Leaving behind your “home” friends, trying to eke out your student loan and learning to deal without mum and dad are all challenges that can make settling into university life pretty stressful at the beginning.
But as someone who researches youth drinking, I’ve found that the biggest concern for new students tends to be making friends with their new flatmates. Moving in with a group of strangers is highly stressful, and it’s easy to see why freshers can feel that making close friends with people in halls is pivotal to adapting to university life.
At most UK campuses and on most courses, the “traditional” structure of freshers’ week continues: you arrive, move into halls, attend induction events and are left with a significant amount of free time to fill. The stereotypical freshers’ week is an extended period of drunkenness, where alcohol is heavily promoted and readily available, both on campus and in local venues, which will be doing everything they can to attract new arrivals through their doors.
But if the thought of spending two weeks drunk before turning up to your first lecture with freshers’ flu and an empty bank account fills you with dread, don’t worry: it’s not inevitable. Though it can feel like drinking is the only way to connect with people and settle in quickly, there are a few things that are worth remembering, if you want to limit your consumption.
You’re not alone
Alcohol use among young adults in the UK has been in steady decline for some time. According to statistics collected in 2017, less than half of 16- to 24-year-olds reported any alcohol use at all in the previous week. This means that in your cohort, there will be students who are heavy drinkers, students who drink moderately, and students who don’t drink at all.
Basically, not everybody is doing the same thing: even if your flatmates are favouring drinking heavily, there are other social groups on campus which may not be. Get familiar with the societies and events on offer during freshers’ week, which focus on a different kind of activity: sports, film showings, art and craft workshops, walking tours – there will be a range of events at every university.
Students have reported better physical and mental health, improved self-esteem, a more productive life and even a better social life, as a result of taking part in social activities without drinking – even where others around them are doing so. So these kinds of activities may be more common and readily available than you think.
In the UK, underage drinking has also been steadily falling since 2010. This means that a significant number of new students will arrive with little or no prior drinking experience in the past.
This can make people nervous about the pressure to keep up – a stress which can be compounded by finding yourself in a new town with relative strangers, knowing you have to find your way home at the end of the night. Resisting the expectation to drink can be challenging with people you’re hoping to get on with, but it is possible.
Although it may feel like everyone else has more drinking experience than you, this is unlikely to be the case. And yes, some people will embellish their previous drinking prowess, so maybe take the stories with a pinch of salt. The most important thing is keeping safe in a new environment, and only drinking as much as you feel comfortable with. And if this happens to involve a white lie (“I’m on antibiotics”) until you get to know people better, then so be it.
A marathon, not a sprint
Freshers’ is not university life, it’s just the first two weeks. It can feel as though you’ll miss out on finding friends if you don’t drink throughout freshers’, and of course you want to get on with your housemates. But you’ll end up meeting a much wider range of people later on, and they may end up being your closest friends.
In fact, you’ll probably be spending more time with your course mates than anyone else, so if it feels like not joining in the drinking means you’re missing out, just try to be patient. Most students find people who “get” them before too long.
Another thing to remember is that many people get really sick of drinking about mid-way through freshers’, but may not feel that they can admit it. If you’ve had enough after a few days, it’s very unlikely that you’re the only one, so try talking to people about it and see if anyone fancies finding an alternative social activity to the pub.
Above all else, the most important thing is that you stay safe, stay with people you know and enjoy yourself – good luck to all the new arrivals.