Fresher’s Week in Cheltenham: Six Things I Wish I Had Known
Another year, another Fresher’s Week about to start here in Cheltenham. A friend from the University of Gloucestershire told me the new students arrived today, but it was only when I met some friendly types who started a conversation in a fast food restaurant a few minutes ago that I reflected on the fact this generation of students were not just not born when I first arrived here to study, they were in fact still seven years off it! Yep, twenty five years ago I arrived, in late September 1987, in a Cheltenham which has not really changed all that much in the intervening years. Well there are a huge number more students now, and St. Paul’s is dominated by them rather, and they all seem to go in to town whereas the only reason I ever venture off campus was to visit Waterstones, or to go to Burger Star on the Bath Road or the KFC, but hey, it’s not all that different.
I however was. Younger, far scattier, and prone to weird out accidentally my fellow students, I was a long haired hippy in an age of Rick Astley & Tom Cruise Top Gun era haircuts, when male students wore shirts and jackets to the bar and everything was a lot more yuppy and aspirational than now. That changed within a few years, a indie kids and grunge types arrived, but in 1987 students here were sharp dressing types who were pretty ambitious as I recall. Well a lot of them! I’d just had my ghost experience at Thetford Priory and was pretty freaked out, and I’d spent the previous two years neglecting my ‘A’ levels and playing wargames and roleplaying games, and hanging around at my grandmother’s house with Hugh and Gary McF, and occasionally others. I knew absolutely nothing about girls, and had little interest (I was a slow developer) – well at least till I suddenly started to get interested a few days in to uni – and I was painfully, horribly shy.
I’ve written about Fresher’s Week 1987 many times, because of the very dramatic events which marked mine – a bloodbath, a flood, a ghost investigation, and a mad crush that persisted a while – and it still forms the basis for the uni life novel I return to every few years and never finish. Still despite all the trauma, I had a pretty good time. Some of the facts are recorded in an earlier post on this blog called Family Nights In With Satan if anyone is interested in such things.
So thinking about it – what should I have told those Freshers I met tonight? I think after seeing 25 generations of students arrive I have a few insights – so here are
Six Things I Wish I Had Known as A Fresher in Cheltenham!
1. You may well be horribly horrifically homesick. It is perfectly normal to cry at times, and go home for weekends. You are not giving in. You will miss your friends/parents/dog. Don’t try and stay all the time for fear you will miss out on anything. You are not mad, depressed or failing in some way. You are homesick, like many before you. I was!
2. You may be worried about how hard everything will be academically. Relax – after ‘A’ level, it’s just easier and easier. Anything is easier than ‘A’ levels. You will only fail if you suffer appalling illness, bad luck or are on a truly awful course, and I don’t think there are many here — unless you try. If you work at it anyone can fail any course. It will be a heroic effort, but by failing to hand in work, forgetting exams, being drunk constantly and never once so much as glancing in the direction of a library you might just manage it.
3. Everyone will tell you that you will split up with your boyfriend/girlfriend from back home in under a term. Don’t believe them – I know people who stayed faithful and committed while hundreds of miles apart at different uni’s for all three years. (Because noone else would have them! – no, only joking. )
4. Cheltenham is pretty safe, but people do very occasionally get attacked here. Don’t walk home alone, regardless of your gender, and don’t get so drunk you can’t look after yourself. Don’t shout abuse at strangers, or annoy people who might turn nasty. Every year a few students in Fresher’s Week are viciously assaulted through drunkenly waking up locals on their way back from town or even in to town from FCH. This year it will be more, and I’m buying a petrol driven chainsaw tomorrow to make my attacks more memorable and more of a deterrent. Seriously though, there are plenty of very scary people here. Don’t give them a reason to notice you.
5. You may well be incredibly conscientious in your first year – too conscientious. By your third year you will be partying wildly and skipping lectures. This is the wrong way round to do things as unless the system has changed your second and third year marks make up your final degree. You should be having a good time now, just not so good a time you get chucked out. (Sadly burning students at the stake for not doing the seminar readings is no longer policy here).
6. Join the Christian Union. They have coffee, biscuits, and people who know even less about sex and romance than you. You are bound to pull? Or maybe join a society, though sadly the Student Parapsychology Society no longer exists, but hey it had a good ten year innings, ironically disappearing about the time I first got involved with Most Haunted.
That is what I should have told the students, but instead I just made a few bad jokes and was my usual cheerful self. Still, I wish a few people had given me these pointers, so if you do read them and think what a load of cack, sure thing buddy add your own in the comments below, or email me on email@example.com, and i’ll update this piece – not that any student here will ever have any reason to read it!
POST SCRIPT: Andrew added this in comments. but as many people will not read comment I think it’s worth adding to main body of the text – what follows is not my advbice, so I will change it to a different colour, but some very good points in there –
Andrew’ s Top Six
… some of which are deliberate counter-arguments to CJ’s just to be amusing/provoke debate, some of which are deadly serious, and most of which are both.
1. Don’t forget to tell your parents if you move house. In today’s era of cheap mobile phones this is less relevant than it was when I moved in 1990. In my first year, I got allocated some pretty shonky “overflow” accommodation at Over Hospital (rat-infested and thankfully now demolished), and after a month I clubbed together with a couple of other first-years and rented a private house. I *completely* forgot to tell my parents for a month – they continued to ring the payphone at the geriatric hospital, further confusing the already confused residents. I’d rung them a couple of times, to say hello, but hadn’t actually remembered to tell them about the move.
2. Do turn up and do hand in your work. That is pretty much all you need to do to get a 3rd or a 2:2. CJ is exactly right about academic ease; ‘A’ Levels are the hardest thing you will ever do and a degree is a walk in the park in comparison to those exams. That said, nobody is going to chase you for work or chase you if you don’t turn up. If you forget, if you can’t be bothered, you will just fail and eventually you WILL get chucked off the course, and that means no more student loan.
