Author: Dr Jasmine K, Senior Lecturer in the School of International Relations and Associate Director of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews
The new academic year is about to start for most British universities with a new cohort of undergraduate and postgraduate students entering academia. Below is a slightly adapted version of a welcome address I gave last year for new students. Drawing on the experiences of current students and recent graduates (and my own), I offer six tips for students starting university in these uncertain times.
To all the new students starting university as undergraduates or postgraduates: A big welcome to every single one of you at the start of your academic journeys. May your time at university be happy, memorable, and fulfilling.
The circumstances are unusual for newcomers this year – instead of sitting in inductions alongside your peers and attending Freshers’ events in person, everyone is scattered and having to connect virtually.
In fact it’s fair to say this entire year has been unusual. Since the start of the pandemic, life has been strange and unpredictable, not least for all of you as you tried to prepare for your academic futures. For some, there may have been difficult losses and hardships to bear along the way. It’s important to acknowledge and appreciate the challenges you overcame to get to this point, and to congratulate yourselves on your achievement.
The years building up to this point have been eventful in other ways too, with global efforts for justice and equality coming to the fore, forming a much bigger part of our collective awareness. At such a formative stage of your personal and academic lives, what you have witnessed and experienced in these past couple of years gives you a unique chance to see the world around you – both its problems and solutions – in new and creative ways. Whether it’s COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, environmental and humanitarian crises, or political and economic upheavals, we’ve learned that we are all connected, that we cannot ignore the plight of others, and that by lifting and supporting those who are marginalised and dispossessed, we lift and support the whole community- indeed often, we have the most to learn from them.
And though at times it may feel like you are far removed from these global events, the university, with its staff and student diversity, and research on urgent global issues, is inseparable from the outside world. It is anything but an ivory tower. While you are studying at university, you will meet and befriend people from so many different countries, cultures, faiths, and backgrounds. And when you eventually complete your degrees, you will take the skills, ideas, empathy, and compassion that you cultivated here to all parts of the globe.
I’ve mentioned the things that made these recent years, and your journey to this point, unique. But in some ways, I can relate to your experience. As I was preparing this talk, I couldn’t help but reflect on my years as an undergraduate student, against the tumultuous backdrop of anti-capitalist protests, the tragic events of 9/11, the Iraq War, and the global anti-war movement. I recall what it was like starting University – the mixture of excitement, trepidation, curiosity, uncertainty, and hope. And I also remember how a lot of those feelings resurfaced years later when I began a new academic journey not as a student but as a lecturer. So while our experiences won’t be exactly the same, I can imagine and understand what you might be feeling now.
Based on our relatable journeys, I thought I’d share some short pieces of advice that might be of some help in the next few months. I also asked recent graduates and current students what tips they had for you, and I have included their wisdom too.
One: Be your authentic self. There is no fixed type of a university student (or indeed member of staff). You, with all your personal qualities, quirks, interests, different languages, histories, beliefs, and identities, are the University. Know what your values are, what makes you ‘You’, and let that shine. You shouldn’t ever have to change who you are just to fit in – it doesn’t matter what your background is, there is space enough for everyone in academia, and to celebrate everyone’s differences.
Two: Be kind and be hospitable. Make that space not just for yourself but for others, especially for those who are feeling less included. At university, you won’t just be learning in your lectures and tutorials – you also learn from each other, outside of your classes. You are so lucky to be studying alongside people from so many different walks of life. So make the most of it – step outside of your zone of familiarity, speak to people whose cultures and backgrounds you know nothing about, learn from each other, expand your horizons and your minds. We never forget the hospitality and kindness we receive from people when we first move to a new place – so try to be that person that extends that hospitality and kindness to others throughout your time at university.
Three: While there is more to university life than just your studies, you do want to leave with a degree at the end, and it should play an important part in not just your intellectual but also personal growth. You will learn new things that will excite or challenge you; you’ll also nurture discipline and responsibility through focused study and deadlines. Establishing a healthy rhythm in your study habits, and sooner, can help alleviate stress in the long-run and can lead to deeper learning. Intense bursts of work just before a deadline might work on smaller assignments, but are not sustainable for bigger ones. Progress takes time, even years, so try not to feel too demoralised if you worked hard but your early grades are not the best – remember you’re at university to learn, not to be brilliant from the start. And finally, something many students don’t do enough: utilise office hours! You won’t be disturbing or inconveniencing your teachers, those office hours are meant for you. Use them to ask about anything you don’t understand or to explore your ideas further.
Four: You won’t always agree with everyone you meet at university. I recall as a student there were intense debates in the student newspaper, during Student Union motions, and in classes. That is normal and an important part of university life. But we can still disagree with respect, and humility. Always remember the humanity of those you might differ with, and never let that disagreement be a cause of unfair treatment. Even if you hold very different political views, you might have more in common than you realise; so try not to judge the whole person based on some of their views.
Five: Have courage to speak the truth, especially in the face of injustice and bullying. Every community has its flaws and has room to improve; so if you witness things that need to change, have the courage to be the one to initiate it. Speaking the truth against injustice sometimes comes with a cost – you may be challenged, even shunned; but you will always hold on to your integrity. And if everyone stood up against injustice and abuses of power, the costs of doing so would be shared by many, and a less heavy burden on one individual. To stand up to racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, religious discrimination, classism, or any other form of bullying or harassment, whether locally or globally, you need to be brave. It’s never easy, but I promise, you will find allies. In the words of the social justice activist, Maggie Kuhn: “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes.”
Six: There’ll be times when you feel homesick, confused, when the academic work is really hard – there is no shame in that, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It might not seem like it to you, but others will be feeling the same way, you won’t be alone. Seek support from student services, your teachers, your friends old and new, your family, and the communities you are familiar with. And in challenging times, look for the small, simple things that bring joy, peace, and perspective, because those things will be all around you, you just need to look and pay attention.
Finally, enjoy the learning, enjoy your friendships, enjoy all the opportunities that university has to offer, and look forward to these special years ahead with hope.
Image source: St Andrews web page.