Freshers Week is over…now what?

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It’s the end of week one. You have completed your first essay for the term, you’re sleep deprived but you agreed to go to that club night at Fever someone in your JCR managed to sell you a ticket to. Your second tutorial is in two days, and you don’t have time to go to lectures, go to socials and attend a third of the things you signed up for at Freshers Fair.

This is a scenario that might be familiar to the seasoned Oxford student, but that can be terribly frightening, even disappointing to a new student. Michelmas Term is always full of light and promise, Oxmas is around the corner and the brand new academic year is like a new chapter – a chance to start again! To really go to all the lectures you put down in your planner – or not, as the case may be. I remember the struggles of being a fresher at Oxford, and I have some tips for what to expect and what support is out there.

Michelmas Term is always full of light and promise, Oxmas is around the corner and the brand new academic year is like a new chapter – a chance to start again!

Michaelmas is the term that you are most likely to encounter imposter syndrome, the feeling that Oxford maybe made a mistake with you, that everyone is somehow more adequate than you are, and that you don’t belong here. Maybe your background is different from your peers, or maybe you’re just not used to be quite this average in an academic setting. Clinical psychologists have described this as an inability to internalise ones own achievements and symptoms include overworking to compensate, a fear of failure, and a refusal to acknowledge positive feedback. As a lower-middle class, international, woman of colour with intense anxiety, I faced feeling like a fraud all through my first year, and stayed in my room working hours and hours in order to make up for what I thought were my weaknesses.

I faced feeling like a fraud all through my first year, and stayed in my room working hours and hours in order to make up for what I thought were my weaknesses.

All I can say is, it doesn’t have to be this way. It might be hard to believe, but the struggle is normal. It is perhaps likely won’t have the time to do everything you want to do, maybe not all your essays are going to be prize-winning pieces of work. And that’s okay. In fact, nearly everyone around you is probably feeling the same sort of worry and pressure that you do. You do not have to do everything to perfection in order to be a successful Oxford student.

You do not have to do everything to perfection in order to be a successful Oxford student.

On 10th October, we celebrated World Mental Health Day, a time to spread awareness of mental illnesses, and methods for self-care. In Oxford, we saw the Oxford Mental Health Support Network and Oxford SU collaborating to create the #OxMindWMHD book, a collection of creative work and personal experiences themed around mental health. Apart from panels and awareness events, the SU and Oxford Students’ Disability Community (OSDC) also ran self-care events like meditation and painting.

In many ways, self-care has been co-opted by a ‘treat yourself’ attitude that can come off as indulgent, even selfish. Yet self-care can be crucial in making sure our minds are healthy, allowing us to live the fulfilling lives we imagine. In discussions with students over the course of my work with Student Minds, which I was president of, I have found it easiest to remember great practical self-care tips through by recalling the five senses (Sight, Hearing, Olfaction, Taste and Touch). Engaging one of these senses, by listening to music that lifts your mood or cosying up in blankets for example, is an effective way to ground yourself and improve how you feel. Equally important is ensuring that your primary needs are met, eating well and sufficiently, sleeping enough and having enough water for example. Mental health must be understood as part of general wellbeing, influencing your physical health, and being incluened by it in return – studies have proven that being physically unwell negatively impacts your mental health. Coming to university often involves learning how to look after yourself for the first time, self-care is a crucial part of mindfully managing your ability to achieve the things you set out to do in the long run.

Despite the high incidence of stress-related mental health difficulties at Oxford, there are also many options for extra support with your or your peers’ mental health. Here are some useful contacts that you can make use of during your time here:

  • Oxford Mental Health Support Network: found on Facebook, a one-stop masterlist of all Oxford based mental health charities, organisations and events at Oxford University, Oxford Brookes and the city of Oxford.
  • Your college welfare team: this includes and is not exclusive to your Common Room Peer Supporters, welfare staff, your college chaplain, harrassment officers, college nurse and college counsellor.
  • Your GP: your GP can give you medical advice on improving your mental health as well as discuss mental health conditions you might be concerned about. (Pro-tip: please do not hesitate to ask for a GP that is familiar with mental health conditions, or to get a second opinion! My first ever GP appointment was not a productive one but my current GP is a godsend.)
  • Oxford University Counselling Service: provides professional support for students along with free podcasts on various topics like perfectionism and self-compassion.
  • Nightline: an independent helpline available from 8pm to 8am, weeks 0-9, run for and by students of Oxford and Oxford Brookes.
  • Oxford Students Disability Community: now also including the previously separate Mind Your Head campaign, OSDC offers a safe space via its Facebook group and can independently advice you on support that you can access with the university or elsewhere.
  • Oxford Student Minds: the national student mental health charity with branches across the country. Confidential peer support groups are available for eating difficulties (Tuesdays, 7.30pm), low mood (Wednesdays, 6pm) and supporting a friend with eating difficulties (Sunday of week 6 and 7, 4.30pm) or a friend who self-harms (Monday, week 5-7, 6pm). Student Minds is also organising a Music for Mental Health Fundraiser Dinner and Concert on Friday 10 November at 7pm, Jesus College. Visit their Facebook page for more details.

With Freshers Week over, the rest of your time at Oxford is just beginning. To all new students, you belong and you are adequate. Remember that Oxford is ready and willing to help you transition to life here, and I wish you the best of luck.