What I Wish I Knew As a Fresher With Learning Difficulties
By Abi Waters
The years you spend at university will be the best of your life. We have all heard that, and in many ways it can be true. Yet, for students with learning disabilities the transition from living at home to moving to university can be especially daunting. Remembering deadlines, figuring out what’s for dinner and setting aside time to relax and enjoy yourself can be a lot harder to juggle for non-neurotypical students. So, I have put together a list of the things I found most useful as a first year in the hope that I can help others who felt as overwhelmed as I sometimes did.
Make A Timetable
Hopefully by the time you move in, you will have had your academic timetable released. Make a habit of setting a structure to your week by making small changes that will make your life so much easier. I found that getting up at the same time every morning, doing a set amount of hours working outside of my contact hours and having fixed days where I did chores really helped me settle into university life. Having those little goals will help you focus, and you’ll be less likely to feel aimless. Use your pinboard as a makeshift calendar, or even buy a whiteboard or use an app on your phone. There are loads of ways to make a timetable, so see what works for you.
Contact your tutors and professors
You will be taught by professors and doctors who want to see you succeed, so let them know about what you struggle with. They are there to help guide you through your degree and in order to do that they need to be aware of particular difficulties that could include anything from being anxious about speaking up in seminars or having issues with structuring essays. Plus, you could be put in contact with the Academic Support department at your university who could provide all sorts of help. Sending a couple of emails could really open up a wider network of support.
Take advantage of what you’re offered
Like anyone with disabilities, I have access to DDS (Disability Determination Services), but I was not aware of this until my mum came across it online. Essentially, you can claim benefits for having a disability and access some incredibly helpful resources. This includes software that will record lectures, or put a green tint on the screen while you’re online, or word-to-text programmes- all programmes designed to make life that little bit easier.
Budget, budget, budget
Managing money can be one of the most stressful parts of university life and it can be easy to lose track of spending. Sometimes it can seem like one second you’re in budget and the next its disappeared! One thing that has helped me, a chronic over-spender, is to have two separate bank accounts. It may be more of a hassle than just downloading an app on your phone, but, for me , it’s been worth it in the long run. I have one account for the term’s bills and rent, and the other for day-to-day living, including enough to cover a few night’s out! Once you’ve got your finances organised, the only thing left to worry about is finding the best deals at the supermarket.
Joining societies has made the social side of university so much more accessible for me: connecting me with people that shared my interests and enthusiasm to meet new people. I decided that I would join at least one society where I had pre-existing knowledge of the activity and one society that offered something I wanted to try for the first time. This worked wonders for me and I have forged strong friendships from my commitment to getting involved. The best thing is that there’s never a wrong time to join, so no matter how far into the term you are, societies are always welcoming new members!
You’re going to have those days where you have early starts and late finishes and you just can’t be bothered to hit the gym or do that workout you’ve been planning. Indeed, sacking off workouts in favour of the pub or a takeaway is a crucial part of university life. Nevertheless, I’ve found that making time occasionally for some nutritious, home cooked food and a few hours of movement a week can really help lift my mood. Exercise boosts your production of endorphins, helps you feel more energetic and keeps your body and heart in good condition. A good meal will also do the same thing! If you know you won’t be feeling up to cooking every evening, bulk cook your meals for the week. Choose a day where you’ll spend the time making large quantities of your favourite meals, separate them into Tupperware boxes and freeze them so they’ll at hand for when you need them. You’ll thank yourself later.
Build a support system
Regardless of whether you are studying your degree at home or on campus, starting out without knowing anyone can be overwhelming and lonely. Especially now that many universities have transferred to online learning, it’s harder to make friends on your course. Finding ways to embrace the technology might be the way forward. Investigate course group chats or consider setting some up if there aren’t any already out there. Everyone is in the same boat and, whilst putting yourself out there is scary, it’ll help you realize that you’re not the only one feeling lost.
Personal tutors can also be a greatly under-utilized resource. This is someone designated to offer you help and advice during your time at university so it is definitely worth checking out their office hours and having a chat if you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
From experience, routine is important for keeping your social and academic life balanced at university, but it can take a while to get that balance right. So remember, it’s OK to have off days and it’s OK to ask for help. Starting university is a big step, be kind to yourself.