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What we wish we'd known when we started at uni

Now that A-level results are out, prospective undergraduates' thoughts turn to university. Three Belfast Telegraph writers recall the anticipation of Freshers' Week ... and how their student days panned out


Graduation day: journalist Una Brankin

Graduation day: journalist Una Brankin

Claire McNeilly

Claire McNeilly



Graduation day: journalist Una Brankin

Queen's University, Belfast, 1982: As a fresher, I wish I'd known that it was all right to be scared by this strange new world. And that others among this new horde were feeling the same, even if they seemed relentlessly confident and carefree.

I didn't know one soul at Queen's University in Belfast when I enrolled in the autumn of 1982. When my mother and sisters dropped me off at the halls of residence in Stranmillis, on a Sunday night before the start of term, I don't think I've ever felt more alone, despite suddenly becoming one part of this huge shoal of student plankton.

It wasn't my first time staying away from home. At 17, I'd been au pair for a couple of months in the south of France, and I'd spent countless, whole summer holidays with my aunt. I'd also had the daunting experience of going from a tiny two-classroom primary school in the country to a large, co-educational grammar school in Belfast, full of smart-alec townies.

So, I wasn't entirely a fish out of water, alone at Queen's, but I was painfully self-conscious and uncomfortable among strangers. Sitting by myself on that first night in a common room at the halls complex, I took a notion that I'd seem less of a lonely-pint oddball if I had a cigarette.

Previously, I'd only ever had a few puffs in the woods at school, or at Saturday night discos. I bought 20 awful Embassy Regal from a machine and smoked two of them, while the other newbies sat chatting in groups or duos, or dashed around excitedly.

I woke up the next morning in my new spartan digs with the same sense of isolation, and even when I made acquaintances on the 10-minute walk from the Stranmillis embankment to the university campus, it didn't diminish until the end of the first term.

At school, I'd never found it easy to speak in class. Then, having been knocked back on an answer I'd given to an unpleasant professor, in the one of those lovely quad buildings on campus, I found I couldn't speak at all in tutorials.

It was the same at student parties, unless I forced myself to drink a couple of bottles of horribly bitter Holsten Pils beer (the other popular stimulant favoured by students would render me paralysed).

I thought it was so horribly uncool to be lumbered with this hideous shyness as a first-year student, when the world should have been my oyster. It was only when I discovered Joni Mitchell and The Smiths, in my second year, that I realised that some of my heroes felt exactly the same way in their youth.

In her brilliant Court and Spark album (much admired by Morrissey, incidentally), Joni sings of watching - in her "frightened silence" - other people at parties with "passport smiles".

There's an attention-seeking girl with a "lampshade crown", who ends up crying on someone's knee, and "Eddie in the corner thinking he's nobody", and "stone-cold Grace behind her fan".

If you're a frightened fresher, this song will certainly resonate. If I'd known that it's natural to be intimidated in that first year, "fumbling deaf, dumb and blind", as Joni put it, I'd have saved myself much existential discomfort.

I wouldn't have smoked at parties for the next 30 years and I wouldn't have assumed that the second and third and fourth year students were any wiser than me.

But I'd live the whole experience again, if it were possible, at the drop of a mortar board.

Freshers, you don't know how lucky you are.

Claire McNeilly: Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 1993

The first piece of counsel I'd offer is: don't rush in. Turning up at Freshers' Week "sans amis" is pretty daunting, but don't hitch yourself to the first person you meet, because you may well have to ditch them when you find your niche.

Upon arrival at Heriot-Watt University in 1993, my first encounter was with a loud, brassy red-haired English girl, who turned out to be a raging nymphomaniac.

Shortly afterwards, I met a ring-blowing Belgian smoker, with swarthy skin and a puckered pout he'd clearly been practising.

One night, having insisted upon walking me home, he quite unexpectedly lunged at me mid-conversation outside the halls of residence.

It was a very embarrassing, ugly affair; he didn't take the rejection well. (But it's a small world; he and the nymph later ended up together, for months, if not for life).

Post-graduation, I learned he'd told everyone on our course (yip, we were on the same one) about my unrequited love for him and how he didn't feel the same way.

Another thing I'd suggest is to go prepared; I wasn't. I got myself to the campus outside Edinburgh with clothes, a couple of books and little else. I had no television, no radio and no crockery for my self-catering digs.

And I didn't have a car to transport anything I might've bought if I'd had any money to spend on (what would have been for me) luxuries.

It was a lovely room, with an en-suite bathroom in one of the newest halls, but I never made it my own and it remained devoid of personality for the entire year.

A guy I was seeing bought me one of those bulky, black old-style CD players and that remained the only object in my big, bare-walled, single-bedded study, where I spent little time.

