What happens when everyone you know vanishes for 5 months?
Dan shares his experiences of being a student at uni without the support of his family, for Estranged Students Solidarity Week.
Knowing where to start writing about being an estranged student isn’t easy - it’s not a phrase you hear people use often. Usually, it comes paired with an explanation that’s probably been rehearsed more times than a primary school play.
Holiday times make this a particularly awkward conversation to have with new friends or flatmates that you’ve made at university. At first, the question of “what are you doing for Christmas?” used to bring on a deep feeling of anxiety in the bowels of my stomach. Now, I’m lucky enough to be used to it, to the point where I’m able to be fairly casual about my response.
How others respond
To young people who’ve just come from family homes, the idea of someone not having access to a support network can appear incredibly strange. It often leads to a lot of sympathetic reassurances from well-intentioned people too, which is pleasant, but does often feel odd given how well I’ve adjusted.
It’s not something I’d ever expect special treatment from loved ones for, but sadly that does sometimes happen, and it does make you regret opening up about it in the first place.
Coping during the pandemic
I’ve been estranged for about 8 years now, so the idea of fending for myself during important holiday periods isn’t exactly alien to me. What IS alien to me however, is learning to manage everything I’ve learned about independence through a worldwide pandemic. There’s no set guidebook on how to navigate a pandemic, and if there was, the section on navigating it without a support network would probably just be a stock photo of someone shrugging.
When lockdown began at the start of the year, almost everyone I knew immediately went back to their home countries/cities, meaning I was one of the only people I knew still living in my halls of residence. I got to socialize with people here and there, but I didn’t really get to have meaningful interaction with a friend until July this year.
I’ve been estranged for about 8 years now, so the idea of fending for myself during important holiday periods isn’t exactly alien to me.
Alone at Christmas
I’d say I’m pretty introverted, but that comes by choice, and having that isolation forced on you isn’t pleasant. With major holidays like Christmas, people are usually only gone for a week or two, but when everyone you know vanishes for around 5 months? That’s when things start to get difficult.
With Christmas fast approaching, it would be a lie if I said I wasn’t completely worried. My flatmates are all going home for Christmas, and being an estranged student, home is wherever I’m currently paying rent.
My friends have tried to be helpful with it, but truthfully, knowing how to deal with being estranged and alone for longer periods of time is something that comes from lived experience, and more often than not being estranged isn’t an issue for a lot of people.
Like I previously mentioned, during Christmas it isn’t a particularly long period of being alone, but with the ominous lockdown and travel restrictions looming overhead, the uncertainty makes it very difficult to be sure that people will actually return in January.
How to support a friend who’s estranged
If you’re reading this and wondering what you can do to support a friend who’s estranged, just ask them - different people will be aware of their own boundaries and difficulties. Some people like myself might be used to it, but for others, it might still be fresh in their minds and making their lives difficult. Every situation is going to be different, and approaching the situation with a little bit of kindness and an open mind will go a long way.
Most importantly though, I’d argue that you shouldn’t treat us any differently in day to day life. Unless one of us sprouts tentacles though - in that case, I’d probably call an ambulance.
If you're at University without the support of a family or network, you're not alone.
Find out more about the financial, wellbeing, and social support available to you at Uni. Contact the Student Finance Centre for more information and advice, on firstname.lastname@example.org, or your Personal Tutor. If you're applying for University, contact UCAS for advice.