Back on track: how to ace your first weeks at UCL

17 September 2021

Third year UCL student Allan Yeung knows a thing or two about how to get yourself going in the first weeks of arriving or returning to UCL. Read his tips to know what to expect, look after your wellbeing and reach out for help if you need it.

Before you make a decision

Frantic last-minute trips to IKEA. Dizzying blocks of colours on the ever-packed Freshers’ calendar. For many of us, the return to face-to-face learning may seem like a daunting hurdle after months of relying on digital interactions. Fortunately, whether you’re new to UCL or returning for another year, there are a few tips for you to ensure that you’re making the most out of your first weeks back on campus.

While the first few assignments can seem daunting as you get back into the swing of things after a long summer break, breaking down each task into manageable chunks will help you tackle your workload. Set a goal for yourself each day - maybe it’s writing up the introduction of your essay, or devoting an hour to the research for your lab report. Start early and chip away at your workload bit by bit — your future self will thank you for it. Having said that, while academics are your top priority, they aren’t the only facets of university life. As much as you can, talk to new people! Sometimes, striking up a conversation can be as simple as replying to someone’s Instagram story or complimenting their shoes. It may be daunting to make the first move, but they’re probably just as nervous as you and will be grateful for the initiative. Try out for new clubs and societies whether you’re joining UCL for the first time or returning — you never know how much you’ll end up enjoying the activities, or the company.

Constantly keeping up with school, with work, with friends, can be draining, so don’t forget to take some time for yourself. If the lockdowns have taught me anything, it is that your problems usually don’t seem as impossible to beat after a long, scenic walk outside. For bird-lovers, a stroll along Regent’s Canal might reward you with lucky sightings of mandarin ducks, grey herons, coots and kingfishers. You might even want to buy a book from Word on the Water, one of the world’s only floating bookshops currently docked at the canal. Near campus, Regent’s Park and Hyde Park both offer relaxing encounters with the wildlife and flora; the South Bank of River Thames gives you an unbeatable view of London’s most iconic skyline. Take advantage of the fact that you’ll be living in one of the most vibrant hubs of culture in the world, and leave no stone unturned when it comes to exploring the secret nooks and crannies of the city. Find a favourite coffee shop, try Instagram-worthy street food, or treat yourself to an afternoon at one of London’s many famous (or niche!) museums.

Of course, for many of us, one of the main challenges of university is the quiet homesickness that shades into everyday life. Maybe it’s the food you crave, the soap operas on your local TV channels, or the landmarks you’d go to visit on weekends. Especially with ongoing restrictions, the distance between countries or even continents may feel hopelessly stretched out, but there are ways to bring home just a little closer. Do you miss a particular dish from your hometown? Look up a recipe and get cooking! My first attempt at cooking Chinese pork belly left me with a kitchen on the verge of flames and a piece of charcoal that was probably once food, but I got better with practice. The smoke alarm and I still don’t get along, but at least the food I cook now passes as vaguely edible. Moving somewhere new doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to familiarity entirely. Bring a piece of home with you — a poster, or photos, maybe even a stuffed animal — to help ease you into your new environment, which can be both exhilarating and intimidating.

Lastly, remember that feelings of alienation or loneliness are completely normal, especially for those starting at university for the first time. Oftentimes, recognising that you need someone to talk to, then mustering up the resolve to reach out are the hardest parts of mental healthcare, which is why UCL offers a myriad of wellbeing support services that allow students to easily receive the help they need. Once you have registered through their online form, you’ll be waitlisted for the appropriate counselling service at Student Psychological and Counselling Services. Having received psychodynamic counselling in my first and second years, I firmly believe that there is never a problem too trivial for counselling — if you think you would benefit from talking to someone, there will be someone for you.

There is no catch-all guide, no perfect to-do list, to the start of term. Everyone will go at a different pace, and that’s okay! Take things in your own stride, prioritise the things that you enjoy doing, and make this a year with no regrets.

Allan Yeung, BA English