Sign up for everything, they cry, especially something you've never done before. Well, just don't. Or at least, choose wisely.

For reasons which continue to elude me, I enrolled for the canoeing club. Yes, you read that right. I love swimming, I thought it might be a cool thing to do. But I didn't think it through.

I remember being bussed to some weird youth club swimming pool off campus for the first practice session.

I had a red Baywatch costume (which I had long owned; it wasn't bought for the occasion) and why wouldn't that be the perfect swimwear for this depraved gathering - it was mostly men - of strange-looking, Speedo-sporting canoeists?

The class consisted of getting into a boat, being tipped over into the water, having to pull yourself up and then get back out of the canoe. Repeatedly.

I didn't last the full hour; swiftly exiting the pool early to get back on the bus instead. I never returned to canoe club. Mercifully, I didn't see any of the members again.

But if I were you, or I had to do it all again, I'd embrace my subject better, work harder and learn how to best cultivate my intelligence without conceit.

Fees are expensive; education is not a gift - but the ability that gets you into your chosen institution most definitely is.

Looking back, I wish I had cut fewer classes, attended more tutorials and left the slacking to the rich.

As a business and languages student, I foolishly shied away from some lessons because the majority of my peers were already bilingual and I was embarrassed that my French and German were so poor in comparison to them.

I've since learned, in life, that the weakest person in the room stands to gain the most.

Alex Kane: Queen's University, Belfast, 1974

To paraphrase JM Barrie, my first few days at Queen's University turned into an "awfully big adventure".

Armagh was less than an hour from Belfast, but back in October 1974, there was a very real sense that I was going into a war-zone.

When I was still at school, I had heard about Belfast almost every day on the news and almost always because of a shooting, bomb, or riot.

My mum and dad wanted me to go to an English or Scottish, university.

Having rescued me from an orphanage in 1961 and turned me into a semi-respectable young man, they didn't want me blown up the first time I left home, but my degree course was in politics and I couldn't think of a better place to be than Belfast at that moment.

The most vivid memory I have of my first day - I had to register in the Students' Union - was of meeting people called Malachi, Sean, Declan, Gerry, Fionnuala and Mairead; and discovering that they were all pleasant, talkative and destined for the same lectures and study groups.

I knew only two or three Catholics in Armagh and had only met them because I was involved with an inter-schools magazine group.

But meeting this new circle, some of whom became and remain close and valued friends, shaped my thinking and steered me towards a desire for a unionism that was inclusive and welcoming.

The other memory which remains is that of Belfast, itself; a capital city with barriers, barricades, us-and-them zones, no-go areas (if you happened to be the "wrong sort") and a handful of cinemas, which closed early and seemed to lag way behind in the screening of new releases.

The Students' Union and university campus was like a self-contained bubble, with most students remaining within a very restricted, mostly neutral, area.

Maybe because there was a genuinely scary, brutal world on our immediate doorstep, there was an unwritten rule that, on the campus and in bars like the Egg and Bot, we were nothing more than students in the same place at the same time.

We rubbed shoulders. We shared quarters. We built surprising and lasting relationships.

But we mostly voted unionist or nationalist away from that cosy world.

I gravitated to the 16 Club, a film club which showed older movies three times a week in the Students' Union (when I became president of the club two years later, we had seasons devoted to actors and genres); and also to the Gown, the student newspaper where I cut my writing teeth as a film critic.

I was also on the Students' Representative Council for a while, along with people like Jim Wells and Jim Allister (I wonder what became of them?).

I remember the long, loud and mostly pointless debates about Marxism and assorted "freedom fighters".

But, again, it was all good experience for a small-town boy who wasn't used to having his supposedly watertight beliefs and arguments cut to shreds by sharper minds and tongues.

During Freshers' Week, I joined the archaeology club - I had no interest then and I have no interest now - because their stall was run by the most beautiful girl I had even seen.

I also toyed with Alliance (it was still a liberal unionist party at that point), but the person on their stall made such a virtue of not believing in anything at all that it didn't seem worth joining.

But I did get involved with the Gown, the 16 Club, the history society and the Conservative and Unionists (the then official name for the UUP).

Those four years at Queen's opened my mind.

It was a different world back then: far fewer students than there are now; a sense that we were all on a voyage of discovery; the very real feeling of being away from home (no mobiles, internet, personal televisions); the near-certainty that we would all get jobs as soon as we graduated; and all against a background of violence and instability (some of it a few hundred yards from the campus) in a city stuffed with the world's Press - many of whom I got to know.

I'm glad I went. University changed me.

It challenged me. It also broadened my mind and my attitudes.

That said, I've never had a job that required a degree.

Belfast Telegraph