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Written nearly two years ago, Imogen's reflections on university come from a very different time in her life. She is now studying elsewhere, having taken some time out after leaving her previous place of study. When writing this piece, Imogen was trying to make sense of her surroundings. Though a lot has changed since then, and she sees the person who wrote these musings as somewhat of a stranger, she is treating these words as a portal back into a headspace she has now left behind. They are a relic of a past self, coming of age and making sense of the world. She hopes they can help you, too.
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Let me say that again. No one really tells you what your first term of university will be like. Nobody really told me what my first term of university would be like. Buzzfeed will try to tell you. ‘23 things you’ll only understand if you live in university halls!’ might ring a bell. If you’re like me, you’ll probably scroll past something like it on one of the many Saturday evenings spent in bed with a bar of chocolate and the latest episode of Strictly Come Dancing - playing at just the right volume so as to not reveal your somewhat embarrassing taste to your flatmates.

The truth is that the ‘things you’ll only understand if you live in university halls!’ are far from the media’s relied upon stereotypes. The ubiquitous tropes make an appearance: the kitchen is indeed filthy; someone will definitely throw up in your bathroom at least once; and yes food will not-so-mysteriously disappear from your designated shelf in the fridge, but the less glamorous subjects don’t come up. The media is far more interested in conventionality than those who don’t fit the stereotype. It’s easier to avoid mentioning the students not spending their maintenance loan on drinking. ‘This student can’t stop watching BBC iPlayer!’ doesn’t really have the same clickbait potential.

In the run up to moving away from home, friends from sixth form would joyfully announce that they’d bought their Fresher’s Week tickets. I’d often reply to these friends that I was going to wait to buy my ticket - I used the word wait here in a very flexible sense – meaning, I was never going to spend money on a ticket to hell, and would remain inside my bedroom, trying and failing to drone out the sounds of Mr Brightside blaring from a corridor outside my window. 

Initially I felt embarrassed about not enjoying typical student culture. This was enough to have me agree to a session of what is colloquially known as ‘pres’; an affair that, in my experience, typically involves standing around in a kitchen pretending to have fun, pretending to be drunker than you are, and pretending to be friends with people you’d much rather only see in the designated contact hours that your course consists of. 

Going back to the night in question, I ensure I have blended in. The conventional prop is handed to me - this time a plastic wine glass from Waitrose - nothing less than could be expected of UCL students. Alongside a sufficiently high-pitched laugh and the ability to dance at every song played from a phone speaker, I feel have done rather well in hiding my yearning to leave five minutes after I have got in the door. My thoughts drift to being curled up on my bed, watching the latest episode of Buzzfeed Unsolved. I switch my expression back to one of utter glee and delight at being stood by a sink in someone’s kitchen surrounded by other humans. I manage to escape at around 11pm. Perfect timing. If the 29 bus is on time, I can squeeze in an episode of the Channel 4 masterpiece First Dates before bed. 

After this traumatic foray into the world of conventional student life, I become somewhat comfortable with being a taboo. There’s moments of loneliness (no, you cried at Euston Station on the phone to your mum.) There’s moments of utter madness (definitely not involving ironing your shirt with hair straighteners at 1am because you’ve just remembered you have a seminar with the only boy on your course over 6ft and not pretentious tomorrow.) But these moments contribute to a greater realisation of self than the kind of identity falsely clutched at within the vapid drinking culture of conventional student life.

I have learned something worthwhile: I’m far happier finding my own way. Recognising that I don’t have to pretend to enjoy a culture that just doesn’t suit me, I no longer feel guilty about saying no to nights out, pre-drinking and the horrors of messy, late-night kitchen parties. Though I fear for the safety of my half price Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer whilst my kitchen is occupied by partying strangers, friends of my flatmates, it’s a fear I’m willing to put up with if it means feeling more like myself. I no longer treat university as a place where I have to endlessly project an artificial construction of myself, performing something I think I should be, rather than an honest reflection of me, in order to be accepted. I know I will meet my people in situations where I’m able to be truthful about who I am. I don’t need to lust after acceptance from people I have nothing in common with.

It’s taken a while for me to get here. Weeks spent wailing down the phone to my mum whilst in public: Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, King’s Cross. But by way of my many tears, the endless support of my mum, and lots of time to reflect whilst cooped up in my room, I’ve grown to accept the sort of university life I actually want. I’m okay with eating lunch on my own. I’m okay being secretly in love with boys on my course I have scarcely uttered one word to. I’m okay with pretending to be on the phone whilst walking past the shared kitchen on my corridor in order to avoid awkward conversation. There’s not really any point running from my introverted identity. It’s more than a part of me - it makes me the wonderful, messy, quiet, observant, shy, weird - and perhaps a little bit cool - person that I am, and I can only embrace these facts by being faithful to myself. Listening to my idiosyncrasies. Loving the essence of me. I suppose nobody could've told me what my first term of university would be like. 

Follow Imogen on Twitter: @Imogencdj