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University challenge: five common questions about starting university, answered

17 August 2018

Johanna Derry gleans advice for freshers from chaplains, student workers, recent graduates, and students on five common questions about starting university


There are many organisations offering support for students, and groups and clubs that they can join

There are many organisations offering support for students, and groups and clubs that they can join

STARTING university presents many challenges. Besides facing new academic hurdles and entering a new social circle, many students are navigating financial independence for the first time. All have to try to keep body and mind in good health, and Christians of all kinds are likely to be among those facing fresh intellectual and moral challenges to the religious beliefs that they have held so far and their sense of spiritual well-being.

Such issues are common to most students, and none needs tackle these alone. Student organisations make help and resources available to students even before term begins.

These include student unions, Christian Unions (CUs), which tend to be firmly Evangelical and non-denominational, and Student Chris­tian Movement (SCM) groups, which are affiliated to the World Student Christian Federation, and describe their ethos as “ecumenical and inclusive”, with an emphasis on social justice.

Information about university chaplaincy and counselling services will also be provided as part of the induction for freshers.


How do I fit in without compromising my beliefs?

“THE challenge for new Christian students can be answering difficult questions that arise from telling their new friends they’re a Christian,” says Kate Duncan, head of development and communications at the Univer­sities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), which is the umbrella organisation for Christian Unions. “Our Bethinking website is full of resources to help students respond to tough questions.”

Beth Hayden, a theology student at York St John University

The Chaplain of the Anglican-founded York St John University, the Revd Anne Rowley, says: “Almost all new students, whether they have faith or not, are desperate to fit in and be accepted.” If others challenge their beliefs, or pour scorn on their faith, “resist the temptation to get defensive,” she advises. “People have so many ideas about religion, some of which are based on ignorance and prejudice. Just be yourself, and don’t try to be the ‘perfect Christian’.”

“I’ve learned that it’s important to know your own limits and boundaries and to remind yourself why they’re there,” Viki Tailor, a psychology student at Portsmouth University, says. “I was surprised how many people respected my boundaries about drinking, for example. I was pressured much less than I thought I’d be, because people are a lot more accepting and open-minded.”

Laura Cooper, a music student at the University of York, agrees: “What I’ve really learnt is the power of saying ‘no’, and not taking on too many things. It’s important not to be just a ‘yes’ person and to know where your limits are.”

“If you fall off the wagon, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. What matters is how you handle it when you do,” says Stacey Jones, who has just completed a history degree at Bristol University. “At university, there’s such a diversity of people, that as long as you’re open and willing to answer questions, it’s OK. It’s not that people won’t challenge you, but they do want to know why you believe what you do.”

Josh Jones is a graphic-design student at Loughborough University

Much of the challenge will come from meeting Christians from other traditions and other countries, says Canon Simon Jones, Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford. Most chaplaincies, as well as city-centre churches, run discussion groups or fellowship groups where students can join a social network.

Another challenge comes from putting your faith into practice. Merton is developing links with local charities, such as homelessness projects, where students can become engaged.

Finally, worship should not be underestimated. Canon Jones reports: “Many of the people who become part of the life of a college chapel have had relatively little and, in some cases, no previous relationship with the Church.” Worship was also a valuable element of pastoral care, affirming a person’s identity in Christ.


How will I cope without my support groups of family and friends?

THE chaplain at Plymouth Marjon University, the Revd Michelle Parkman, believes this is where university chaplaincies can have an important ministry to new students. “One of the most important things we can do straight away is help students to find people who are like them, whether Chris­tians or not. . . For students with anxiety, it’s a huge thing to say to them: ‘Off you go, down a club’. Every night of Freshers’ Week, we offer an alcohol-free alternative for students, and we’re available to answer any questions, not just the spiritual ones.”

“I struggled in my first few weeks, because I didn’t have the friendship group around me that I wanted. But I trusted God and that was a number-one prayer point I gave a lot of people,” says Ben Luxmoore, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Surrey.

“I think Freshers’ Week was the hardest thing,’ agrees Miss Jones. “I missed my parents and my friends from home. But it’s important to remember, that, if need be, they’re only a few hours away on a train, and literally only a phone call away. You get to meet lots of new people from all walks of life, and it takes a bit of time. And bear in mind, it’s not usually the people you meet in Freshers’ Week that you become forever friends with.”

Viki Tailor is studying psychology at Portsmouth University

“I was very nervous about leaving my parents when I first arrived at uni,” says Gareth Evans, a history and international-relations student at Royal Holloway in London. “But actually, during my first year at uni, I hardly contacted them. It just meant I was settled in and having a good time.”

Beth Kelsall is student link-up developer at Fusion, a student organisation partnering with Alpha, Christian Aid Collective, Soul Survivor, and others, as well as the Salvation Army and a number of Pentecostal church networks. University, she says, “is a great opportunity to get to know people, free from the precon­ceptions you’ve carried since you were young. No one knows what social group you belonged to at school, or what your unfortunate childhood nickname was.”

The UCCF has a Link Up scheme, which connects new students with their university Christian Union before they arrive. Nell Goddard, who studied theology at Durham University took advantage of this, and joined her CU on a pre-Freshers’ weekend away.

