Freshers’ Weeks

Originally published in the Scotsman.

The stereotypes are pretty straightforward, so when I embarked on Freshers’ Week at Edinburgh and Strathclyde Universities, I expected any differences to be simple matters of class. Edinburgh has the reputation of being upper-middle-class and largely English, while Strathclyde attracts more working-class and Scottish students. However, even in the space of two weeks, more complex differences emerged.

Why would I bother participating in two Freshers’ Weeks? Despite being a first-year postgrad, I can’t legitimately call myself a Fresher anywhere. But at Edinburgh University, I help run the Scottish dance society, and Freshers’ Week is the best time to recruit new members. At Strathclyde, I simply wanted to see what I’ve gotten myself into. Most of the institutions I’ve attended in the past have resembled Edinburgh Uni, and I was curious about student life in a place that’s supposed to be so different.

At Edinburgh, the most interesting part of Freshers’ Week is the Societies’ Fair. A microcosm of the start-of-term frenzy, with hundreds of freshers scrambling to find their social niche. Appropriate, then, that this particular rite of passage involves squeezing through a confused mass of bodies to see what activities are on offer. Societies cheerfully promote themselves, trying to win new members through gimmicks or sheer friendliness, taking advantage of that crucial five seconds when a fresher glances at their stall.

The two-day event often has the atmosphere of a carnival. Silly costumes and clever flyers abound, different kinds of music compete for attention, and freebies are distributed with abandon. This year’s highlight was a bouncy castle, shaped like a gorilla. I have no idea what this was advertising, because I was completely immersed in handing out my own society’s flyers.

At Strathclyde, the Societies’ Fair was a much more laid-back event. Despite a similar number of students, Strathclyde has fewer societies than Edinburgh, and they seem less concerned with boosting membership. People were content to smile as I browsed their pamphlets, rather than diving into sales mode. My sense was that activities are available, but it’s up to newcomers to make the first move.

An undergrad friend of mine attributes this to the high proportion of Strathclyde students who live at home. There’s less need to get involved with societies and forge an entirely new social life if you’re still spending time with family and old friends. In turn, I imagine the high number of locals makes it easier for outsiders to assimilate gently, rather than creating new social networks from scratch.

It might be the pressures of grasping for the elusive ‘right’ group, or it might be a class thing, but pretentious behaviour seems more prevalent at Edinburgh Uni. Of course, most students don’t fall into this pattern, but it effects a noticeable minority. I get the sense that many hide their insecurities by trying desperately to be something – trendy, posh, counterculture, whatever. Unfortunately, they often treat other people as lesser beings in the process.

To be fair, I’ve had three years of people-watching at Edinburgh Uni, both as a student and through my dancing. I’ve had very little experience with Strathclyde, so I’m probably missing subtle nuances that will become clear with time. In all honesty, when I chose to study in Glasgow, I expected student life to mimic the worst kind of urban jungle. My delight at discovering Strathclyde’s charms probably blinds me to its less charming side, but I know the rose coloured glasses will eventually fade.

Still, as a social science junkie, it’s good to have another reminder that it’s more than just class shaping the social lives of students – and everyone else.

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