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A Letter to My First Year Self

By Maeve O’Keeffe

These days when walking around campus, it is not unusual for tears to well up in my eyes. I’m totally fine, but when I see the daffodils and the crocuses framing the venerable trees and Quad,  I feel such sadness that this chapter of my life is drawing to a close. I reflect on my days as an undergraduate student, wishing I could pause the clock on the precious time I have remaining here. Our campus is so beautiful, but is also blotted with the poignancy of my memories here, and I lament that my days of having ice cream in the President’s Garden and cappuccinos in Coffee Dock are numbered. The sand in the hourglass of time I have left in college is slip sliding away beneath my feet, and the weeks whir by.

It’s hard to convey just how much I’ve grown to love UCC and Cork City itself in the three years I’ve spent here. I want to go back in time and clasp my first-year self by the shoulders, reassure her that it’s all going to be ok, that she has no idea of the journey that awaits. Though I try to live my life minimising regret to the best of my abilities, I’m sure there are some things I could tell myself if travelling back in time to greet my former self, naïve and uncertain as she navigated the shortcut through the Kane building to main campus, sure that she’d never learn to navigate the labyrinth of the ORB building.

Dear Maeve, (September 2019)

Relax. Breathe. Straighten up your shoulders and for the love of God, stop biting your fingernails.

You have so much to look forward to. So many brilliant people will come into your life and change it for the better. The proximity that you’ll share with your college friends is unlikely to be replicated by the friendships formed at any other stage of life. You will live, work, study, and socialise alongside these people. At times you’ll laugh so hard that your ribs will ache, and you’ll think you’re going to wet yourself, and at other times you’ll find comfort in teary mugs of tea and hugs on grotty student accommodation couches. It’s a cliché, but only because it’s true; you are going to make so many fantastic memories with college friends.

Chances are, you’ll probably lose some friends too, and drift away from others. This is never easy, but sometimes inevitable, and it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. In fact, it’s more likely to be a sign that you’re changing and developing, and that your old friends are too. Along the way you will develop certain standards and values for your friendships, and you don’t have to compromise on these principles if a friend is not respectful of them. You might reconnect in years to come, you might not. Either way, it’s alright.

I don’t think anyone is truly impervious to the opinions of others, but try not to get too caught up with trying to fulfil certain roles within the friend group. It can consume you, and you’ll learn it’s ultimately futile. People can find you funny without you having to be the butt of every joke. People can think you’re a nice person without you having to bake brownies for them every single weekend. People can think you’re laid back without you having to be a doormat. People can think you’re good craic without you having to be in top form every night, quick with the witty remarks and comments. No matter what you do, you will never please everybody, so don’t waste your time trying to. You might as well just be as genuine as possible, and forget about the people who don’t like you. Trust that there are plenty of people who will accept and love your sincere, sometimes moody, sometimes needy, but always honest self.

         “Ní éiríonn sé níos éasca, éiríonn tú níos fear.” – (It doesn’t get easier, you get better). You will encounter hardship. It is an unfortunate reality that there is no such thing as a life free from some sort of adversity. Though college is great craic, there will be losses, heartbreaks, and stresses too. You will find yourself, on more than one occasion, crying in the Boole Library bathrooms (side note: back up everything on a USB stick, you’ll thank me later). There will be days when you feel miserable and overwhelmed, but you will manage. They say time is a great healer, but I disagree with that. Grief, for instance, does not miraculously diminish in time. The magnitude of the hurt and heartbreak unfortunately does not always subside, but your mechanisms for coping with it will improve. You will become stronger, even if it feels unimaginable initially. Have faith in your ability to recover, you’ve made it this far already.

On that note, you have never let yourself down before, so stop convincing yourself that your life is going to descend into disaster now. You must try to resist the urge to worry; it will get you nowhere, and you’re simply rehearsing your distress for some horrible outcome before it has even come to pass. The essays will get done. The stats assignments may not ever truly make sense, but you will muddle through them regardless. Just keep working your way through your to-do list, taking it day-by-day, bit by bit. College is challenging, but you’re much more capable than you give yourself credit for. Don’t be so hard on yourself for needing to take breaks or for not being productive enough.

