Freshers’ Week: Behind the Smiles

Article First Published 19th October 2009 16 February 2012

A survey for The Cambridge Student (TCS) has shown that academic work, heavy drinking and preconceptions about Cambridge are making what is already one of the most physically and mentally tough events of the university calendar more difficult.

Freshers’ Week, which ran from Saturday 3rd to Saturday 10th of October, is the university’s opportunity to introduce new students to their colleagues and courses.  A student’s experience of the week can have an important effect on their welfare throughout the year, and even on their academic performance.

Yet according to the TCS survey twenty percent of students described the overall experience of their week as either “stressful” or “frightening”.

Central to the issues that the survey highlighted was workload. Academic work came top of the list of freshers’ worries.

Over half of students received academic work within the first three days of Freshers’ Week, forcing freshers to deal with the anxiety of the Cambridge workload while still anxious about meeting fellow freshers for the first time, finding their way around Cambridge, and completing all the Freshers’ Week tasks, such as registering at the doctors, that is required of them.

Moreover, with a dense programme of evening entertainment, one third of students were sleeping on average only three to six hours a night.

Unsurprisingly Freshers’ Week made one in every five students feel less prepared for academic work than before they came.Forty four percent of students felt either “quite” or “very” unprepared for academic work.

The survey indicated that workload alone wasn’t to blame. Twenty percent of students felt they could have used more advice from their academic department and a further twenty percent felt they could have used more advice from other students. The survey’s results indicate that support networks are perhaps not as good as they could be.

Though academic pressures might have made Cambridge Freshers’ week tamer than the two week mega Freshers’ Weeks of some of the city universities, ten percent of students admitted to being sick due to alcohol or drugs.

Some might consider this a welcome revelation considering Freshers’ Week’s academic orientation, yet the humiliation of just one fresher whose Matriculation dinner ends with more on the plate than when the dish was served, is enough to raise concerns over the week’s heavy drinking traditions.

In fact, a night with the head in the toilet is one of the least embarrassing consequences of alcohol abuse. As almost every fresher now knows from anecdotal experience, vomit can be much more easily explained in a college environment than the diarrhoea and incontinence horror stories that attach themselves to those freshers whose bodies react more violently to their drink.

Moreover, the dangers are also social – a misjudged grope or an insensitive, slurred remark after a few shots of tequila and a Strongbow can make the already stressful Michaelmas term unnecessarily difficult for the unwitting fresher.

What makes the dangers of heavy drinking in Freshers’ Week particularly worrying is that according to the survey one in five students felt pressurised into drinking more than they wanted to during the week.

New students are particularly vulnerable both to the peer pressure of other freshers and of older students. Invariably, the Freshers’ Week timetable includes many events, such as pub crawls, where drinking is in effect the primary purpose, while in college “family” and staircase parties, older students often try specifically to get freshers drunk.

Freshers are also vulnerable because of their inexperience. Fifty percent of students who were sick during Freshers’ Week hadn’t drunk much in the past, and one third of those students who took recreational drugs hadn’t ever tried them before Freshers’ Week.

The motivation behind these events is in almost all cases good, and as the survey shows a large number of students do enjoy them. According to the survey, by far the most popular Freshers’ event was the college bop or party, where alcohol does play an important role.

Yet it is perhaps telling that events that offered an opportunity to drink with an opportunity to dance were more successful than those that exclusively offered the chance to drink and those that didn’t offer that chance at all.

What students most enjoyed, and what new students want from Freshers’ Week, is the opportunity to make friends. According to the survey, making friends and fitting in was only narrowly beaten by academic work as the top Freshers ‘Week worry.

“Meeting and making friends with so many interesting and friendly people” was given as the best Freshers’ Week memory of one new student; others said “meeting like-minded people” and “making friends”, confirming the frequent theme.

For comprehensive school students in particular the pressure to find friends was intense – they were twice as likely to believe that they wouldn’t fit in as students from private or public schools. One third of students who thought that they wouldn’t fit in thought that Cambridge would be too posh, showing that negative stereotypes about the university clearly do endure, even among students who have likely visited Cambridge at least for an interview.

That said, students were less likely to feel that they wouldn’t fit in after Freshers’ Week than before, indicating that Freshers’ Week is at least in part fulfilling its role.

Indeed, Cambridge’s inclusiveness was not the only impression that Freshers’ Week improved. Though this year has seen administrative errors create accommodation problems in a number of colleges, over half of students felt that their accommodation was better than expected. Only twelve percent of students felt that their accommodation was worse.

Louise Wallace – Investigations Editor

Article First Published 19th October 2009