Looking back on my first year at Durham University

A year can feel like the longest and shortest time in your life. So much and so little has happened and changed that it feels only right to take a moment and reflect on everything I’ve learned since joining Durham University. Perhaps if you’re just joining for your first year here, you might find my insight useful.


What I’m glad I did in my first year


Going to university for the first time is a scary business. You might feel anxious and lonely, especially if you don’t know anybody else coming to university with you. While I was excited to meet new people in theory, the act of introducing yourself to someone is truly daunting. However, I can’t stress enough how worth it this is! On my first day, I introduced myself to one of the girls along my corridor just by knocking on her door and saying hello. She offered me some birthday cake, and one year on I’m sat in her windowsill writing this very article. Even if you’re not sure how the conversation will turn out, it’s always worth having a go.



One of the amazing things about Durham is the number of societies on offer, both across the university and in individual colleges too! I’m glad that I took advantage of this: societies are a brilliant way to meet new people and settle into your new home. Joining the Hill Orchestra all by myself was quite terrifying, but I ended up making new friends, running for exec and actually leading the whole orchestra for concerts! Making that jump was a hard decision, but I’m glad I did it. Everyone was so supportive, which is important to remember: at the end of the day, everyone is in the same boat, and your fellow students will be there to help you when you feel unsure.

It’s okay to trial some that don’t work out too! Personally, I tried Creative Writing, and enjoyed it, but realised that I couldn’t balance it with my other commitments. I tried a variety of dance classes, but only ended up sticking with two. The important thing is that you throw yourself out there as much as possible, and trust that something will work for you.



Getting to know your new city is a brilliant way to settle into life at university. Luckily, everything in Durham is within reasonable walking distance, especially in the city centre, so don’t be afraid to take time to discover what’s around you. You might just find something that makes your time here even better: a favourite coffee shop, perhaps, or a pretty route to walk along when you feel stressed. Durham has a lot to offer, and there’s something for everyone. Don’t feel that you have to spend all your time studying or being around college and the library – it’s great to get out into Durham itself and make the most of being here while it lasts!


What I wish I’d known and my top tips to incoming students


Something that I feel should be emphasised is that it’s okay not to get everything right. First year is formative for a reason! Making mistakes or not doing as well as you hoped isn’t a nice feeling, admittedly, but it’s actually really important in working out how you can achieve your full potential! If you got everything right straight away, you wouldn’t be able to grow either as an academic or as a person. I remember feeling terrible about my feedback for my first poetry essay: the mark seemed much lower than others I’d received, and I felt quite disheartened. That feedback proved so valuable in the end, however – by the time my exams rolled around, I’d been able to reflect and build on the criticisms I’d received, so I could make a real improvement! Looking back, I’m glad that I didn’t do so well on that formative, because it enabled me to think more clearly about what it was that I needed to do.



Despite its many joys, the first year of university is actually a really hard time for a lot of people. You might feel homesick, or struggle with the work, or be hit by the dreaded fresher’s flu, or experience any number of problems. It can be easy to look around and see everyone else having the best time, making friends, partying and ‘succeeding’ at university, especially on social media. Just try to remember that everybody will experience struggles that they might not show to everyone else. It’s okay if you’re not having the most fun all the time: it’s natural and normal to find this time difficult, so don’t put pressure on yourself to feel good at all times. I often thought other people were doing ‘better’ at university because they did things differently, but the reality is that everyone will have a unique experience. I didn’t see all of their low points and nor did they see mine. The bottom line is, as long as you do your best and use the opportunities you’ve got, your university experience will be exactly what you need it to be.



One of the best pieces of advice I was given before going to university was to seek support when I needed it. If it’s academic support you need, your department can signpost you to the right person. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: it doesn’t make you stupid, it makes you smart. Your departments and tutors exist to teach you through this experience and making use of their expertise as much as possible is a great way to aid your academic development.

You might need other kinds of support while at Durham too. With all of the changes happening in your life, it’s completely okay to struggle with your mental or emotional health, and to seek help to deal with any issues. Whether it’s from your college welfare, GP, friends, or somewhere else, finding the support you need is a great way to manage the difficulties you face. It’s also a brilliant and valid idea to practice self-care by saying no to things sometimes. If you’re too tired or busy, sometimes all you need is some quiet time. Don’t worry about allowing yourself to do that sometimes too – letting yourself rest is vital to getting through university as much as anything else.


So that’s it – a second year’s reflection on her own first year. My experience won’t be exactly the same as anyone else’s, and undoubtedly, I’ll learn even more this year about how university life works for me, which as a prospect is equally exciting and scary. However, all any of us can do is throw ourselves in and work it out as we go along, and there lies the beauty of being a student at Durham.


Image: Kristupas Kemeza on Pexels


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