I wrote this post in a lovely bakeshop in York on the last day of my second year of university. Afterwards, I wandered my city with my camera for a few hours, trying to find the words to express my gratitude and thinking about the beauty of the everyday. The following does neither justice, but I’m pressing publish all the same.
Today is the last official day of summer term; the last day of the academic year. Exams are over, results are in, and campus is still. Everyone is so full of goodbyes they don’t want to speak out loud, for fear of making it all real – the idea that they’re really leaving, or, for us, that we’ve already reached this point. The thought of one year from now sits, a countdown timer in the back of our minds.
I’ve come to understand why university has gained the reputation it has, of being the best years of your life, even though so many people struggle with first year and beyond. Firstly, because if your situation can change, things really can get better. The structure of first year, with halls accommodation and the your grades don’t count mentality, only suits a certain type of person, and it’s only once you hit the true freedom that second year offers that you are able to make university truly your own.
Secondly, because on one level or another we just get used to it. Some people adjust to university immediately, but most people I know took upwards of a year to get used to it all, and reconfigure themselves around this new life. Over time the hyped-up expectations we held for university fade, replaced by a settled, comfortable reality.
And finally, simply because we forget. When everything is better – when life is full of joy and laughter and day-to-day routine; when it promises contentment and intrigue and productivity – we forget how hard and bleak everything once was. Wasn’t it always like this? Busy and happy and straightforward? As we shift and change ourselves, it’s easy to readjust our memories to fit in with our present; easier, in fact, than remembering the truth.
So no wonder, then, that when third year comes to the end all most people have to say is ‘it was the best three years of my life’ – not least because that’s what’s expected of graduates’ social media posts as they head off into the so-called ‘real world’. Perhaps we just get better at handling it – and isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway?
This time last year, things were beginning to look up. After my tough first year, I became more optimistic about second year and my own confidence in facing what university might throw at me this time around. And, to my slight surprise, I found my stride and felt settled and at home right from the start. The thing was, life didn’t feel perfect or extraordinary; it just felt normal.
I don’t believe in the “we can choose happiness” line, because it undermines the thousands of people who really have no control over their day-to-day feelings due to their mental health condition. I definitely haven’t completely shaken off the anxiety which settled itself within me during my first year; I don’t think I ever will. Sometimes we simply don’t have a choice.
But we can manipulate the situation we’re in, and there are real changes I made to ensure I had a better start this year. Aside from the new house, I stopped worrying about getting the train home if I needed to, and I put effort into my social life. I applied for a job with the University as an Ambassador, and took on a bigger role at the newspaper. I worked harder to manage my anxiety levels, playing my violin at the end of stressful days like I used to do at sixth form, trying out new recipes, and exploring my city and the surrounding countryside on my own.
It’s not as simple as ‘choosing to be happy’; what enables that is being in the kind of situation where you feel supported, in order for you to feel able to keep trying. Thanks to my house and the amazing support network of friends I’ve found in York I’ve reached that point myself. As a result, all year I’ve been able to take small steps and make small choices not to ‘make myself happy’, but to boost my self-confidence.
It hasn’t always gone to plan, and I’ve still got a lot I need to work on – in fat, the more effort I put in, the more I find I need to address. Yet allowing myself the mental space to be challenged, to get things wrong, and to try new things, alongside the promise to myself that it’s okay if it doesn’t go quite right, has had a tangible impact.
Yet none of these changes actually made the biggest difference to my life at university. The truth is, the most significant difference was the fact that there wasn’t really a difference at all. Last year there was an enormous divide between my ‘uni life’ and my ‘home life’. The latter was normal, ordinary – ‘real life’ – whilst university was a whole other world, a bubble away from reality. This year, though, everything just slotted together. At long last, it all became my ordinary. I may live in two places, but I no longer live two separate lives.
The changes and choices I’ve made had an important effect, it’s true. But I’ve come to understand that over time I’ve simply been able to adjust and, at long last, settle into my life here. I no longer see university as this huge adventure on which my entire future rests; instead, it’s just my life now.
I always knew that university could be the place for me, and I always felt that York specifically was somewhere I’d fit in particularly well, so to end up where I was last year was particularly devastating. But I guess it’s true what they say about time, after all: given the space to learn and enjoy it, I knew by the end of first term this year that, at long last, I’d found my place here. Not because life was perfect, but because it was ordinary.