Tuesday, 20 October 2015

How to tell you're on a university campus in the *first month* of term

Hi you.

Did you recently pack-off an 18 year old to a university campus that you've only ever seen once on an open day then again when you were decanting duvets and instant noodles from the back of your car before hugging them goodbye?

Or are you planning to head off to university in 12 months' time, and you’d like a little heads-up on the sights and sounds you can expect to find?

Or maybe you're just curious to immerse yourself in the 'exotic' vista of a campus at this peak time of the year?

Between my own experience as an undergraduate, and my current role, as an assistant to students with disabilities, I’ve witnessed 13 fresh, shiny and new, October terms.

So let me offer you a sense of the bustle and hubbub of campus life at this time of year, a sense that you won't find in the prospectus ...

Sign No.1: There are people there. 

Lots of them. They're everywhere. An ocean. 

A swell of them in the foyers gets funneled frothily down and along into corridors. They build, break, and flow outside, along the pavements, between buildings. They get swept across public spaces, and arrive lapping at the door of another building.

And the queue for refreshments? It makes the herds of buffalo or zebra flocking to a watering hole in the African grasslands look like a poorly attended leaving party.

These crowds are most likely made up of the First Years; those who, like those zebras, are clinging strongest to the idea of safety in numbers.

Yet the mass of the crowd is punctuated by two particular breeds of Lone Wanderer:
  1. the Staff, Second Years, Third Years - old hands - forging ahead alone. 
  2. And the Brand-New-and-Lost ... lagging behind.
Sounds obvious doesn't it? That there'd be people there. But it's notable because ... it won't last.
  • As I tweeted in October 2010 "That noise in the background is the sound of hundreds of eager students on the 1st week of term. You won't hear it again after next week."
And it's true. Come November the crashing tide will have receded.
This is, naturally, down to the signing-up for things en-mass being completed; the queuing to sort out teething problems abates; and life picks up its own structured, less frenetic, less herd-like, rhythm.

Well, that ... and the fact that the new experience gets old pretty quickly ...
  • Overheard on campus October 2012: "I just can't be arsed coming in all the time." 
And that was on day two of term.

And of course, wherever there are lots of people, there are lots of cars, which are also effected by the inevitable quietening down of the campus come winter ...
  • Overheard on campus October 2011: “I like it when they all drop-out after Christmas; it leaves more space in the car parks”.

Sign No.2: All those people are looking anywhere but at you. 
That sea of people are focusing on just one thing: getting somewhere. They're missiles of nervous energy seeking out their next destination, working out the layout of the campus, deciphering the room number codes which will reveal to them where they need to be next.

If you're walking anywhere near them you'll need to have your wits about you as any moment now they'll be stopping randomly

without warning

stock still in front of you.

They'll become their own monument, a statue, a street performer.

You may be tempted to throw money. Don't do this if you don't mean it. Remember that these are students, and therefore they’ll gladly take it.

Some will look up scouring their eye-line for clues; others will look down to consult a map or an app.

They'll roll the name of their desired destination around their mouths, like an incantation, in the hope of being divinely pulled in the right direction.

Come unto me the lost and baffled and I will give you directions.

And then … aha! A moment of clarity, a Damascene conversion, a comfortingly familiar building name or room number is located on a sign

You have reached your destination.

Sign No.3: There'll be queues outside lecture theatres.
All this conscientious map-reading, the dedication [born from terror] of being at the right place, at the right time, leads to them arriving in good time for lectures/seminars.

They’re there early. Gathered. Eager. The space has to adapt and expand to stow them all together:  new alcoves, doorways, crevices.  Their hula-hoops of personal space get bent out of shape.

And then ... the dam breaks, the door opens and the previous lecturer releases their hold on the room and the great displacement of bodies can begin again. One module's worth of bodies being exchanged for another. The seats still warm.

This will tail off.

Not the unnerving sensation of pre-warmed seats. That's an evergreen treat. No, the eagerness. The early arrivals. The promptness.

