Starting university was particularly challenging as I had very little idea of what to expect. As the first in my family to go to university and without any older siblings to look up to, I didn’t have anyone to go to for advice. Starting university in 2020, unaware that the country was about to enter a second lockdown, I was unsure how to go about making friends under the challenging circumstances.
My move to the UK from Poland was a big culture shock, particularly moving to the Lake District, where the community is not very diverse, so, unfortunately, my experience did not leave much room for keeping my identity.
I found settling into university a lot easier – being on a vibrant and lively campus allowed me to build up the courage to connect with like-minded people. Meeting people from different countries with a similar background to my own made me feel less alone when entering a new environment with very different responsibilities and expectations, and moving away from my immediate family for the first time.
To help find your sense of identity at university, I would encourage all students to take part in societies.
There will be many societies for you to choose from and you may be able to start your own society. I would encourage this if you feel that none of the societies available suit your interests and your sense of identity. For example, at my university (the University of Leeds) the Student Union runs more than 300 student-led clubs and societies, so there is lots of opportunity to find new interests and hobbies that shape your identity. Clubs include anything from skydiving to coffee society.
I have been part of the Polish society since my first year of university and this became my “home away from home”. The society organises traditional Polish events such as Wigilia, which is a Christmas celebration, and tłusty czwartek, which marks the last Thursday before Lent.
I also joined yoga society, as yoga was something I started in lockdown for mental health reasons. It was important for me to carry this on as an escape from the many different pressures surrounding university life.
I also started a new hobby in my final year, pole dancing, which was something out of my comfort zone, but has been a great way to make new friends and it has been beneficial for my mental health to have regular and consistent classes to attend.
I have been passionate about feminism from a young age. I knew I wanted to study law at university to fight the gender injustices within the legal system. Growing up in a single-parent household, my mother is a great inspiration to me. I felt that it was important for me to achieve good grades to get into university and take up every opportunity I am given.
When I heard there was a female empowerment student initiative, Women Breaking Barriers, within the school of law, I knew immediately that this was something I had to be an active part of, and I joined the committee in my first year.
There are many gender injustices within the legal career world, with only 23 per cent of equity partners in law firms being women. I aim to help change this by increasing female involvement within the legal industry wherever possible. I wish to support young girls who feel incapable of undertaking a law degree due to the societal pressures of stereotypical gender roles and encourage them to look beyond these outdated expectations.
Being on the committee has helped me find my sense of community and meet inspirational women from a diverse range of backgrounds. As president in my final year, I have been able to play a more active role in organising events such as inviting “legal influencers” to talk about their unconventional journeys to a legal career, which has been eye-opening, and it has been heart-warming to hear students say that the events have had a positive and motivating impact on them.
I hope you will settle into university easily and find your sense of community, just remember to keep your individuality and not follow the crowd.
Kinga Rolak, originally from Poland and now studying in the UK, shares her top tips and advice on how to maintain your identity and unique spark at university