Making the transition from school to university is a big deal. I can recall that air of unspoken excitement and nerves that filled the room where I first met my course mates at the start of the year. It held endless possibilities. It’s a time that marks new beginnings, and often feels like a fresh page ready for self-exploration and experimenting. The process can be just as daunting as it is exciting and as exhausting as it is full of life.
First-year in itself is a universal lesson in new types of responsibility and independence regardless of your chosen course, which brings students from across campus together, united in their anticipation. The steepest learning curves during this period are rarely academic, but more so in adapting to a new way of life.
For a lot of freshers, it’s less about diving straight into the deep end and more about trying to stay afloat when all you’ve done is dip your toes in the water. You’re told that university will teach you time management, but you’re not told of the bumpy road to bagging that skill. There are deadlines and assignments sitting uncomfortably at the back of your head while you try to find your people at a fresher’s social.
“It really does feel like a time to find your voice. And one of the most powerful ways of doing that is communally, in solidarity with other young people.“
Personally, like many others, I found it especially challenging to find time to fight for the causes that I care deeply about while still trying to stay moderately on top of my work. Student activism was one of the aspects of university I was most looking forward to, as many of the most powerful justice movements in history were born on college campuses, fuelled by passionate student voices. Finding that voice, however, while trying to juggle a leap from micromanaged learning to individual study, is a whole other story.
There were many factors that fostered a hesitation in me to get involved right away in causes that I already knew I felt strongly about. Many freshers deal with varying degrees of imposter syndrome and finding the courage to join already established student activists is no different. What helped, was realising that all the different elements of university life that we feel pressure to balance, are in many ways interlinked and often even dependent on one another.
As a bioengineer studying health and injury, my anti-war sentiments are inherently linked to my degree. My involvement in environmental activism is encouraged by my studies of the natural world. And my mental health and wellbeing were supported by involvement in sports and cultural societies, which helped me academically. Abandoning the idea of an endless list of independent responsibilities and recognizing that they are all connected, reduced much of the pressure I initially felt to keep up with the many aspects of student life. It also legitimized my interest in all of them and helped me ditch the “all-or-nothing” mentality. It is better to contribute what you can, rather than nothing at all.
At the risk of perpetuating every cliché ever about starting university, I’ll say that it really does feel like a time to find your voice. And one of the most powerful ways of doing that is communally, in solidarity with other young people. My first-year experience was so enriched by getting involved with the Palestinian cause on campus, and later with the Divestment campaign. There is often a focus on individual success and prosperity in educational institutions like Imperial, and so it can be very refreshing to learn and organise collectively in activist circles.
It’s important to remember that every small contribution matters, especially as a fresher. Simply sitting in a talk or panel event, to listen, learn, and absorb the knowledge that can later be transformed into active engagement, is just as valid as someone who chooses to hit the ground running. Every new wave of students brings with them fresh ideas that are capable of making us transform the way we see things. These contributions, although often quiet, are still important and can empower other young people to engage and mobilise for the changes that they want to see.