They won't always be as anxious to please their tutor: 
  • Overheard on campus February 2009: Lecturer: "Well maybe if you took your headphones out you’d have known what I said". Student: "Oh, I can hear. I just wasn’t paying any attention". 
And then, far from being early, some will begin rolling in at the last second like Indiana Jones through a fake stone doorway. While others will saunter in when the lecture is over half way through setting off a chain of ‘Why would you bother?’ looks across the lecture hall between those who’ve been there for the duration.

And some will find themselves having to leave early ... but not always managing to ..
  • Tweeted from campus October 2009: "A student tried to inconspicuously leave a lecture early tonight except ... she went into a cupboard instead of through the door."

Sign No.4: They'll be carrying bags. 
Their bags won't always have such a smiley face as my own work bag does. 
Of course there'll be those, like me, who will always carry a bag around campus; well beyond the first month of term: from induction to graduation.

And they'll have the lopsided shoulders to prove it.

[I'm possibly still bitter about carrying the 2000 page breeze-block of a book the Norton Anthology of Poetry around for at least the whole of my first year.]

But it's not only bags they'll have with them ... it's what's inside them too, it's notebooks, and pens, and those rarely-spotted-beyond-winter items: books.

Soon many will have lost any pens they started term with; which is round about when promotional events/stalls offering free pens suddenly become popular.
  • Overheard on campus November 2009:  "Sitting here, I’ve picked up a free pen. So I’m one up already."
Either that or they'll simply revert to taking notes in lectures via their laptops and phones.

Or so they'd have you believe.

Those of us sitting behind them,  reading over their shoulders, will know that they are in fact on Facebook, sending texts, or playing games.

So yes, if you're on campus in October you'll see plenty of bags on display [you might even spot the one you bought your offspring to take with them, because you thought they would need it.] ... but after that ... well, the bags will either vanish altogether [at the point where just bringing themselves, fully clothed and conscious to a 9am lecture seems optimistic] or else ... the bags will just start shrinking ...
  • Overheard on campus 2008: “I’m having a small-bag day today” “What’s that then? What’s in it?” “One pen, a lipstick…and lots of keys”.

Sign No.5: You'll be able to guess their allegiances.

Fashion, personal style, eccentricities: they're all something you'd expect to be on display at university. It's neither school nor work, there's no dress code, no uniform, no need to fit in with everybody as you'll spend a lot of time working with like-minded souls on your particular course.

And in those first few weeks, while exploring and expressing their personality students' style can be very singular.

Dressed, as they are, in a distilled essence of ‘me’ they can appear as exaggerated displays of who they are and what they like. Their outfits will boldly declare their allegiances; setting themselves up as ‘this’ type of person as against ‘that’.

'And my tribe shall know me by my Dragon Ball Z back-pack / my Walter White sweat-shirt / my pork pie hat that really doesn't go with my rain coat'.

Of course this personal style lasts beyond the first month [assuming of course that they conquer the use of the washing machines in the halls of residence that is], but their wish to be recognised as a particular kind of character is perhaps never so acute as in those initial stages.
  • Overheard on campus October 2013: “I'm easily distracted, I meant to look for books but I ended up searching for a 'How to Train Your Dragon' sew-on patch instead”.
  • Overheard on campus November 2014: “I’ve been brewing my own mead.”

And, finally, they may well want to be themselves ... but at the same time ...

Sign No.6: They just really want to be liked. 

If, after looking out for the first 5 signs I've offered here, you're still not sure what time of year you find yourself in then look into the eyes of the nearest student ... the clues are there.

When a First Year wanders around [see Signs 1 + 2 above] perhaps lost, definitely awkward, a look at their eyes will reveal how they're thrilled they are to suddenly spot people they know. Even if they just met them that week. That day. 5 minutes ago.

Their eyes and their very being lights up to see a familiar face; like a soldier's child seeing their father arrive home safely from war.

