University is THE place to make lifelong friends, live your best life and create memories that last a lifetime. When I got my place at Nottingham Trent University 18 years ago, that was the dream. Well it was definitely the image I had in my head, the ‘real’ start of my life and an amazing few years ahead. Everyone said to me, “you’ll have the time of your life”. But for me, it wasn’t anything like the vision and I struggled at university more than I ever could have imagined.

Recently, talking to a friend whose son is in his first year and struggling at University, it was a stark reminder that although many years may have passed since my own Uni days, that dream of Uni life is still out there. And it doesn’t hit any less hard when someone’s University experience is polar opposite to the one they’d come to expect. So for anybody feeling as if Uni just isn’t clicking, you really aren’t alone.

The University dream dismantled

University embodies this concept that it’s going to be your best life beginning. Parties, new friends, a different location to embrace, a fabulous you to discover. All whilst diving into a degree that will see you in the career of your dreams one day. It all sounds like so much to get excited about.

But maybe you don’t make friends easily, or at least not the lifelong friendships you thought you would so naturally and instantly create. Or you feel a little out of depth living so far from home, away from everything and everyone you’ve known for the past two decades. Maybe you aren’t out every night partying freshers hard and prefer to be in bed early with a good book. What if the Uni course you chose wasn’t entirely what you had envisaged, and maybe you realise partway through that the career you thought you wanted, doesn’t sound so fantastic after all? What happens when Uni just isn’t that great?

It’s hard to watch other people experiencing the ‘University dream’

You struggle, feel isolated, confused and overwhelmed. All whilst knowing a big debt has been taken on for a dream you aren’t even enjoying. Okay so I projected a little there, because those were my own dismantling’s of the University dream, that was really how I felt. But the truth is, some peoples Uni realities don’t ever meet the vision and when that happens, you do feel left out and like something is wrong with you. Because you’re left questioning why you aren’t having the same experience as everyone else seems to be having.

I’ve had many years to ponder this very thing; Why Uni didn’t work out for me

I mean, how the hell did you make new friends? Everyone else seemed to have that figured out. But I just didn’t actually know how to do this thing that other people seemed to find simple – make new friends and connect with people. Whilst everyone else was dressing up, going out, downing shots until 3am, making friends with one another, making it look super easy! I felt like I was on the outside of it all trying my best to get in.

Maybe it’s because I’d lived in a rural village in Lincolnshire for 18 years and then one day, found myself living in the city of Nottingham. I had lifelong friends back at home. Most made when I was at primary and secondary school and a few more at college and usually made through people I already knew. Maybe when I didn’t get into the freshers halls and found myself in a house with other students from all sorts of different courses and years, maybe that’s why I found myself struggling to interact. Because everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and I didn’t have a clue. So for me, struggling to connect with people was probably the thing that affected my Uni experience the most.

And University just wasn’t what I’d thought it would be

Everything was overwhelming; The city, the house, the people, the lifestyle, the situation, managing finances, taking on huge amounts of debt. It was just a vast amount of things to adjust too all at once. I was so totally out of my comfort zone, that I became this introverted anxious person that I’d never met before. Fun, happy, outgoing, confident Amy taken away from her little sheltered village life, she totally disappeared nowhere to be seen. What the fuck happened to her I don’t know and never will. But she left without warning and I didn’t have a clue how to manage without her.

I felt so lonely that I spent my spare time partying, trying hard to fit in

It was also the start of a drug addiction that lasted for a few years. Because the drugs helped me not feel so scared and anxious. They took away the bad feelings for a while and made me feel confident enough to go out and try and force myself to interact and get on board with the University vision I’d always imagined prior to getting there. But they also lead to a whole new load of problems. A drug addiction being one of them, actually worsening all my low feelings whenever I wasn’t on them, a lack of total motivation for the course, I could go on. So just trust me, drugs are never the answer.

