Welcome Weeks 2014-15
It’s Welcome Week again at the University of Manchester, and I have to admit that I’m excited about it in the same way I used to feel about Christmas as a kid. As a new(ish) lecturer — I’m entering my third year at the History department here — there is a certain amount of flapping that happens in the quest to get courses ready and rooms booked and timetables sorted, but at the same time I absolutely love meeting new students, getting to find out what aspects of History they’re interested in, and finding out what they’re hoping to achieve in their degrees. I’ve always thought it’s a great privilege to meet someone at a stage in their life when there are so many possibilities and opportunities, and work with them in teaching and developing key skills they will use to progress. And before this veers off into sounding too saccharine, I also enjoy the cheesy introducing yourself routines where everyone says who they are and talks about their favourite movie to break the ice, which offers me the chance to critique everyone’s taste in films (Jurassic Park is, in fact, the only correct answer). Soon, a new group of first-year undergraduates will arrive to meet us all and, as I have witnessed every year since I began my own BA degree in 2004, experience the whirlwind of those first few days of Uni life: sussing out timetables, making friends, trying to decide which Student Society to join, navigating a new city, and inevitably there may be the odd alcohol-fuelled evening that either goes well or does not. Thankfully, truly awful examples of such incidents seem to be increasingly rare as students are increasingly alert to (and unimpressed by) the dangers of drinking to excess; our own History Society has made sure to arrange movie nights and other evening events at which alcohol won’t feature so everyone is included and has a choice. As I say, students are a great group of people to get to work with.
But in the maelstrom of the next few weeks, I know that there will be some students who still end up feeling uncertain and isolated; who find the barrage of welcomes and activities overwhelming; and who suffer from ‘impostors syndrome’ — the feeling (extremely common, particularly among high achievers) that they don’t actually deserve to be there despite having the grades. And so, rather than simply bulk-post notices and images from Welcome Week that show everyone having a good time (although there will certainly be many of these!), I wanted to take a moment to recognise those slightly nervous students and offer some words of support. This is partly because I am Staff-Student Liaison officer this year, which carries the rather lovely responsibility of finding ways to enhance the student experience, support student initiatives and get staff involved, and help coordinate peer mentoring for first years. But it is also partly because I was that student. I have very vivid memories of feeling thoroughly anxious for the vast majority of my first term at University, which bore no reflection on the institution’s efforts to make me welcome. I was simply homesick, with no prior experience of living away from home and having left behind a very close-knit family and a group of friends that I cared deeply about. Also, I hadn’t fared as well in my ‘A’ levels as I had hoped and thus entered University through Clearing with some pretty fundamental questions about whether I deserved to be there. As the lecturer who offered me a place to study had said, attending a University of the calibre I had entered was a mark of recognition for my earlier grades and an opportunity that I must not waste — words that I later realised were meant kindly, but at the time formed part of the huge weight of pressure I was to place on myself to succeed.
Welcome Week (or Fresher’s Week as it was called when I began) was an experience I moved through with trepidation, not wanting to make the ‘wrong’ choices by committing to joining too many societies or none at all, and uncertain of the wisdom of attending evenings at the pub or Student’s Union when there would be a new round of information to negotiate the following day. Somewhat shy, it seemed enough of an achievement to find my way round the library (as anyone will tell you, I am terrible at directions with no sense of left or right — last year my ‘Library Tour’ for a class of first years ended up with them helping me find the way out!); and list off what I could actually cook (which I suddenly realised was an unappetising and concise set of meals, at the head of which were firmly written ‘fish-fingers’). I began casually eyeing-up what other hall-mates were cooking to get ideas. Thank goodness for pasta.
But that was ok. And if you are a new student and this turns out to be a not-dissimilar account of your own Welcome Week, that’s ok too. It IS a big achievement to live independently for what is most likely the first time, and although it’s fairly well-worn advice, if it takes you a while to suss out friends and activities that grab your interest that’s fine as well. Eventually, friendships will form and the work required to fulfil the expectations of a degree will become clear, though I know this latter knowledge may be something our students go back and forth on at times. We have a fantastically friendly body of students and lecturers, and if I could give new students one message it is to ask us if something is not clear or if guidance is needed, academically or otherwise. Your peer mentors are also there to help, with the added benefit of having been through it all very recently. But please don’t feel like a failure if your Welcome Week does not find you body-surfing across a cheering crowd of fellow-newcomers, or if you only attend the first meeting of the ballroom dancing society and then disappear after realising that a long-held daydream of tangoing to international stardom is actually going to remain just that. And if, particularly during those first few weeks, you’re having a genuinely bad time, please come into Uni and talk about it — either to your Academic Adviser or to me (contact details here).
Finally, I wish you a brilliant, exciting and wonderful start to your degree, and a happy Welcome Week! As a final note to my own trials and tribulations, clearly it turned out ok — I essentially went to study History at University and nine years (and a few more degrees and institutions) later I’m still happily obsessed by it with no desire to leave — in no small part thanks to the friends I made during that tricky first year, who remain my best friends to this day. On that note, it is worth mentioning that I was originally going to write this post as an assortment of historical experiences of Welcome Week, but in raking through numerous autobiographies of famous people chatting about their own experiences at University I began to realise that I only needed to draw briefly on this material to make an important point. What do Bear Grylls, Nelson Mandela, and Christabel Pankhurst have in common? Apparently, they all made life-long friendships during their first year of study.
With friends at my BA graduation, 2007: