Let’s set the scene: Freshers’ Week 2014, Teviot Loft Bar, a pub quiz organised by the Philosophy Society. Amidst a rabble of eager students figuring out how to spell Kierkegaard, one fresher takes a selfie with the peer sharing her armchair. “I need to send my mum a picture of us to show her I’ve already made friends”, she says.
Indeed, spending time in bars with your new friends is more or less what the first week at university is sold as. If you Google Freshers’ Week, you will find hundreds of pictures of young people who seem to be having the time of their lives, mostly on dance floors holding their arms in the air. Essentially, the beginning of an undergraduate career does not seem to have changed much since the nineteenth century when Edward Bradley first published The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, a novel which depicts the exploits of the titular character, a freshman at the University of Oxford. The protagonist’s first days at university mainly consist of alcohol and tobacco galore, and new acquaintanceships with young women.
Unlike in Green’s days, freshers can now thankfully rely on a barrage of advice on how to survive Freshers’ Week offered by student unions and various different websites. Many of the available tips and tricks suggest that there is a strategy behind a successful ‘Welcome Week’. Following the correct strategy, a fresher will accumulate all the essential Freshers’ Week experiences – waking up in your underwear on the kitchen table after a wild night out, for instance.
But what if you don’t want your first days in your new life to be about playing Ring of Fire and clubbing? What if you don’t feel comfortable leaving your door open while you are unpacking, or you are not interested in repetitive small talk and selfie sessions with strangers?
Obviously, there are some ‘alternative freshers’, who have enough self-confidence to abandon the mainstream and shape their own Freshers’ Week. Seobhan, now a third-year student, was one of them: “Starting fresh at university, with a whole new life to get used to, I did not even think about heading out into a club to get pissed with hundreds of other lost youngsters. I am more of a quiet one…this loud, raucous drinking culture of Freshers’ Week did not appeal to me in the slightest. I was much happier in having a cup of tea with my flatmates” (sic.).
However, many new students prefer to stick to the standard Freshers’ recipe to make sure that the end result of the week – good memories and new friends – is not spoiled.
Of course, today’s Freshers’ Weeks can hardly be compared to those of the past, where humiliating or abusive practices were justified by their assumed traditional value. No one now can be forced into anything they are uncomfortable with.
Nevertheless, old ideas of what an undergraduate’s orientation period should look like are difficult to shake off. Most of the existing sources of advice for new students still do not mention the importance of realistic expectations, the inevitability of self-doubt, awkward silences and small talk, and that it’ll probably take longer than Freshers’ Week for long-lasting friendships to develop.
Luckily, the Freshers’ Week programme at the University of Edinburgh is packed with a great variety of activities, both day and night, as well as events for minority groups, mature students and our parents and carers. It seems like, on the official end of things at least, our university acknowledges that there is not only one type of student with one specific idea of what having a good time or settling in means. Verdant Green, who left university after he had realised that excessive drinking and partying was not for him, would undoubtedly approve.
Image: Careyjamesbalboa via wikimedia