, or reassure myself that I wouldn’t be the only one camping in the library for a fortnight.

At this stage in the year, I thought I didn’t have a problem with lectures. Perhaps I was feeling overstretched that particular day, with coursework deadlines approaching, or I hadn’t had enough sleep the night before. The panic attack started as other students were filling the hall. I felt trapped. It was like a T. rex had entered the room but only I could see it. I couldn’t stop crying and I didn’t want anyone to see me, so I escaped the hall, somehow dodging the T. rex, stumbled back to my room and spent the rest of the day reassessing my existence.

Admittedly, this panic attack wasn’t my last “breakdown” of the year, and at one point I had the paperwork ready to leave the University for good. But after some practical words from my family, followed by a severe organisational session, I got myself on track. The morning after that panic attack, I called my sister and we visited the ducklings. Later in the term we spent a day at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and in the between time we arranged film nights galore.

Even my last classes of the year were interesting. One of my tutors hosted a seminar in The Northern Oak. Another tutor brought her puppy along for an hour, which was fortuitous as the dog commenced a coughing fit while I was being asked a tough question.

In fact, if you take anything from my trip down memory lane, I hope it is that you never know when a puppy with a cold might make your day a little easier. So, keep your chin up if your first year doesn’t immediately go to plan.