Clearing 2015: Independent living is scary for students, but so it is for parents, too

Leaving home for the first time can be scary – and exhilarating. And we’re not just talking about the children. Abi Stone and her family recount their experiences of embracing independent living

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The Independent Online

“I was terrified when my parents drove me up to university for the first time,” admits Abi Stone, a 19-year-old fashion design student at Leeds University. “It didn’t help that it’s a long way from our home in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire.”

By the end of the weekend, however, Abi felt more settled. Then it was her parents’ turn to feel anxious. “It helped that we stayed the whole weekend to settle her in,” says her dad, Tim.

Abi’s mum, Helen, agrees. “It was still upsetting leaving her, but it meant we met some of the people she was sharing with, as well as getting to see some of the city where she’d be spending the next four years. We spent time with her, whilst not invading her space, and did a big food shop as they like to get every last penny squeezed out of you before you leave!” she laughs.

The first time Abi visited Leeds, she wasn’t that taken with it. “It didn’t jump out at me at all, but the second time, I was drawn to the lively, friendly vibe and the grandness of the university itself, as well as how close it was to the city centre. It goes to show first impressions shouldn’t be everything,” she says.

Helen, on the other hand, loved it immediately. “I thought Leeds University looked amazing. I quite fancied going myself!” she says.

Abi initially applied to study fashion and marketing. “I’ve always been interested in marketing (what my dad does), and I’m passionate about fashion, having leaned towards the arts and textiles at school. But when I heard a lecturer talk about the course, it felt too academic for me.”

It was surprisingly easy to change courses, however, something that Abi points out can be done even after term has begun. “I think it’s really important for students to realise there’s huge flexibility with courses and therefore no need to panic if you don’t like the one you’ve chosen. I personally felt so much happier with swapping for a degree in fashion design, which has a more creative edge.”

Abi wasn’t sure she’d get the grades she needed, however. “I wasn’t predicted to get the ABB you need to get in, but I wanted so much to do this course that I worked really, really hard and wound up getting three A*s.”

Helen was quietly confident. “I’m a great believer you can do well if you do something you like – and she did,” she says.

As the start of university loomed, Abi felt a growing mixture of excitement and nerves. “I didn’t know anyone going, so it was a completely blank canvas, which was scary but also nice to be starting anew. One thing that helped was finding someone at my school in the year above who had gone to Leeds. She told me what to expect and was particularly helpful in giving me advice about halls. I’d already seen one I liked, modern and almost like a hotel, but this girl said that if you apply for that one and don’t get in, you are allocated one quite far away. She suggested another, much more homely, one. It was brilliant advice.”

Over the summer, Abi’s family had the big ‘money’ chat. “When you sit down and work out all the expense of university, it actually feels a bit like getting a mortgage again,” says Tim. “So my biggest piece of advice for parents is be prepared to give up quite a bit of money. There’s the fees, the accommodation and the living expenses and it soon adds up. In hindsight, I think we probably gave Abi a bit too much money because she seems to socialise so much. But then again, she’s loving it.”

It’s not that Helen and Tim didn’t plan carefully, points out Helen. “My mum is an OAP on her own and she’s very careful about how much she spends each week, so we asked her exactly what she forks out weekly and it was way less than we thought. Then I asked other parents of people already at university what they give... and that seemed to be way more than I thought. In the end, we broke everything down and worked out an amount we thought was fair. We made it clear Abi would need to save up some of her own money and that she was to stick to her budget and not to ring us up asking for any more. That has worked: Abi has no debts, despite a lot of her friends being quite overdrawn.”

During the summer, Helen persuaded Abi to join a Facebook group of some of the people doing her course, which meant there were some familiar faces when she arrived. She also made sure Abi went off to university knowing how to cook some of her favourite family meals. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I only need to spend around £15-£20 a week on shopping. I eat well and healthily, with no food waste,” says Abi.

Abi advises making the most of Freshers’ week and getting to know people who aren’t necessarily like you. “It’s easy to go in making judgements about people or to feel too scared to go out on a night with people you don’t know, but you really have to be open-minded and go for it. My social life has been much better because of that and also because of the city. I’m out about four times a week, whether that’s to a gig, club or warehouse party. I’ve met so many great people. In fact, I’m not going be living with anyone from my course in my second year.”

Working out the logistics of housing for the second year was among the most challenging parts of her first year, admits Abi. “Choosing who was going in which house caused a massive divide in friendship  groups, but we all rose above it thankfully and it got sorted out. But I think it’s an issue that first years need to be aware of,” says Abi.

The hardest time in terms of missing home wasn’t when Abi first arrived, but when she returned to Leeds after Christmas. “You’re all psyched up to head off when you start, but Christmas is a big family time and you’re home for long enough to get used to all the creature comforts again. I found it harder than I expected settling back in Leeds after that.”

Helen adds parents should prepare themselves for empty nest syndrome even if they have younger offspring, as well as a major shift in the dynamics of the family. “Abi has two younger sisters – Sophie, 18 and Charlotte, 13 – but while the house is still busy, it feels very different when one goes. Abi is really helpful and she’s the most chatty of the girls too, so it felt a bit like losing part of me. And I think it’s fair to say that we all took a bit of time finding our new place in the household without Abi being there.”

Sophie agrees. “As younger children, Abi and I were best friends, but then we grew further apart so I didn’t think I’d miss her as much as I did. Interestingly, we’ve become closer again now,” she says.

As for communication, Abi’s family decided to play it by ear. “I know people whose mums call daily, but they have nothing to say,” laughs Abi. “We started off by talking on the phone about twice a week and that’s gone down to once a week or fortnight. We text a lot in between, as well as using social media, and I also like talking to the whole family via videolink.”

The biggest shock to Abi came at the end of her second semester. “I had so much coursework I didn’t know how I’d get through it. But with some all-nighters and a time management plan, I did it,” she says.

Looking back over her first year, Abi feels she’s matured enormously and her family agrees. Helen says, “you bring your kids up to go out in the world and whilst that comes with lots of emotions when it actually starts happening, it’s absolutely how it should be. I feel Abi is ok on her own and that’s a great feeling.”

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