Illustration by Taman Temirgaliyeva.

How To Survive The Fresh-Mental Experience

Spending months looking forward to ‘The Great College Experience’ can be the reason we do not have ‘The Great College Experience’ in the first place. So how can you deal with that first tumultuous year at NYUAD?

Oct 10, 2021

Have you ever seen one of those high school movies where a scared new student enters the cafeteria and feels everyone’s eyes on them? The first time I walked through the university campus, I felt like I understood the cliché on a whole new level. I was so nervous, self-conscious and apprehensive walking through D2 that I half-expected Regina George to walk up to me and insult my outfit choice.
As if first days are not daunting enough, everyone arrived on campus at different times and had to navigate its dynamics in staggered stages. Unlike previous years, the university is not suddenly filled with hundreds of wide-eyed first years trying to find places in this unfamiliar environment all at once. The freshmen who arrived earlier had more time to adjust than those who entered late and in the thick of the action. This fragmentation of what was supposed to be a collective first year experience has distanced us from one another. And of course, the omnipresent Covid-19 guidelines have resulted in smaller events, fewer opportunities to meet new people and constantly trying to guess who we are talking to based on the two inches of a person’s face we can see with their mask. This is not exactly what the college brochures prepared us for.
Paradoxically, spending months working toward and looking forward to “The Great College Experience” can be the reason we do not have “The Great College Experience” in the first place. We spend so much time trying to live up to high expectations of what university life should look like: Am I doing well in classes? Am I socializing enough? Am I partying enough? Am I making most of the campus facilities? Am I doing enough extra-curriculars? There’s no space for living in the present.
Whatever this university experience is — exhilarating, exhausting, exciting — it certainly isn’t easy. I became so tired of overanalyzing each day and starting out with unrealistic expectations. However, I started feeling validated and seen when I heard how other people felt just as overwhelmed when they were first-years. It provided me with a more realistic, less high stakes view on what I should be achieving in my first year. Even being more honest with fellow freshmen about how nothing is easy and hearing an enthusiastic “same!” was very comforting. I reached a point where I started shoving my expectations down like a growing pile of laundry. Navigating college as it currently exists is hard enough without considering what it could be. I was so wrapped up in all these expectations and uncertainties that I forgot the essence of what college was really about: exploring my individuality to find out who I am and what I want to do. It was a relief to realize that I was allowed to start out completely lost, clueless and confused.
The essence of this epiphany was to take it easy and show myself some compassion. Chances are that most of us freshmen have never been provided with this much agency and responsibility, especially not in such a diverse environment with such high expectations. Maybe we need to remind ourselves of this and celebrate our completion of day-to-day challenges. For instance, the first time I did laundry, I sent a self-congratulating update to everyone on my contact list, and instead of just making to-do lists, I started making note of everything I had actually done that day. That isn’t just assignments, but also a meaningful conversation with someone new or trying a new sandwich combination at the wrap counter.
I found that the biggest bright side of having total autonomy was being able to make decisions that affect my wellbeing and how I spend my time. For example, when keeping up with social activities and assignments becomes overwhelming, I can choose to have days where I can be totally antisocial, crawl into bed, procrastinate and eat good food. No one can tell me that this isn’t an amazing idea.
I’m sure a lot of people can relate to saying “I’m starting college”, followed by being abruptly cut off by a bombardment of unsolicited advice. Most advice I received was along the lines of “trust the process”. I thought that was just a vague, Yoda-esque statement, until I came here and found out that the more I embrace the apprehension and spirals that come with exploring a new environment, the easier things gradually become.
At the same time, external support systems are still essential. I suggest utilizing the wellness resources the university provides, such as the counseling center, REACH and SLICE, to the maximum. While I was glad to see my friends and I sharing about therapy sessions like we were discussing course selections, I think it’s important to remember that therapy is a process and finding the right counsellor can take time. For those who haven’t tried, there’s nothing to lose in attempting therapy, other than an hour spent on a comfortable couch. In fact, prioritizing it over other commitments is important; I realized we only get as much from counselling as we give to it. REACH is another helpful space to navigate freshman apprehensions and feel heard by another student. Even if talking to others doesn’t seem appealing, resources like SLICE and counselling can enable you to come to terms with your difficulties without having to share them with others.
Call it the honeymoon phase, but the one thing I’ve noticed is that this campus is an immensely welcoming and supportive one, if you find the right spaces to listen and be heard. Most importantly, despite what Instagram stories tell us, most of the freshmen are probably in the same rocky boat, just trying to stay afloat. It’s just a matter of time before we’ll stop feeling sea-sick and start enjoying the ride.
Taanya Kapur is a Well-Being Columnist. Email her at
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