Students starting at Durham could be forgiven for thinking about Hogwarts – particularly if they find themselves walking, gown on shoulders, through the very same Cathedral cloisters as a young Harry Potter. (Although, the sorting has already been completed – by UCAS – and few first years will be arriving by boat.) Nevertheless, you may still be feeling in equal parts bewildered and enchanted by what this next stage in your education will entail. Unfortunately, you aren’t a wizard. But you are a student. Welcome to Durham!
However you may be feeling about coming to university, we at Kings want to extend a warm welcome to you. Leaving home to study is a big step into independence, and it’s natural to be both excited and nervous, and normal to have lots of questions. We have lots of students at Kings and we love seeing them develop over their time at university. What follows certainly won’t answer all your questions, but we hope we can give you some helpful advice on starting university.
Freshers’ Week is a cocktail of thrilling independence and trembling insecurity. You stand on the cusp of a whole new stage of life and yet it feels like the first day you stood on the school playground, self-conscious about whether your uniform fits and wishing for a familiar face to pop out of the crowd.
Depending on how you’re wired, Freshers’ Week might sound like the most exciting week of your life or one you wish was over as quickly as possible. The first thing to say is: it’s okay not to like every moment of it. Freshers’ Week is definitely not representative of the rest of university life.
Everyone feels like this
It’s hard to remember, but it’s true. Even those who appear effortlessly self-assured and who seem to have inexplicably made three friends within the first hour may worry about how they’re being received. Everyone is trying to make a good impression, is trying to fit in, and is confused about how the tumble dryers work. It’s not just you.
Focus on being friendly, not on finding your best friend
Those who grew into our closest friends before university probably weren’t the most obvious candidates and the process doesn’t change at university. It’s a wonderful time for making lifelong friends, but don’t stress about finding them within the first week or even the first year. Instead, be friendly to everyone and see which relationships most naturally develop. A really simple way to begin is to prop your college room door open so you can chat to whoever walks past and says hello.
Have the courage to be honest
A wise person once said, ‘Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”’ Being honest about how you’re finding something rather than putting on a facade will help you make better friends more quickly. A great piece of advice for Freshers’ Week and beyond is to just do what you enjoy doing and you’ll naturally find people similar to you.
Part of the worry about fitting in can also be the worry about what people will make of your faith. Being open about it from the very start helps a lot. Speaking about your faith sooner rather than later communicates that it’s an important part of who you are, explains why you might not want to join in with some things that others will be doing, and makes it easier to say no to those things. Finding other Christians in your college or course is also a lot easier when they know who you are!
Beyond Freshers’ Week
Once the intensity of Freshers’ Week is over, you’ve deciphered your timetable, your clothes have come out of their first wash the same size and colour as they went in, something approaching the normal routine of university life begins.
Find a church
As the worship started on my first Sunday in Durham, I remember the untethered feeling I’d carried through much of Freshers’ Week being replaced by a sense of groundedness. In a new city, here my focus was lifted to the unchanging God. Amid countless new people, here were others of all ages and backgrounds with whom I was already united. Through all of the uncertainty that still persisted, here I was reminded that Jesus is the firmest foundation.
Church can be a home away from home, a place of welcome and belonging, a place of rest in a season of instability. Deciding what church to settle at can feel like a tricky decision and it might not be one you’ve had to make before. Try to set yourself a deadline for settling (by the end of October might be a good one) and think beforehand about what priorities and values will inform your decision. For more advice, you could check out our guide on choosing a church.
Make the most of late night deep chats
As you begin to deepen the friendships that are forming, make the most of opportunities to share your faith. As you chat about how you’re finding university, how you found Freshers’, what makes you tick, what your background is like – include Jesus in there. Lots of students relish getting to know new people and their stories. Your new friends may never have met a Christian, never heard of what they believe, never found Jesus captivating. You have the privilege of being the one who shares that with them for the first time. You may be nervous about what they’ll say or think, but if you honestly share your story and what you believe, you’ll be surprised by how receptive they are.
Consider your character, not just your grades
Graduation might seem like an age away, but it will come around much quicker than you think. When you think ahead to graduation, don’t just think about what job you want to do or what grades you want to achieve – consider who you want to have become. Think about how you want this stage of life to change you and begin pursuing that now.
Ancient Wisdom for New Experiences
Psalm 1 offers helpful reading for any new student. Verse 3 speaks about the person who is ‘like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.’ Why are they like that? Because they delight and meditate on God’s law, and do not walk in the way of the wicked.
So that pot plant balanced precariously in the back of the car as you travel to Durham can serve as a helpful reminder: Arriving at uni is a bit like being re-potted – it can feel destabilising, but it can also be the prerequisite for much growth.
A central part of student life is exploring the question, ‘Who am I?’ University life offers endless options of what to root yourself in. The Freshers’ lifestyle promises satisfaction and freedom, good grades promise validation, societies and friendships promise belonging. You could search for answers in all of those places. But the wonderful news of the gospel is that only Jesus knows completely who you are. As you put your roots deeper into him, you will find the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ and with it you will discover the deepest freedom, satisfaction, validation and belonging that your heart was made for all along.
University will offer its own unique mix of fun, challenge, discovery, sadness, friendship, loneliness, stress and joy. As in all stages of life, Jesus offers to lead you through it as a good and gentle shepherd. Put your roots in him and you can’t go far wrong. You certainly can’t go farther than he’s willing to go in order to bring you back. If that is the biggest thing you learn while at university, it will be time very well spent.
Sam Steemson is on the Student Team at Kings. He studied law at Durham before doing Relay with UCCF. He is now on the Training Track at Kings, focussing on student work and preaching alongside studying part time for a Masters in Theology and Ministry at Cranmer Hall. He enjoys reading, drumming, and playing squash.