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  • Kiran Patel

Fresher Feels Then and Now

Words by Kiran Patel (he/they)


2016


“So baby, pull me closer

In the back seat of your Rover

That I know you can’t afford

Bite that tattoo on your shoulder”


It’s the tenth time this week that I’ve heard this song, but I don’t mind. I’m suffering in the Vic Books queue with only five hours of sleep, patiently waiting for my flat white (cow’s milk) in a takeaway cup while pondering whether Harambe truly deserved to be shot. The First Year Panic™ effuses amongst us all, each person avoiding eye contact with one another in fear of being perceived. 


I grab my coffee and plug my wired earphones back in, ensuring they’re securely looped under my shirt in case of an accidental and fatally embarrassing door handle catch. Racing past The LAB with minutes to spare before my lecture starts, I tactically weave in between the crowd of skinny jeans, denim jackets, and man buns that fill up campus. Snippets of conversations float past me in a haze: 


“Oi, James’ party is gonna be LIT!” 

“Fam, what time should we head to Estab tonight?”


It’s only morning, but the restlessness for Friday night is palpable across the main building. 


I slip into KK203, and, as per usual, my STATS193 lecture has already started. My acne-filled cheeks bubble up with a heat that’s all too familiar, and I’m awkwardly scrambling for the first seat I can find among the sea of two hundred other Arts majors. Head empty, no thoughts, I yank my damp notebook from my satchel bag that’s also empty without the reading notes I should have done. But even with $10,000 of student debt on my shoulders, my English Literature degree has never been the main priority of university. I’m already sending snapchats of my sweaty face to my Top 3 Best Friends, catching up on Harambe memes in the group chat, and deducing whether anyone has secured a booth for the day. 


Tapping my pen aimlessly on the notebook that’ll remain blank for the rest of class, I daydream my way through the entire lecture with the possibilities of this weekend. The climate crisis and Trump’s presidency seem too far away to even think about. The only thing I’m worried about is which Hallensteins flannel shirt I’m wearing to Rowan’s party tonight. 


2023


For Jia, a freshly 18 first-year VUW student, her uni day usually follows a similar routine. 


“It starts with coffee, which helps with the right-of-passage walk up to the Kelburn campus. Then I go to classes, procrastinate, study back at my hall, procrastinate some more, and then head into town for my part-time job. It’s pretty basic.” 


As a Writing Intern at Salient and short film creator, she hopes her Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts conjoint will lead to a stable career. 


“I’ve always known I wanted to pursue a career in the creative arts, but Law is helpful in giving me skills I’ll probably need in the future. There’s a lot of instability in the arts industry, and it’s a big fear of mine. I definitely want to do something that allows me to be creative, but I also want to have a sense of stability.” 


Unlike the 30-second studying montages and raging parties she has seen in her favourite coming-of-age films, starting university came with the realisation that she’d need to strike a healthy balance between her academic and career pursuits, her part-time job, and having a social life. 


“The psychological adjustment from high school to being entirely self-managed was pretty difficult at first, so I definitely had to set aside my expectations of what the university experience would be like. I’m learning to embrace the less fun side of things, like the 2 a.m. Red Bull study sessions, but also try to work in fun things around that.” 


2016


With none of the foresight that Jia has, after class I saunter to the booths on level 2 of the library to “study” with my friends. Ah, the booths. Those nasty, squeaky, mould-coloured seats covered with stains I have no wish to identify. The booths still give me the same rush as when Priyal, formerly a friend-of-a-friend and now best friend, first asked if I wanted to come and study with her group a few months ago. As an awkward introvert in high school, it felt like someone had offered me the winning Lotto ticket. That one question sparked the possibility that finally I might just get to live out the coming of age montage I had always dreamed of having. But of course, I had to play it cool. “Yeah, sure, whatever,” I said nonchalantly, my entire body already humming the tune to ‘Sweet Resistance’ as we headed over to the booths. My life changed forever. 


Now, sliding into the booth with a comfortable familiarity, I get caught up on the latest goss.


“Did you see that Instagram just introduced a stories thing like Snapchat?”

“Guys, I really don’t wanna go out with this whole clown epidemic going on!” 


Like everyone’s favourite passenger princess, or booth bohemith if you will, I love to just sit there and take it all in; the drama, the gossip, the romantic developments in my friends’ lives that feel life-altering in the moment. It’s like I’m experiencing it all from far away, but not in a bad way. There's a vague sense of future nostalgia bubbling up inside of me, and I have this desperate need to capture these moments, these feelings, our youth, and bottle it for safekeeping. 


Five hours later, our laptops idly sitting open and pens yet to be used, the plan for tonight has been cemented. We’ll head to the McDonald’s at Readings for a bit, catch the train back to Hannah’s for pres, and then head to Rowan’s Drummond Street flat when we’re all the right amount of tipsy. That same rush of possibility bubbles up again. I link arms with my friend Terena and the seven of us march down Kelburn hill, the cold September sun just beginning to set. 


