Let’s just cut to the chase, I started at UEA when I was 17 years old. Telling people this usually inspires a shocked or confused response, to then be followed by an onslaught of questions that I have heard hundreds of times before by this point. ‘Why did you do that? What was it like? How is that even possible?’. If I had a fiver for every time someone asked one of these questions, I would not have any student loan to pay off come graduation. So, let’s just get the boring stuff out of the way;
I am from Scotland, where the education system is a little different, meaning I finished high school at 17 and could obviously then go onto university, which I did. Taking a gap year was strongly encouraged but I chose not to, because, if I’m being realistic, there is next to no chance I would come back to education after many months out. As for what it was like, well, that is the reason for writing this.
I was so worried before I arrived in Norwich, knowing I would be a serious minority, even being told upon arrival that I was one of about 150 under-18s at UEA. People had told me that I would have a terrible time, that their arrival week was the best week of their lives, and that I would not make any friends because everyone does this in the first few days with a can of Dark Fruits in their hand. Understandably, I dreaded it.
In short, it definitely was not as bad as you probably think it would be. Yes, I could not drink, but there is no need to rely on alcohol to have a good time. Even though it was not too much of a hardship, when everyone else around you is drinking to the extent of almost passing out, it did get tiresome.
To join societies, I had to be pre-approved by the committees, and although I never tried to join sports clubs, I assumed that the drinking culture amongst them was not the best environment for me.
This was my life for the first three months of my university experience. Beyond the first week it never presented itself to be an issue; by keeping my academics in focus, making friends the old-fashioned way, having sober conversations (what a novel concept), and taking advantage of Drama Society, being cast in a play pretty quickly.
As it turns out, when I finally turned 18 and was able to play catch-up in terms of drinking and nights out, I was unhappy. All my time was spent going out and drinking, instead of taking part in activities that actually made me happy and felt worthwhile. I did not miss a single student night out, despite being horrendously bored of it. There are only so many times you can hear Angels and Mr Brightside, after all. But the most damaging part of it all, I surrounded myself with some very toxic people that only liked me for playing Ring of Fire with cutthroat tactics and splashing the cash on shots.
Being 17 at UEA for three months was very eye-opening. I learned a lot about myself, as well as university life. Despite all of my close friendships not being made in the first few months, they were all created while sober through sober activities, mainly in Second Year, and my fondest memories were made when being, you guessed it, sober. Alcohol is not a prerequisite for fun!
Another thing you grow tired of very quickly is being constantly referred to as the baby, or suffering under the immediate assumption that you are immature. To this day I deal with people thinking that I am immature, and this, funnily enough, got worse in second year, long after my nineteenth birthday.
This makes no sense considering I am from Edinburgh, a 7-hour journey from here no matter how you travel. I moved 7 hours away from every single family member and started a new life, living alone, learning to cook, managing money and generally learning to survive, while still legally a child. And yet people still referred to me as immature? That screams maturity, if you ask me.
Having people looking down on you like this regularly might put you in a bad place, and I questioned everything I had done and am capable of. By no means am I immature, and all the things I do at UEA show that; I have achieved a lot. Had I not come to UEA at 17, I would not have made all the amazing friends, achieved all the things, and been as happy and content with myself as I currently am.
So, to answer the final question which I get a lot: ‘Do you regret coming to University when 17, Sam?”. Absolutely not.