As they trail around learning the lay of the land, following get-to-know-the-campus scavenger hunts, tagging on to each others coat tails, you'll notice how eager to please they appear. How vulnerable.

There's something biddable about them; something of the toddler, the puppy.

There they sit, having coffee with new friends, thinking they’re the very epitome of cosmopolitan nonchalance. But look closely and you’ll see that their eyes and body language are reminiscent of your own when, in that recurring dream you have,  the toilet cubicle door suddenly turns transparent. [Just me?]

Like everything else [crowds, bags, punctuality] this fervour, this hopefulness, this desire for connection, this honeymoon period won't last for long. In a month's time those faces which they initially delighted in seeing will begin to repel them.

Like the morning-after-the-night-before they'll become embarrassed they got so close to someone whose work-ethic, politics, personal hygiene, capacity for alcohol etc varies vastly from their own.
  • Overheard on campus November 2012: "I don't know what to put. It says 'Interests' but I don't have any interests and you can't put 'socialising'".
  • Overheard on campus March 2008: Student on mobile phone: "You threw up on your bed? Awww that’s the worst that! You know what’s funny though? Did you still sleep in it even though you’ve threw up? Yeah! I’ve done that!! Just get a bacon sandwich and Lucozade down you!"
  • Overheard on campus November 2010: "I'm pretty sure I ended up in hospital last night, I have a vague memory of being laid on a bed with a curtain around it."


So, those are my 6 signs that will tell you you're on a university campus in the *first month* of term. Use them how you will ...

Next time you're on the end of a phone with your First Year, you can at least have a broad brush idea of what's going on around them when you call. Feel free to pass this post on to them to see how much of it they've experienced so far themselves.

Or if you're going to be that First Year then hopefully this will take some of the mystery out of it. After your UCAS and loan paperwork is sorted you can now do some guided meditation picturing yourself in each setting ... working out how you'll respond. Forewarned is forearmed an'all.

And if you find yourself on a campus in the next month - or any start of term - feel free to use the 6 signs as a 'First Month Bingo' game.  Give yourself a prize for spotting any of the scenarios mentioned in this post, things like:
  • a flowing crowd
  • someone halting without warning to read a map
  • an interminable queue
  • a bag / book / pen
  • a look of terror
  • a puppy-like gaze
  • a 'vivid' outfit 
  • etc


For the record: Yes, all those overheards are genuine.

I've been scribbling them down in my notebooks and in the unused pages of my work diaries since I started working there; I've been tweeting them since I found Twitter; and I've been thinking I should compile them into a book since ... forever. 


  1. Never been a Uni student but this made me lol... you should definitely write a book.

    1. :-) I would *love* to write a book ... I just never know what exactly to write about! In comparison - the idea of compiling my overheards seems alluring!

  2. Love it Julie! You have a brilliant style of writing and yes, you definitely should put your stories and observation into a book!
    Some of what you wrote about made me smile because I was in Edinburgh during Freshers week. We visited camera obscura and it seemed so did 100's of Italian students. They went round in herds, noisy, clearing the path with their noise and excitement. When I tried to get a photo of myself in front of a thermal imaging camera they swarmed in front and all I could see was a wedge of people filling the space. I turned a shade of red and not because of the camera. I tried to remind myself they were probably excited but eventually gave up and decided that people sometimes loose their awareness of others when in a crowd or group. Besides not all cultures understand our British queuing system or waiting while someone finishes looking/doing before cascading in. So sadly it spoilt our visit and I left before I wanted thinking *b* students!
    Go for it Julie. I will place my order now. Can I have a signed copy please?!

    1. You wouldn't be able to stop me signing a copy for you Sandie!

  3. Fun post! I do a bit of tutoring & I think it's really funny how just before all those assessments are due the place is buzzing...then WHAM! They all disappear....til they come outta the woodwork for the next batch.....& the place is SO empty when the exams start..... funny places, unis. But good, just the same :)

    1. I know! I can never understand why so many just want to know the assessment details then they vanish until the hand-in. I can't believe they don't take advantage of the input in-between!

