Starting uni is always a challenge, as students leave home and strike out on their own. But this year, as it was for freshers last year, an already nerve-wracking experience will be made even trickier as the effects of Covid-19 are still being felt.
Although we're emerging slowly from the pandemic, we're still not sure what will be possible and how uni life might look for students. Students are still facing uncertainty, as they have done for the past 16 months. What will it be like navigating these challenges? How can friends and family best support and encourage new students?
Kizzy started university last autumn at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and Liz is her older sister by 18 years – so almost a second mum! Here are their reflections on this unusual transition, lessons-learnt and advice.
One of the scariest things about starting uni is the fear you won't make new friends.
Being thrust straight into a flat full of strangers is one way to get to know people, but it’s also okay if you’re different from your flat mates. I’m a loud extrovert who comes from an equally loud and large family, so it was a shock when I was placed with three girls who were the exact opposite. Though I struggled at first, I got to know these girls and they taught me something about myself I didn’t know: sometimes it’s okay to be quiet!
I also found it's good to push yourself to be the first to say hello.
Being a Christian and wanting to join CU, I found my CU’s social media pages and requested to be added into their Impact Groups. This was when I realised that no one would know I was there unless I spoke up! I picked five or six people from the Facebook page and messaged introducing myself and saying I would love to get to know them. The responses I received were overwhelmingly positive! Just from that one uncomfortable act putting myself out there, a week later I found I knew other freshers and second and third-years.
When your little sister (or child or grandchild or friend!) heads out into student life, you long for them to find friendship groups and a church to belong in, and it can feel pretty powerless watching from afar when they’re having a hard time. Kiz and I chatted a lot in that time about how God puts us wherever we are for a reason – even if we don’t always understand it. That knowledge can help us trust Him and make the most of the opportunity to befriend the people right in front of us! It’s been brilliant to see how God has answered our prayers from the start of that tough year to the end and to see how her friendships and witness to one of her flat mates in particular has flourished.
Having new-found independence can be exhilarating! (How fun is it to stay up until 5am just because you can, or, in my case, to eat ice cream straight out of the tub with no objections from family!) But to be honest, some of the process is difficult and you can feel in need of home comforts again.
This means you have to be kind to yourself, understand that some days will be better than others and that’s okay. I also learnt – and I cannot stress this enough – you are never alone during your university experience. On the days you feel low in energy and the social battery has worn out, when you’re sat in your room and just want to go home, or feel like no one there knows you like your family do – you can remember that God, who knows you best of all, is with you each day and night.
It was really difficult seeing Kiz struggle with loneliness in the early weeks of uni as she couldn’t mix with anyone beyond her own flat. There were some tearful phone calls, and times she wanted to give up on uni altogether. In those moments I just wanted to be there and make it all ok, but it’s been a good opportunity to really live by the knowledge that God is close and that we can ask Him to look after those we love. The care of a kind local church pastor’s wife and presence and friendship of the CU have been a lifeline for Kiz this year and I’m so grateful that God has surrounded her with His people – those she didn’t know before this year, but now counts as close friends.
'The care of a kind local church member and presence and friendship of the CU have been a lifeline this year.'
I found that CU was not only a great place to get to know others, but also helpful as a Christian student trying to navigate university life. Starting uni can be intimidating as you enter an arena of new worldviews, beliefs, and opinions – some more hostile than others – that might challenge your own understanding of Christianity. I learnt that even though it can be scary standing up for what you believe, there are always others who understand. Your CU, no matter how big or small, is full of students who believe the same truth you do. It's a massive encouragement.
Making connections through CU was a game-changer for Kiz – not only for her own mental health and enjoyment of uni but also for her commitment to live for Jesus. Being surrounded by others her age and stage who are passionate about following Him has given her new confidence and faith in His goodness. It’s so great watching from the sidelines as she grows in prayer, understanding and enjoyment of talking through what we believe together.
This year I learnt a lot about speaking up for Jesus.
Many of my closest unbelieving friends now are people I met through Christians in the CU –their flat mates, coursemates or society mates. It is easy to think CU is going to be a ‘holy bubble’ in which you only talk about God and faith (which you do, and it’s great!) but it's also a place where all kinds of students meet and share the same joys, weird jokes, fears, and struggles. I learnt that though the Bible calls us to live our lives God’s way, that doesn’t mean you can’t hang out with non-Christian friends at the pub! In fact, some of my best conversations about the gospel have been in these settings. We don’t have to exclude ourselves from university life.
'It's easy to think the CU will be a "holy bubble" but it's also a place where all kinds of students meet and share joys, jokes, fears and struggles.'
I also learnt that you don’t have to be the next great preacher to reach your fellow students with the gospel. Witnessing can sometimes be through one-to-one conversations, actions and even just the way you go about your day-to-day life that your friends see.
Uni is one of the best opportunities we ever get to live in close community with Christian and non-Christian friends alike, sharing meals, workspaces and leisure time together. This is an unmissable opportunity to live and speak for Jesus and to create loving communities where the biggest questions of life are given compelling answers. I wish I’d understood that better in my student days! But it’s a delight to have the chance to encourage someone else to make the most of this opportunity in their generation.
I can’t think of anything better that a parent, sibling or older mentor can do than to encourage a new student to get stuck in with their CU Impact Group or small group, and to give time to building a load of diverse friendships on their course, in their student accommodation or in their sports team or hobby.
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