2023


As one of the only people that came from her school in Auckland to VUW, the halls have become the centrepoint of Jia’s life at university. “I came in knowing absolutely no one. I met my friends at my hall on the first day, and my whole floor has become such a community. I can’t compare it to anywhere else.”


Given the structured and close-knit environment, the halls played a big part in helping her find a close group of friends within a pretty short period of time. “I can’t believe we only met six months ago. I can’t imagine any other circumstance where you’d meet a bunch of people, become super close and be set on living with them for the next five years.” However, since then, her friendships have developed far beyond simply sharing the same space. “The forced proximity definitely helped in the first few weeks, but we’ve surpassed all that now.”


Beyond the halls, after a long week stuck in the trenches of their busy first-year lives, her friend group usually find themselves at the Oriental Bay boat sheds during the evenings. “The boatsheds have really defined the main experiences of our friend group. Before we all lived in Wellington, we used to see uni students all sitting on the boat sheds and thinking ‘that’s gonna be us one day’. And now it is us.” 


2016


I have that same feeling now, looking back at our reflection in the Ivy mirrors as we’re dragging our feet up the stairs. It’s 4 a.m. and everything’s finally closing, but we’ve all been secretly ready to get food for two hours. The four Smirnoff Ices that I downed while we sprinted for the train six hours ago only gave me a temporary sugar rush and stomach pains, and there was no chance I was spending $7 for a drink at the club. So, like any brave soldier deathly afraid of FOMO and the shame of tapping out early, I pushed the exhaustion down and forced myself to dance to ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber like it hadn't been playing for five clubs straight. 


We walk fifty metres across the road to the Manners Street Burger King, mid-bitch about our de-facto group leader who we’ve finally figured out is a bit of a narcissist. As per usual, she went home a few hours earlier after saying that town was “d-buzz” and she “wasn’t feeling the vibes”, which we now realised was her covert way of making us feel bad if we were having fun and she wasn’t. But tonight was different. Instead of giving in like the people-pleasers we were, we all decided to stay out without her. And we’re glad we did.


Sitting down at an icky booth for the second time today, our conversations whiplash between how many McDonald’s Monopoly tickets we’ve collected and what life will be like when our parents die. The combination of our manic energy in this grungy Burger King is making me dizzy, and my mental camera tries to capture this exact moment. We eat soggy fries and take 5 a.m. Snapchat group selfies for clout, before finally rock-paper-scissorsing to see who orders the Uber back to Rowan’s. 


For the first time, it feels like maybe we don’t need our group leader as the extroverted through line anymore. Maybe we’re actually pretty close on our own.


2023


Jia feels that there’s a lot of weight put on being a first-year. Most people in her classes seem to have a “prodigy mindset”, and she feels pressure to be “as successful as possible when you’re young”. On top of that, the expectation for everyone to have a “memorable first year” often makes her debate “whether I’m doing something because I want to do it, or am I just doing it because I feel that I should?’” 


She looks back at her high school days with a certain nostalgia, missing the times when “those assignments felt so important” and she could “make mistakes without life-changing consequences”.

However, she also feels like the current period of her life is pretty nostalgic too. Reminiscing on her year so far, she feels she’d had “pretty much all of my coming of age moments this year, rather than high school like I thought. When I think about the year that I’ve had the most life changing experiences, it would definitely be 2023.” 


“It’s weird feeling nostalgic for the present. I’m already seeing these experiences as a montage in my brain with a David Bowie playing in the background,” she says. 

~


After returning to uni this year, I find myself looking back a lot more. Even having a narcissistic group leader was kind of great for the plot and our bond in retrospect. 


Paradoxically, the more distant I get from 2016, the more vivid those memories of being a first-year are. I’ve always loved being the “remember when…” friend. But since being back on campus, the memories seem to haunt me now more than ever. Like when I go through level 2 of the library and gaze at the area where the booths no longer are, or see the once lively Reading Cinemas stand before me like a decrepit haunted house. I cling even more tightly to these memories, knowing that the physical spaces where they once belonged have long since evaporated. And yet, somehow, I wish it could all be real again. 


I miss the times when things felt complicated but were actually very simple; when the uncertainty was scary but filled with exciting possibilities for the future. 


But after listening to Jia, I’m also realising that that’s okay. Perhaps these memories are so significant because they’re happening for the first time, when the puzzle of adulthood is new and shiny and you’re trying to piece it all together. Getting to do it with people you just met, who are also going through the same psychological mindfuck of being independent for the first time, is a unique, one-in-a-lifetime experience that can never be repeated.


While it’s easy to feel like I’m someone’s boomer grandpa that’s trying to get in with the kids on campus, I feel grateful for the life I’ve gotten to live beyond being in my first year of university. I’m grateful to see those friendships that I made way back then grow through the years into something even more precious now. 


Maybe instead of constantly reminiscing about what my life was at age 18, it’s time to start being more grateful for what my life is at 25. 

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