It’s the start of another academic year. For some universities, students have been in residence for some time; for others, such as Cambridge, freshers (undergraduates and graduates) are only now arriving.

That of course goes for ‘Heads of House’ too, i.e. people like me who are Masters, Presidents, Principals and Wardens. I am very conscious of the fact that I am no longer the new kid on the Cambridge College block, as we welcome Jackie Ashley (Lucy Cavendish) and Chris Smith(Pembroke) to their new roles; conscious also of the fact that a year in, I hope I’m not only older but wiser about the ways of my specific College and also the collective collegiate system.

However this blogpost is not about me but about the students who, nervously or confidently, are arriving heavy laden both with luggage and expectations. It can be a daunting moment when you leave the familiar for the unknown. Perhaps you are clutching a literal or metaphorical cuddly toy to get you through the first anxious days; or indeed a well-thumbed dictionary which still does not provide the colloquial or idiosyncratic words needed to traverse the environment. Gyps and bedders don’t necessarily appear in standard dictionaries, and I note that Trinity College has helpfully provided an online glossary to assist both native and non-native speakers into the arcane world of Cambridge lingo.

But what actually has prompted this post was the little phrase ‘you have to take control.’ I came across in quite an old blogpost written for postdocs. It very much echoes advice the Royal Society put out for doctoral students. People can give you plenty of advice and support if you ask for it, but if upon arrival at your new home you sit and shake in your room it is hard for others to know what is going on. If you are a fresher – at whatever level – you are likely to be surrounded both by colleagues in a similar position and by those more senior/experienced in a position to proffer advice. Of course occasionally that isn’t true (particularly if you’re starting a new job in an unfriendly organisation) but as a new student it almost certainly does apply and you should avail yourself of the support on offer.

So, how should newcomers set out to ‘take control’? What can be done to ensure that they put themselves in a position to squeeze the most out of their new opportunities? Just remembering that you are not alone in being uncertain, nervous and probably totally confused is a good place to start. It is so easy to be fooled into thinking that you are the only one operating in a fog when the reality is that if you don’t feel like that you are probably missing an awful lot that is going on around you. Admitting to being befogged in that first week is not an admission of failure it is an admission of reality. However, remaining struggling in the mists of confusion most certainly means that you aren’t taking control by asking enough questions. Ask your peers but, probably even more importantly, ask all those who are ahead of you in the game: most freshers are assigned a mentor (possibly named a parent or buddy) who has in the recent past been in the same situation as you. In Cambridge as an undergraduate you will have both a Tutor (for pastoral care) and a Director of Studies for subject-specific issues. These are experienced folk who are used to answering questions, possibly even before you’ve grasped enough factual information to formulate them.

During the first few days students will be inundated with facts which are impossible to absorb all at once. If you are given stacks of paper it is well worth keeping them to hand, since in a little while you will both know what facts you really need to know and have forgotten who told you what. But paper copies – of timings when you can get food (or indeed alcohol) in the building, for instance – will remain of use: don’t simply recycle them at the first opportunity.

It’s not all about facts, there are decisions to make, starting with people. Finding like-minded people (however defined) to hang out with is hugely important. I well recall feeling overwhelmed by everything happening to me but making bad choices amongst my fellow freshers as to who to confide in during my first few days as an undergraduate. I chose someone who was neither sympathetic nor like-minded and in due course I felt vulnerable I had exposed my lack of confidence to someone who could potentially use it against me. I don’t think she ever did but it made me very cautious in all my future dealings with her. Nevertheless, perhaps the benefit I derived from blurting out my anxieties made that subsequent unease worth it. Hard to tell.

What I’m sure is true, though, is that exploring the company around you is well worth the effort. Some you can instantly tell are alien to you, however worthy they may be. Perhaps good for discussing problem sheets with but not who you want to hang out with in more relaxed circumstances. Others may be positively not your cup of tea, those who instantly make you feel small or otherwise uncomfortable (they are probably the most insecure of all in your cohort and it is merely their attempt to cover up their own fears, but that’s not your problem). But many will just be muddling along, feeling uncertain but ready to have a natter with a friendly face. Time will tell whether the nascent friendship survives the first reception glasses of warm chardonnay (or equivalent; in my day it was sherry) or a foray to the local source of coffee.

Decisions also need to be taken about furnishing your living quarters, which may resemble a slightly dreary and battered monk’s cell upon arrival. Making sure your space gives you comfort is hugely important because you’ll spend a lot of time there. If, as I realised about my College office after the best part of a year, the space gets you down then do something about it (although admittedly this is still a project in hand in my case)! Feeling at home, feeling you have a retreat that is ‘you’, comfortable and a space you’re prepared to invite someone else into, is important. Take control of this even if you feel still adrift when it comes to lectures.

And of course, most important of all, find some way to take control of the courses you are studying. By which I mean, make your choices as thoughtfully as you can as to what lecture courses to attend, and think about the effort you need to expend in order to survive them. Thinking back to my own experiences, I still recall the folly of leaving my first week’s supervision work to the last possible evening and then attending a choir practice and hanging around for a drink afterwards so I ended up doing – or more precisely failing to do – the work at midnight. It did not augur well but perhaps taught me that living like that did not make me satisfied. Nothing wrong with enjoying myself at the choir or afterwards, but I needed my work in the bag if I was to feel OK about it.

Indeed, working out how to balance the work-relaxation-sleep triangle is perhaps the fundamental challenge for all students wherever they may be and whatever course they are studying. Taking control of those three aspects of student life is fundamental to survival.

— Athene Donald, Master

This post originally appeared in Athene Donald’s blog on October 1 2015.

Image: Illustration of a student’s room at Churchill by Jim Tang