  4. There's definitely a book in this post! Brilliant and very funny! Maybe you could ask the Uni magazine/newspaper (do they still have such things?) to run it ...?

    1. They do - they have a student and a staff publication. I just get scared they won't approve ... ;-)

  5. Only the door disappears? The whole cubicle goes in my dreams - I'm left sat on the loo in the middle of a street! (And sometimes my clothes disappear too).
    I will have to book mark this - my son's have just started y11 so (fingers crossed) they will be off to Uni in a couple of years.
    Another well written and entertaining post Julie, thank you.

    1. Thank you Louise! I hope your boys enjoy it too!

  6. I'm regretting admitting the dream thing now but I didn't want you to feel alone x

    1. You're good to me!! And no ... not just the door, the walls sometimes drop to half height, or vanish, or ... well, my brain has found so many different ways to torment me with this one in my sleep!!

    2. I'm just wondering if those dreams are saved just for me and you then Julie - or whether we are the only ones brave enough to admit to them :)

  7. Ha! Yes, I work at a university and it's all so true! Very funny. I'm one of your lurkers by the way, popping my head over the parapet to say hello. I do like your writing.

    1. Hi Michelle! Thanks for de-lurking for a moment, thanks for your kind comments and thanks for seconding the points. It's good to know they're still true on another campus!

  8. this really made me laugh alot - I have worked in Manchester at a Univ for a long time and this is all true ... our new students also have a habit of straying like lemmings into the very busy main road too. and I've also got a list of 'overheards' too... but i love working here - all that youthful energy :-) love bec xx

  9. I have a wet behind the ears 1st year under graduate. No horror stories so far (that I am aware of) and he seems to be enjoying the whole experience. I miss him of course but my house is so much tidier - but luckily (for me) he isn't too far away so easy to get home if needs be :)

  10. I really enjoyed your writing, I went to uni at 50yrs old and was amazed most of the young people there didn't seem to do any work and getting refreshments was impossibly noisy.. I valued every minute though for various reasons had to give up, I still learn through U3A for us oldies. Start that book, you have the ability.

  11. So right! We live very close to the university here and my observations are..that your observations are very well observed. We have what is believed to be the most crossed pedestrian crossing in Europe ..the students' Union is on one side of the road and the university is on the other. It's a lot easier to get down the road in the summer!

  12. Re throwing up on the bed. Last summer TTO came home and I said okay give me all your laundry. Then I said "Er, what's on those sheets?" "Oh, someone threw up on the bed at my birthday party. And some of it came off and some of it didn't". His birthday is in February.

  13. I have a relaxed( maybe too much) 3rd year & another just applying
    I'm trying to stop the big one sharing stories as all it does is worry his Mother!!

  14. Oh Julie I over this post so much! I kind of knew this happened but wasn't sure! We have just started the plan for uni open days next year as Alex starts in 2017 so I've shared this with her too!

  15. I have much enjoyed your fabulous writing :). It makes me think back to my university days and which things would have been similar and which dissimilar!

  16. I've never been to university but could somewhat relate from my school of nursing days. Got a good chuckle!

  17. Yep! All of what you write is true here in the States too, except it happens the first week of Seaptember. I worked at the University of Utah for eight years (retired in 2012) and always marveled at the whoosh of activity and then the calm that followed close on its heels! I read your post to my grandson who just started university and he thought it was like looking in a mirror! He told me that first week, "Geez Gramma! There are so many people you can hardly move,"
    Thanks again Julie for another LOL kind of post! XO from Tooele.

  18. Ahhh . . . the life of the young! Thanks for the chuckles.

  19. Such an enjoyable read. I saved it up for this evening when I had time to give it my full attention. My student is home for reading week and I'll be showing him this post tomorrow. No doubt there will be much he identifies with.


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