2a. Within reason, schedule your lectures around your convenience, not around your lecturers’ convenience. For the larger intake subjects, most lectures are run more than once per week, notably evening classes for those doing part-time courses. You CAN switch. Sometimes you have to justify your request to switch. “I’ve got a clash” used to be my excuse, but I suspect in today’s world of computerised timetabling this is less valid. My real reason was that I do my best work in the late afternoon and evenings, it’s just the time of day when I think better. I told my friends it was because it meant I could have a lie-in after nightclubbing, which was also partially true.
3. Play the field but use protection. I must admit I did a lot of the former and very little of the latter, and somehow managed to avoid infection and pregnancy, but that was just a fluke. THIS is the right time in your life to have lots of relationships. Get it out of your system NOW so that you don’t go and mess up someone else’s life (especially your children’s) by having an affair when you’ve settled down in later life. Now as a fresher you may be thinking that you’re the nerdiest person in the world and you’ll never get any action, but the thing is, you’re at a university that accepted you as a student, ergo almost all the other students are going to be very similar to you. In particular, males, pay attention: The University of Gloucestershire is predominantly an arts, theology and teaching college, which are heavily female-oriented subjects; contrary to traditional belief, girls are just as keen as boys. Just relax, be nice to your preferred gender, be conversational without trying to dominate the conversation and relationships will just fall into your lap. Also, the phrase “Please may I kiss you?” said at an appropriately late point in the evening after a couple of hours of familiarisation is probably the most reliable chat-up line in the world.
4. Never, ever get so drunk (or drugged) that you cannot make sensible decisions, walk, read a bus timetable or call a taxi. Cheltenham is not just “pretty safe”, it is one of the safest towns in the country. Ninety-nine percent of reported “attacks” are actually just arguments between drunk people turned sour. Keep away from really, really drunk people, especially drunk strangers, and do not hang out with anyone who thinks that spiking drinks or taking unlabelled drugs is fun. If you can see a bunch of drunk people arguing in a street, don’t walk down it, find another route, or at least find someone else who is not drunk to walk with. Remember, YOU are responsible for your own actions when you are drunk. If you turn up in court having crashed your car or having vandalized a statue, YOU will be found guilty, not your friends, not the pub that served you, and claiming to have been drunk will not reduce your sentence.
4a. When going out, agree in advance with some friends that you are going to look after each other. This includes telling each other who has had enough to drink and ensuring that everyone goes home safely (not necessarily together, but at least aware of each others’ going-home arrangements). Never, ever get offended when someone tells you “I think you’ve had enough.” They might just be saving your life. Think of it as practice; you can always try to have a little bit more next time, rather than right now.
4b. People who are already drunk or on drugs will not notice if, when they offer you drink or drugs, you pour it into a plant-pot or push it under the sofa cushion.
4c. Girls only walk home with sober people.
4d. Girls, only walk home with sober people.
4e. Note how the addition or removal of a comma in 4c & 4d changes the meaning, but retains the wisdom.
4f. Males are more likely to be attacked in drunken arguments than females. Don’t make smart-arse remarks or aggressive gestures to people who are too drunk to recognise your intellectual or physical superiority.
5. Find out what work contributes how much to your overall degree and put in the effort accordingly. Nobody but YOU will organise this for you. There is no point spending 50% of your work time on something that contributes only 5% of your final degree. Also, you can use this information to tactically plan your socialising; if your marks are evenly distributed throughout years 1,2 and 3 then you can be really conscientious in your first and second year, achieve a pass mark, and then party for most of your third year! Or you might find that only the second half of a module carries any markable work, allowing you to party in safety for the first half.
6. Gloucestershire is a really beautiful place. Get out there and visit it. It really is too easy to spend all your life in town, and even easier to stay in your particular (probably cheap) part of town. No excuses if you don’t have a car; Gloucestershire has a really good bus service. Trips out also make good romantic gestures. My top bus-accessible sights from Cheltenham: Gloucester Cathedral (bus 94), Broadway & Winchcombe (bus 606), Tewkesbury Abbey (bus 41), Gloucester Docks (94), Cirencester (bus 51), Bourton-on-the-Water & Stow-on-the-Wold (bus 801), Leckhampton Hill / Cricklade Hill (busses B, P and Q then footpaths; note that you can book a barbeque pit in advance at Cricklade Hill for a truly superb party). Within Cheltenham itself, Suffolk Road (walking distance from Park Campus, Montpellier or Bath Road) and Charlton Kings (busses B, P and Q) are lovely places to visit and have lots of cool coffee shops with excellent WiFi.
6a. Further afield, Bath and Birmingham are well worth the train fare, and Bristol and Wolverhampton are often on the tour list for some very good bands at some very reasonable ticket prices (Wulfrun Hall and Civic Hall in Wolverhampton; Anson Rooms in Bristol Students’ Union – all of these venues are not-for-profit).
Rather More Sensible Update from Someone Who Should Know…
1) Go to the first session of everything; even if you are hung over. Missing first sessions can be a mistake as the lecturer will often explain what the assessments are, and what the expectations for that particular course or module might be.
2) Use the Moodle site for the module. Depending on your course you will get very few paper handouts, but a lot of the information will be on the Moodle sites. For some courses you will also find the slides that the lecturer uses available for download.
3) Be nice to your neighbours, if you are going to be walking home very late at night don’t shout random things in the street or knock on random doors. Chris and Andrew have already explained Cheltenham is fairly safe, but winding up people late at night might have consequences.
4) Make sure you know how to contact the “Helpzone”.
5) Keep the university up to date with your current address, and check your university email.
6) Enjoy your time at University.
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