As the end of a particularly tough Michaelmas term drew nearer, I found myself feeling more depleted than I remember being this time last year. Starting out university as a fresher in the pandemic came with its own set of challenges, but so does, it turns out, being thrust into the usual humdrum of university life. Suddenly, weeks are far busier, filled with essay deadlines, treks to department buildings, ever dwindling hours of sleep and far more social events marking the calendar than the whole of first year combined. As someone who spent the best part of a gap year inside, I’d had a lot of time for thinking and I came to university strong in my own convictions: I was 20 (now 21), an adult who knows what she wants, who she is, and what her limits are. 

On paper, I should be living the dream. I’d gotten into one of the best universities in the world; I love literature, and am now afforded the opportunity to talk to leading professionals in the field about it; I’d found a good group of friends. But none of that seemed to change the fact that I was not living my best life– in fact, I was (and maybe—probably—still am) floundering. Because for all the wealth of opportunities that came with being a student, there is also a rather ugly, rather unspoken-of underbelly. A frantic scramble to find your footing amongst your peers, to be the fun one, the cool one, the one spoken about so fondly in absence. I don’t quite think I’ve gotten the knack of it. 

Caught in the tundra of pushing myself to make the most of my time here and listening to what my head was telling me was best for me, I found myself in a rut. Apparently, it’s not a cliché, or even remotely an exaggeration, to feel entirely alone in a room full of people, to question whether or not you’re pretty enough, cool enough, or charismatic enough to be worthy of the ‘Best Time of Your Life’ status so diligently applied to both the age of 21 and the duration of your time at university. I was suddenly left uncertain: was I now boring or, at the tender age of 21, too old to relate to my peers? Where had the confident, outgoing girl of 17 gone?

But then I found a video sitting prettily in my YouTube recommended section entitled “university might not be the best time of your life”, and I felt compelled to add it to my watch later playlist. Once I’d gotten over the mild sting of the YouTube algorithm recommending the video to me in the first place, I decided to sit down and watch it. Admittedly, I’ve never been one for “Studytube” videos; trawling through the work myself was hard enough without watching other people nail it.

But there was something so charmingly comforting in seeing someone who has made a career out of their studies (and the responses that followed in the comments) sit down and admit that, yes, they struggled at university and, no, sometimes it really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And that’s okay. It was validating in a way that we all chase: it reminds you that, no, it’s not just you, it’s not just because of you, and it doesn’t dictate what sort of person you are. 

Last Michaelmas was a trying one, and the week I watched that video particularly left me feeling low on more occasions than I care to count. But, at the risk of spiralling into treating this article like a diary entry, I’ll conclude with this: if you’re feeling a little (or a lot) adrift, like you’ve not quite found your place or people, you’re not the only one. Oxford can be a hotbed of both intense academic and social pressure. Sometimes, perfect on paper doesn’t translate well into reality and that really is okay.

I left for the vac knowing that I don’t have all of the solutions to my problems, but there will be respite to be savoured for a while. Perhaps, this Hilary, I’ll be braver; start more conversations, join that society I’ve been meaning to join and suggest doing the things I’ve been wanting to do. The rest has been for catching up with myself and resting, for enjoying the slower pace of life that the vac afforded me and getting back into tune with myself. I shall remain tentatively optimistic that with the lows, there will be highs, and there is all the time in the world for things to change for the better. 

Illustration by Grace Kirman.

Hetta Johnson

Hetta Johnson (she/her) is a contributing writer and Junior Editor for Cultures at The Oxford Blue. She is in her second year reading English Language and Literature at Worcester College and, when not wandering Oxford or with her nose in a book, can be found in the countryside of Northamptonshire.