Another thing, please don’t be too proud to ask for help. Whether it’s emailing a lecturer to ask for clarification for that tricky assignment, seeking professional support when you’re stressed and unwell, calling that older and wiser relative for advice, or even texting a friend to go for a walk, there is a team of people in your life who want to see you thriving. They will help you, but only if you let them. Don’t agonise over asking a friend if she’d mind explaining that complicated lecture topic to you, or approaching a stranger in the toilets to ask for a tampon. Everybody needs a hand sometimes, and your determination to never ask for help is only acting as a barrier to you reaching your full potential.

On the other side of that same coin, know that you’re never too busy to make time for a friend. Sure, it’s easier to leave messages unopened or to flake on that coffee date in favour of a lie-in, but it’s more important to look out for your friends. Let them know that you’re here for them, and show it. Go to the pharmacy with them when they’re scared that they need a pregnancy test, show up with ice-cream after they have a break-up, book a study room for them the night before the exam they’re stressed about. Small gestures like this infringe upon you in the most minimal of ways, but could mean the world to your friends.

Speaking of friends, don’t be afraid to be a little bit more proactive. If you want to hang out, then be the driving force behind arranging it. Rest assured there are plenty of others in the group who are feeling shy or reluctant to seem needy, and they’d only love a snap asking to meet up. Reach out. Remind yourself that the worst thing that could possibly arise from reaching out to someone is that they say no, and that even then, you’re no worse off than you were initially.

In fact, I’m a great advocate of the “What’s the worst that could happen?” mantra. When it comes to big exams, and your first time in the Neptune Stadium, your heart might race a little. Pause, and ask yourself what the worst-case scenario is. It’s probably not as bad as you are making it out to be. You fail an exam? You’ll repeat. Everything will be alright. The same goes for social things. The worst outcome is that you don’t have a good time, or you feel embarrassed, but even then, you have the power to pretend you don’t care. Eventually, you’ll begin to actually stop caring what other people think of you, and it will be so liberating.

Though you shouldn’t let yourself be pushed or coerced into anything, getting out of your comfort zone from time to time is healthy. Sit in on other people’s lectures to satisfy your curiosity, sign up for the club or society that piques your interest (and actually show up to training and events), wear that cool outfit that you think might be a little bit “out-there” (I promise, you look cooler than you realise). Staying in your lane is fine, but you’ll only really get to know yourself by testing yourself in small ways. This doesn’t mean running yourself ragged and exhausting yourself, it’s just about learning to do the things that you genuinely want to do, and embracing all the opportunities that are going to present themselves to you. It’s ok to say no if you’re not interested in something, and it’s equally ok to go solo if your friends aren’t interested in tagging along to an event with you. You might just stumble upon something you’re really passionate about. Do things for you, even if it’s initially a bit daunting.

In all likelihood, your body is going to change in the next few years. That’s life. Your weight might fluctuate from time to time, but that’s normal. It’s not a reason to sacrifice your beloved take-away after a night out, or to replace pints with calorie-conscious spirits and mixers you don’t even like the taste of. Try to be as active as you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t find the energy for those 5km runs when your workload gets intense. Your acne might not clear up fully, and the wrinkles in your forehead might become more pronounced. Trust me, nobody is noticing these changes as much as you are, and absolutely nobody cares. Everybody is much too preoccupied with their own appearance to notice these “flaws” in yours. You have so much more to offer the world than fitting a certain dress size.

Lastly, I just want to remind you to savour every moment. Though your time as a student will feel fleeting, it is its fleetingness that makes it meaningful. Savour the chaotic nights out, the feeling of hitting it off with new people and immediately adding them to your private story on Snapchat. Savour the mundane morning coffees, and sausage rolls in the Student Centre between lectures. Savour your first taste of independence, and the exhilaration of freedom. And if it all becomes overwhelming, know that you can take a break and catch your breath. Listen to Vienna by Billy Joel, and “slow down you crazy child.” Everything is going to work out.

Love,

Maeve (March 2022)