Ask anyone heading to university how they're feeling, and they'll probably answer: "Excited – but nervous". Of course, your level of confidence as freshers' week draws near will depend on your situation: someone who has already lived away from home, for example, or spent a year travelling and meeting people, might be less anxious about leaving home. But, to some degree, everyone is uncertain about how they'll fare.
This year, some of the stress of settling into university life has been alleviated by Student Aid, which worked with universities around the UK to put together bespoke starter packs that will be waiting on each student's bed on the first day of freshers' week in September. These free packs include shampoo, shower gel, toothpaste, tea, sweets and a CD. Students also get a guide to starting out at university, containing useful information on budgets and finding the nearest doctor's surgery – as well as tips about where to see the best bands and get the best student food deals.
"When you start university, you've got a million and one things going through your mind," says Andy Fidler, managing director of Student Aid. "Often you forget the essentials. With so much happening over the first few days and often not knowing the area, it's hard to find time to go out and find them. In our guide, we've combined advice written by each university for their students with general tips for starting out. We want to help students get settled in to independent life so they can make the most of being a student."
Fidler and his business partner Gordon Bennell were running recruitment firm Graduate Fasttrack and gap-year website findagap.com when a friend suggested making starter packs of information, samples and vouchers for freshers after he saw the success of a similar scheme for new mothers, in which packs were distributed on maternity wards.
Unlike the official information heaped on students during freshers' week, much of the content in the Student Aid guides is written by a student. "I remember arriving on my first day at university and being given piles of lists, maps and checklists," says Sian Rowe, who wrote for the guide during her final year at the University of York last year. "The student guide comes from a different perspective, and talks about things you'd only know if you were a student. I know it would have helped me settle in, because it's just that bit of extra support and is presented in a way that actually engages students. Starting university is hard work – the lifestyle is different to anything I'd experienced before. I think even people who say they're completely cool about it and don't need help settling in will probably sit down, read it and find something they'll use."
Leeds Metropolitan University student Ellie Badminton was in the first batch of students targeted by Student Aid last year. "Because everyone had one, it gave us a good conversation starter," she remembers. "I loved all the freebies and discounts – we used a couple of the restaurant ones in the first month to treat ourselves and it helped us all get to know each other."
University staff who work closely with students have also seen the benefits of welcoming students with something unofficial: this is only the second year that Student Aid have made the packs, and already demand has almost doubled – 20 universities handed them out last September; this year, 35 are on board. "When students first get into their rooms, they're quite bare and minimal – not like home," says Helen Gentleman, who works in the accommodation department at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. "It's nice to have something to welcome students to the campus. The big pile of rules and regulations we put out can be intimidating, and the guides are a bit more jazzy, so they're more likely to be read."
And because they're presented in a way that's appealing and relevant to students, adds Gentleman, staff at Heriot-Watt have found that the guide has even given students more independence – they'll look there for answers to the practical questions, instead of asking staff.
An accompanying website, student-aid.co.uk – where students can connect to share lecture notes, find out what's on locally and download discount vouchers – will launch in September, and packs for second- and third-year students, are also in the pipeline. "If only they made a pack that tells everything you need to know about life after you graduate," sighs Rowe.
'Submerge yourself in it'
Andrew Smith is president of the students' association at Dundee University.
"I didn't know what to expect. I worried about how I'd settle into a new city and make friends, and I think lots of students feel the same way. But freshers' week was a great way to meet new people.
University is a completely different social and learning environment from school, but I got a lot out of it socially and academically. The first week is so busy – I spent most of it rushing between induction events and finding out about my courses. A one-on-one session with my course tutor really helped me settle in: it made me understand how life at university was going to be.
If you're about to start university, submerge yourself in it. Join a sports team or a society, get involved in nights out, go to introductory sessions in your department and chat to as many people as you can."
'I wish I hadn't worried as much'
Natalie Crisp is president of the students' union at Durham University.
"I was so apprehensive before I went to university – it seemed like I would be a very long way from home. I was unsure about so many things: would I make friends? What would it be like living away from home? Would I cope? But when I arrived, I soon forgot my fears. I was surprised how quickly I found people I felt comfortable with. I remember being with a big group in the pub on the very first day. We were bonding by discussing how badly our Oxbridge interviews had gone, and even then, I could imagine being friends with these people for the rest of my life. I wish I hadn't worried as much now.
However, freshers' week is intense: it wasn't the defining moment of my university experience. My advice about going to university? Make the most of it! You'll have so much fun, so just smile and enjoy it."
'Everyone wants to meet you'
Steve O'Reilly is president of the students' union at Southampton University.
"I was excited and eager to start university, but I was also anxious about leaving all the mates I had at home. I decided that I would just say hello to absolutely everyone I met, and it worked!
Everyone was equally keen to meet people and chat, and that eagerness lasted for months. I met people during that first week who became my closest friends throughout university – I still live with some [of them] now.
Freshers' week seemed to last for ever. It was busy, but I loved it because I had the chance to meet so many people. You'll never get the opportunity to make so many friends all in one place again.
Have confidence in yourself. Don't forget, everyone's in the same position as you and they want to meet you too. My advice? Get involved in everything you can. My university experience was made not by academic work, but by everything else I did."
'It was a mixture of excitement and nerves'
David Walker is president of the students' union at Nottingham Trent .
"I don't think anyone knows what to expect when they come to university. For me, it was a mixture of excitement and nerves – I knew I'd meet lots of people but I was also anxious about being completely alone for the first time. I knew I'd be moving in to a flat with six strangers, which was probably the most nerve-wracking part.
But freshers' week was excellent. Within hours, my fears had gone. Everyone was really friendly: being thrown into that situation means everyone makes an effort to get along with everyone else. Freshers' reps came round every day and night, organising events and getting everyone to meet each other.
I know starting university can be daunting, but don't worry. Enjoy every minute. Get involved, meet people and take advantage of every opportunity: you'll regret it if you don't and I promise you, you'll have a great time if you do."
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