From the moment your parents unload you out of the car and into your first room in halls, the dizzying experience of student life begins. Yet starting university can be an overwhelming challenge, particularly for those in a completely new environment, miles away from home.
Many universities are found in the big, bad cities of the UK - if not in London, then Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle - the list goes on. But what if your whole life up until this point had centred around a small, rural area with all your friends and family a mere stroll away? The comfort, security and sense of belonging that comes with such a place is something that plenty of students have to leave behind.
So what made Dane Cobain, 24, make the break to the city?
“I’m originally from Tamworth, a town of around 80,000 people in the Midlands. It’s a working class town and while most people who grow up there never leave, nobody actually likes living there. That was what drove me to go to university in London - I thought it was the only way to escape. It worked as I now live in Buckinghamshire, which is much nicer.”
Gravitate towards those in similar situations
An important thing to remember is that you’re unlikely to be alone. Dane moved to study at Roehampton University and, like many, found solace in new friends.
“At university, people come from all sorts of different backgrounds so it’s not too hard to find someone who has come from a small town and shares your interests,” he explains.
“People tend to end up in large groups of friends, so there’s usually someone else in your shoes.”
Do a recce before you start
“I’d advise against doing what I did,” warns Dane. “I signed up for Roehampton without actually paying a visit to it and while I was happy with it when I arrived, in hindsight it was a stupid thing to do. It’s a good idea to visit the city beforehand if possible. That way, you’ll get to know your immediate surroundings before you move in, so that then you just have to worry about exploring those not-so-immediate surroundings.”
Dane admits that everything was difficult to take in at first because he didn’t realise quite how big London is. “I’d barely been to Birmingham, the closest city to Tamworth, and the entirety of Birmingham’s city centre is dwarfed by a single postcode in London. Finding my way around wasn’t a problem but actually knowing where to go was a challenge because there was so much happening. Luckily there was also plenty happening on campus, so half of the time we didn’t even bother to go out,” he says.
Make the most of the new opportunities open to you
During his third year, Dane worked as an intern for a music website.
“That experience led me into my first job in social media - there’s no way I could have done anything like that in Tamworth. Moving to a big city opened up loads of new opportunities in pretty much every area of my life, even now I live a 20-minute train journey away so that I can make it into town easily when I want to."
Meet people from all walks of life
Every student has their own reason for wanting a route out of the village they grew up in. Laura Hindley, 23, left tiny Euxton to study psychology at London South Bank after becoming frustrated with the 'small-minded' attitudes she experienced at home.
“The 'type' of people I was able to interact with was completely limited,” she explains. “For example, while my friends at college were from Asian and Afro-Caribbean descent, no-one in my village was. I'm openly gay and so moving to a cosmopolitan city university where I was able to be myself among people from all walks of life is an experience I wouldn't change for the world.”
Homesick? Try to stick it out
“Meet as many people as possible and get involved with societies and activities you enjoy,” Laura advises. “If you're super close to your family it's tempting to go home in the first few weeks but don't because that's when all of the socialising goes on. Stick it out and fully immerse yourself in the university lifestyle.”
Don’t be afraid to be yourself
Laura used to worry about what people would make of her sexuality, but since going to university in London she ‘doesn’t bat an eyelid’ before talking about it. “I'd have people from my street at home asking me if I was still a lesbian when they came round to see my parents. Straight people don't get quizzed like that!
“I was really worried telling my flatmates I was gay on the first night but they didn't care. I'm not a person who shouts about my sexuality but it was refreshing to know that I could be myself, date girls and introduce them to my friends without any prejudice,” she says. “I hadn't had the chance to meet many other gay people so I joined the LGBT society and ended up being the female welfare officer.”
But what if you’re not only moving from a small town to a big city, but from another country too? Madalina Ciobanu, 19, did just that when she left Romania for UWE in Bristol.
Put your smartphone to good use
I had never been away from home for more than two weeks and had never been to the UK before,” Madalina explains. “Luckily, mapping apps proved worthy tools - for a month before starting I browsed so much that I knew which were Bristol's main streets, supermarkets and landmarks. I worked out my bus route from campus to lectures and used the UCAS website Yougo to meet a girl who was going to study on the same course.
“Sharing the anxiety with someone in the same boat and ‘knowing’ at least one person when I attended the first party definitely helped.I had a different culture to adjust to, from the food and weather, to not knowing you have to wave or the bus won't stop.
“I tried to familiarize myself with everything beforehand, but I'm certainly glad I left room for surprises as well.”
Pack a memento from home
Madalina found reminders of Romania comforting as she adjusted to life in the UK. “As I was flying, my luggage allowance was limited, so I opted for photographs of my friends and family, a few books and some gifts I had previously received from my friends,” she says.
“There's no need to go overboard and pack your whole bedroom, because that might make you feel depressed at times.
As these big city pretenders found out, while homesickness may dent some of the initial excitement at first, sticking with it can lead to great long-term benefits. You might even surprise yourself.