Just before going to university, I was diagnosed with autism, and also had physical and mental health problems. I was worried I wouldn’t cope at university. I felt I had the normal worries that every fresher has, such as doing badly in my course, or not getting on well with my housemates, but on top of that, I had more specific disability-related worries. Will I get any exam adjustments? And who would I go to if I needed any support? It all felt quite overwhelming.
However, I was so excited to study and live at York, to gain independence, and to experience university life. I was determined not to let my disability stop me from achieving my goals and do well. However, I also accepted that I needed to take steps to get the right support in place.
Familiarising myself with people and services at the university before arriving was a huge help. I spoke to my new housemates before move-in day to get to know them a bit more.
I also got in touch with Disability Services to discuss the support they could offer me, including exam adjustments. They were really helpful and reassuring and advised me to apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance. Alongside other adjustments, this funded a specialist mentor and study skills tutor for the duration of my time at university. Knowing I would have someone to speak to each week about how I was getting on helped me to feel more at ease.
The support pages on the university website also reassured me that there were people I could go to if I needed support. The College Team, the Open Door Team and the Student Hub are just some examples.
I also looked on the Students’ Union (YUSU) website to see what societies and sports clubs there were. From the long list of over 200 societies and over 60 sports clubs, I picked a few that interested me. This included the Squash Club, Concert Orchestra, and Linguistics Society. In the end, I didn’t have time to join all of these, but I did make it onto the squash team!
Moving to university: asking for support
Despite taking steps to help myself before moving to university, the first few weeks were quite difficult. I began to struggle with my mental health and realised that I needed more support.
I was hesitant to begin with, as I didn’t want to make a fuss. However, I remembered reading about the College Team on the university website, so I sent an email asking for a chat. I spoke to a College Tutor, and then the College Manager. They were both really friendly and welcoming. I really did feel listened to and felt empowered to reach out for further support.
University life and beyond
I received further support outside of university, and from my study skills tutor and mentor. But the opportunities available to me as a student also helped to improve and maintain my mental health.
College baking sessions, college wellbeing workshops (especially the one on perfectionism!), playing squash, and volunteering allowed me to meet and speak to new, like-minded people, learn positive ways of coping with stress, and just generally feel like part of a community.
When things did feel that little bit more challenging, I felt surrounded by positive and understanding people who encouraged and supported me. Most importantly, they saw me as a person, not just a diagnosis. This helped me to believe in myself, and make the most of university.
One highlight was winning a scholarship to study Psychology at Yale University in summer 2018. There I met some amazing people, learnt a lot about myself and about psychology, and grew in self-confidence.
Other highlights from my time at York include playing squash during the Roses tournament against Lancaster and being the Student Orator at graduation. Speaking at graduation gave me the opportunity to thank the people and networks who supported me at university. In particular, the support I received in my college.
My positive experience of the college system is my motivation for now working at the university as a full-time College Tutor. I’m there to be the first point of contact for any students in the college who have any questions or concerns, and I aim to make them feel as welcome and supported as I did when I first approached my College Team.
A final note
I hope my story demonstrates that having a disability (including a mental health problem) doesn’t mean you can’t still have a fulfilling and enjoyable time at university. It maybe took me a little bit longer to settle in and find my feet after moving to York, but with time, and with the right support, I was really able to develop as a person and to flourish. The same is possible for you too!
Rosie is now a College Tutor at the University.