It felt like failure when I walked away after that first year

I suppose the reason for this blog is because of my friends son. Because I know how much this experience affected me throughout my life. I was diagnosed with depression at University and ended up leaving after my first year. It took many years to heal from those feelings of failure, and feeling like I’d let my family and myself down. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone else who had gone to Uni, they’d somehow managed to do it right. They’d been loving every aspect. But there I was, a drop out. I hadn’t loved the Uni life, and I never quite shook that feeling of failure.

There is a lot of expectations when it comes to University. And unfortunately, sometimes University just doesn’t live up to the hype

And I know it can feel really isolating when that’s the case. But it’s ok if your experience isn’t fantastic, because honestly, not everyone’s is. It’s okay to accept that Uni isn’t what you’d imagined and just buckle down and do the course and get what you want from it from an educational aspect. It’s okay to not be doing what it feels everyone else is doing. It doesn’t have to be living your best Uni life. It can be about the course and what it’s going to provide that you want and need for your life going forward. Or also be about walking away if it is not feeling right for you. Because it’s okay to say when something isn’t working anymore and try another route.

Whatever university experience you have, it is all experience

Life is all about experiences and until we do something, we have literally no idea what it’s going to be like for us, and whether it’s going to work out. I’m not encouraging anyone to walk away from anything that instantly feels like it isn’t what they expected. But I am saying that I’ve realized it’s perfectly okay if a dream you had has changed. Or you tried it and didn’t like it and walking away is the answer. It’s also okay to adjust the viewpoint and say, “well I thought this would be awesome, but it’s just okay. I’m going to stick with okay and find my awesome another time.” Because maybe if I’d not pressured myself to be having the University experience I thought I should be having, maybe I wouldn’t have walked away, or at least not felt so much failure for leaving.

Whilst my University experience did impact me for many years, a lot of that was my own feelings of failure

I always felt like my University experience wasn’t what it should have been, that I’d got it wrong somehow. But there is no right or wrong way to do University. And maybe if I’d held onto less of a vision as to what it should have been, I might have enjoyed more of what it actually was for me. Looking back, I don’t feel failure anymore. Because it was actually such a strong decision to walk away from something that just wasn’t right for me at that time and to not continue down a path I could see wasn’t what I wanted. To take myself out of a place that was causing me real emotional and mental problems was a healthy one.

And without leaving University I would never have found the job of my dreams

This is a biggie, because when I left University I thought, “Well I’ve fucked up my life, there’s no going back, those years were supposed to be my ‘best life’. There’s nothing else to look forward too”. But at 24 I moved to Kent and spent a decade progressing in my career. I travelled a lot. Made incredible friends who have become my ‘lifers’. My best life came later on, University at that stage just wasn’t where it was at for me.

And years later, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to complete a degree in BSc Hons Travel Business Management in my late twenties. I did it whilst working a full time job and it was tough. But it felt a little like closure on my Uni journey, because I did it on my own terms, in my own time. And being able to do it in an area that I knew I was passionate about and could see how I would need and apply it, that all felt right.

But just to stress a point, I didn’t need the degree

I progressed in my career through hard work and determination – doing a degree later in life was a personal choice and one that really, just closed a door on something from the past. So seriously, having a degree doesn’t always influence your career trajectory.

So I know I’m now considered ancient to anyone in University right now reading this. But life is so much more than those University days and it throws you complete curve balls and you never end up where you think you will. University isn’t the only way to achieve your dreams. And it’s not the only period of ‘living your best life’, not by a long shot. It also really isn’t the same for everyone. For some people, Uni is the time of their lives, for others, you just haven’t reached that stage yet … But it’s coming.

If you’re struggling at University, please reach out and speak to someone, you don’t have to suffer in silence. So many people struggle with the transition, homesickness, the pressures of Uni life. You are not alone.

By Amy Roullier
By Amy Roullier

Amy is the Founder and Editor of The Authentic Optimist. She talks all things life. From the highs to the lows, to all those messy bits in-between. She is a writer, rambler, lover of carbs (her true soulmate) and she is especially passionate about dispelling myths about women in their 30s. Amy lives in Lincolnshire with her two greyhounds.