“It was great, because it meant there were already friendly faces in my college and on my course when I arrived.”

Fusion has a Student Linkup scheme that connects students with a church while at university. “The best decision for me was to get stuck into a church,” says Beth Hayden, a theology student at York St John University. ‘Church became my university family: I made friends there and found support systems I needed.”


What if the academic work is too hard or doesn’t suit me?

“LOTS of people panic that they’re not clever enough once they start university,’ Mrs Rowley says. “I always remind them that they got their A levels and were accepted; so the university has faith in them to complete the course. Don’t give up and assume you’ve ‘failed’ if you’re not engaged with your course. It’s possible to switch to something else.”

“I didn’t enjoy my course for quite a while,” Josh Jones, a graphic-design student at Loughborough University, says. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be, and I felt a bit out of place. I asked Jesus to show me what I was missing, and to help me find meaning in what I was doing. Over the next few months, the way I saw my course began to change. My advice would be: ‘Don’t keep it to yourself and pretend everything’s OK if it isn’t.”

Laura Cooper is studying music at the University of York

“My school didn’t tell me that I might find [myself] on the wrong course for me,” says Ms Jones, who changed universities after her first year. “It was a shock,” she says. But there’s no shame in it. It might mean swallowing your pride, if you’ve bigged yourself up to go to a certain university, and it’s not what you expected, you’re not enjoying it, and you want to leave. But, ultimately, it’s three years of your time, and the financial cost is huge. If you’re not happy, there are people in the Students’ Union whose role is to help you.”

“I struggled with a few pieces of work at the start,” says Peter Bolton, a theology student at York St John. “My advice would be to make sure you have at least one module you really enjoy each semester. For the modules that aren’t as appealing, definitely pray about it, and mix things up with a society, or another module, to make it less monotonous.”

“Remember that first year is when you can make mistakes, take on feedback, and learn to do things better. That sets you up for the years that count,” advises Mr Evans. “If I compare how I was writing, from first to third year, it’s completely different. If you’re struggling at first, it doesn’t mean you’ll be struggling at the end.”


How will I cope financially?

“THE number of times I’ve thought to myself ‘Money is hard’ this year is laughable,” Mr Bolton says. “Being financially stable as a student comes down to two things: you’ll have to sacrifice some things you’re used to, like eating out, Starbucks coffee, and spending on technology; and you have to use the spare money you have wisely.”

“I made an effort to prioritise the things that were important to me,” explains Elle Johnston, who is a sociology student at the University of Manchester. “I knew that I really wanted to make time to spend with friends one-on-one, and also loved going for nights out with my house­mates. So I didn’t spend much money on things like clothes shopping, or big food shops, so I could do those things. My advice would be to decide where your priorities lie, and where you might need to not spend, so your finances balance out.”

Elle Johnston is studying sociology at the University of Manchester

The SCM has a 42-page Going to Uni Guide, which covers things such as managing finances. “And our online Christian Student Guide is full of survival tips and recipes to help students maintain their well­being, says its communications officer, Ruth Harvey.

“I found the CAP Money course really helpful,” says James Hayden, a student at York St John. “There’s nothing wrong with going out with your mates, but it’s important to watch how you’re spending. You can still enjoy yourself without getting too carried away.”

“It is a good idea to budget,” Mr Evans says. “If you think money might be tight, check you can pay what you need to — rent, food, public transport — before you commit your­self to spending on other things.”

“If you need to get a job, it’s a good idea to get one at the university itself,” says Miss Jones. “They’re good employers for students, because they pay a decent wage, and they understand you have exams and holidays. It looks a lot better than bar work on your CV, too.”


How do I stay healthy?

“SLEEP well. Eat well. Find a healthy routine for spending time with God in your day. Work out how you rest well, and take rest time,” Mrs Kelsall advises. ‘With uni, it can always feel like you are swamped under a pile of work or revision is lingering. Take some time out each week to do something fun and to relax.”

“Apart from the obvious advice about not drinking too much or living off junk food, it’s really import­ant to find time to do things which have brought you pleasure in the past,” Mrs Rowley says. “Universities are teeming with clubs and societies for every type of person, whether you are sporty, arty, or nerdy.”

“Uni offers so many great sports clubs and activities; so it’s always fun to get involved with at least one,” says Josie Batchelor, who is reading German and French at the Univer­sity of Sheffield. ‘There’s also likely to be a Park Run course near by, which is so friendly and chilled out for a weekly jog option. Spiritually, find a church you feel comfortable in and are supported, as well as making a habit to pray and read your Bible: they’re the bread and butter of any Christian uni experience, and will set you up for a great few years with Jesus.”

“Be honest about when you’re feeling low, or anxious, even when it seems trivial. And try not to shut yourself away when you feel like that,” Miss Johnston says. “I think it can feel like no one is interested, but that’s rarely true, and often I’ve found that when I’m honest and vul­nerable, other people are, too.”

“Mental health is a big issue, and lots of students come aware of needing to work out how to live with their mental health as a student,’ Mrs Parkman says. “University can be a time when you discover you have anxiety, or other mental-health issues, and the chaplaincy is a good place to talk about these things and find out where you can get help.”


For more help and advice, take a look at some of these websites: 








*Some names have been changed

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