By Danny Harrington, Founder & Director, ITS Education Asia
The first term, let alone year, at university can be difficult to cope with. Not only are you stepping into a brand new course, unsure what it will be like yet expecting it to be far removed from school and much, much harder, but you have to deal with new people on many levels – teachers, friends etc – and usually a new place to live. This can be incredibly daunting and if you have changed country in the process as well, the cultural differences and sheer distance from home and the familiar can be crushing.
In the UK, even students born and bred in the country or veterans of 5 years of boarding school, struggle with the change. The Daily Telegraph reports that, on average, 27% of first year undergraduate students had either dropped out of their course by January or were contemplating doing so by the summer. A further study by the New College of the Humanities has taken to calling November 12th “university defection day” – the date when first year students are most likely to leave their courses. But again, if you have arrived from overseas the pressure to stay is enormous – great commitments and often sacrifices have been made both financially and emotionally to get you there. You don’t want to let people down. Should you therefore sacrifice your own well-being to “just get on with it”?
The key risk is that you may feel you are in danger of wasting three years studying something useless but then feel like you can’t go home because then you would be a year behind and have already spent money on the degree (let alone the emotional response of those around you, real or perceived). You are probably also convinced that taking a degree is your only viable option. The first thing you need to do is try to establish why you have feelings of wanting to change. One immediate distinction may be between academic reasons and more personal reasons. Each will inevitably effect the other but often one is the root cause of your unhappiness.
This leaves you with three options. If you feel it is emotional issues holding you back but you definitely want to do the degree and subject you have chosen you will need to either stick it out or look to reapply to another university for the same course. If you like the university but not the course you may want to look at options for course changes (not so easy in the UK but getting easier). Or you may come to the conclusion that university is not for you and settle on a different path.
But before you do anything, remember you are not alone. These feelings are quite normal – 27% is a huge section of your peer group. So take your time and utilise all the resources around you. Generally it does take a term to settle in so don’t join the “defectors” on November 12th. Get through to the first vacation at the very least when you can take time, hopefully back at home, to reflect in a measured way and take family advice. Before you take that break, use the university’s own counselling resources. You should have a ”pastoral tutor” tasked with your welfare. Their job is to listen to precisely these worries. Remember the university does not want to lose you. They have given you the place and want to see you succeed.
Discuss openly and honestly with your tutor your conflicting feelings about your degree choice, about missing home and struggling to settle at university. He/she will have experience and practical advice and will calmly identify the main issues that need to be solved. If you decide on course change, speak to the admissions department to see how that might be done. It could be quite easy, you won’t know till you ask. Also, remember that these days you can make both direct and UCAS applications to change university and many universities take January admissions, so if that is your decision it does not necessarily mean falling behind and spending more – very important for many overseas students. Don’t make a decision yet but take your options home with you to that first vacation.
Also try talking to students on your course in the years above you. Many will have had the same anxieties but clearly they got through them. It is always a great comfort to see others successfully overcome a problem you are facing. It gives confidence that you can do so too. What seems daunting can be reduced to something much more manageable. It is difficult to gauge how strong your feelings are when they have no context. You have not been in this situation before so you do not know what is “normal”. Speaking to other students and counsellors will often allow you to readjust your feelings in a way that means you can carry on quite happily – completing the course is obviously the path of least resistance.
If in the end you decide to return home and restart the following year, or even to take a different, non-university path, remember that there is nothing wrong with that. You are to be admired for making a decision that is wright for you, not for someone else. There are plenty of options in the world. University is a wonderful experience but only for those who think it is a wonderful experience. It is not for everyone and you can be comfortable with that decision.
To summarize: take your time, seek counselling and opinion, listen and then make your own decision.
Best of luck.
If your feelings go beyond sadness or a generally lack of content and anxiety about choice, if you feel profoundly depressed and especially if you have suicidal thoughts, seek professional help immediately. If a fellow student confides such feelings to you, advise them to seek help immediately and alert a responsible person. Anyone with suicidal thoughts should not wait any longer to seek professional counselling. In the UK the best first point of contact is the Samaritans on 116 123 – 24 hour help free call from any phone.