LOUISE O'NEILL: 'Always use condoms: Many STIs are treatable but not curable'

It’s usually around this time that I’m asked to share any advice I might have for the newest college freshers and I look over my shoulder, panicked, searching for a Real Adult in the vicinity. 

Since I’m guessing “take it easy on the tequila” and “use a condom, idiot” aren’t exactly inspiring — although both necessary, I might add — I’ll try and condense some of my hard won wisdom for this column.

Manage your expectations: Freshman year is a bit like New Year’s Eve — there’s far too much pressure to have ‘the best time ever’ which usually means it’s a let-down in reality. Teen movies have led us to believe that our first year of college will be a 24/7 party. Actually, it can feel daunting and overwhelming and scary — and that’s OK. Leaving home for the first time is a huge change. It’s completely natural if it takes you time to adjust.

Be honest if you’re struggling: I remember going home to Clonakilty for the weekend after my first week at Trinity and spending the entire train journey trying not to cry. When my friends and family asked how I was getting on I said: “I’m fine” — instead of “I’m frightened”. There is no shame in needing help, so ask for it. Most campuses provide excellent therapeutic care for their students. Don’t feel guilty about accessing those services. Therapy is for everyone who needs to talk, not just those with what we deem as more serious issues.

Go to as many of your lectures as you can: I barely attended college in the first three years of my degree, to the point where one student said to me: “Do you still go here? I thought you dropped out.” A big reason for that was my own insecurity. I was so callow in my first year; it took me two hours to find Trinity after I got off the bus at Stephen’s Green. I found my tutorial groups intimidating, assuming all the other students were more intelligent than I was, more articulate, and knowledgeable. I stayed quiet, feeling myself shrink as they made increasingly impressive points about Jane Austen, while I skipped one class, then another, handing in half-baked essays because I reasoned that if I didn’t try, I couldn’t fail. Today I would love the opportunity to spend my days listening to experts talk about novels and I wish I hadn’t wasted my time (or my parents’ money).

Don’t let self doubt get in your way: You are just as good as anyone else, no better and no worse. Unless Beyonce is your classmate, obvs.

Try and make new friends: Irish culture can be cliquey, due to the fact that we’re all basically from small towns. Yes, people from Dublin, even you. There’s a tendency to stick together because it feels comfortable and safe. As wonderful as they are, your school friends are usually forged out of geography and circumstance; at college you have your first chance as an adult to choose your friends. Use it.

Don’t get too caught up with social media: I’m aware I sound like your grandmother, but it’s too easy to use Instagram or Snapchat as a way of comparing your insides with everyone else’s outsides. It might seem as if their freshman year is a constant stream of parties and fun, but they’re hardly going to post photos of themselves crying in the shower because they’re deathly hungover. (Just me? Never mind.) Everyone feels lonely at times, or sad, or anxious. They’re just less likely to share that on their feed.

Find your own limits when it comes to alcohol and stick to them: It’s boring, I know, but I wasted far too many nights slumped over the cistern in club toilets because I couldn’t seem to figure out that drinking half a bottle of vodka on an empty stomach was a terrible idea.

Join a society: I was asked in an interview recently if I had joined any societies while at college and I laughed out loud. I did think about joining the Trinity Players, but decided against it. I went to one meeting in first year, felt awkward for the entire time, and then had berated myself afterwards for being awkward. I wish I had known that lots of other people there probably felt similarly, something I would have figured out if I had gone back for a second meeting. Join a society; it’s cool to care about things, I promise.

Always use condoms: Many STIs are treatable but not curable — and make sure you’re informed about what sexual consent looks like too, whether you’re male or female. Consent is freely given, active, enthusiastic, and specific to each new sexual act. That means if you consent to oral sex, that doesn’t mean that you consent to penetrative sex. If someone is asleep or intoxicated to the point of falling down, they cannot give consent.

I have a little sister/neighbour who is 10 years younger to whom I am constantly giving unsolicited advice, because I don’t want her to struggle the way that I did. When she was 18 she turned to me and said: “I have to make my own mistakes. That’s the only way I’ll learn.” She was right.

So, with that in mind, I tell you — may you make many mistakes this year, and may you learn from every one of them. Good luck.

It might seem as if their freshman year is a constant stream of parties and fun,
but they’re hardly going to post photos of themselves crying in the shower because they’re deathly hungover


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