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Advice and Counselling Service

Transition to university

Are you shy or worried about making friends and settling in to university? 

Leaving home, going to a new city, or even country, and starting at university involve huge change bringing excitement, opportunity and also hazard. To manage any major transition it's important to be prepared for how we might respond and to take some time to reflect on the impact. While this is particularly true for international students, for whom everything can be different including language, learning styles, food, climate, behaviour, values and social roles, at the Advice and Counselling Service we find that home students can also feel overwhelmed by all the newness. 

Change can be a challenge to our identity and requires a process of letting go of old ways of seeing the world and old hopes and expectations. 

In general there are recognisable phases in how we deal with change that can take some months to work through: 

Honeymoon Phase 

Most of us feel excited by all the changes and exploring a new environment.  

Crisis Stage/Culture shock 

After a while we may notice we feel nervous and uncertain. We might experience physical problems like headaches and stomach upsets or find it difficult to sleep or concentrate on work.   
We may feel lonely and homesick, missing the easiness of our familiar relationships. We can become tearful or irritated by all the newness around us and want to withdraw from people.We struggle with the contradictions between the hopes we had and the challenging realities of our new situation. 

Recovery Phase 

Differences and similarities become more known and accepted and we gain confidence from our experience and coping with the challenges.   

Independence/Autonomy Phase 

This phase brings renewed enthusiasm and an integration of our new experiences with the old as we develop trust in our capacity to function well in the new situation. This can be a time of energy and creativity with our widened experience bringing fresh opportunities as we start our next life phase. 

People work through these stages at different rates, so for some the low point might be 3 weeks after arriving at university, and recovery quite soon afterwards, while others may take much longer and not start to feel good about university for several months! 

Being self aware and prepared for these phases provides protection. Too often students' expectation that they should sail through challenging experiences without response or by just working (or drinking) harder can add to the anxieties and the hazards.

Looking after yourself 

  • Eat a balanced diet with fresh fruit and vegetables   
    International students benefit from finding shops that sell familiar food as well as trying new foods. 
  • Exercise and lots of daylight  
    Exercise will bring opportunities for making friends as well as burn off the adrenalin from a life filled with the nervous stimulation triggered by constant change. This helps to calm the system. Being out in as much daylight as possible is important especially for some international students. 
  • Be in touch with people from home as well as working on making new friends 
    The first trip home can be an important transition point. It can trigger homesickness but students often feel reassured when they find that all at home is ok. This frees them up to focus on their own life with more confidence. If home is not far away avoid returning too often, even if it is tempting. 
  • Put reminders of home around you in your room 
  • Social activities 
    Doing something you enjoy reduces stress and depression as well as providing opportunities to make friends. Get to know the Stewards in your residence who organise social events and know the area. Join the Health and Fitness Centre or see the Students' Union website for a list of clubs and societies. 
  • Take part in community activities or volunteer 
    See the Students' Union website for opportunities. You can also visit the Chaplaincy to find out about community activities, faith groups and volunteering. 
  • Take care of your mental health 
    Learn to notice how you are feeling without too much self criticism – it is likely to be a normal response that will pass in time. Speak to people you trust and others in a similar position. There is also useful self help information on our website and in the self help section in the library (see Bibliotherapy). All the newness is enriching, fun and stimulating but our bodies are designed to recuperate through physical activity and in the quiet times. To support this you need to prioritise some recreation in a busy timetable. 
  • Sort out the practical and financial problems 
    Some students avoid asking for help with problems like finance and debt until they are in serious difficulty. There are experienced Welfare Advisors in the Advice and Counselling Service who are there to help. You can also follow us on Twitter: @QMUL_ACS. 
  • Talk to someone 
    The negative effects of change will pass but if your mood seems constantly low or if it is worrying you that you are finding it difficult to settle down, you may find it helpful to speak to a Counsellor at the Advice and Counselling Service.  
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