Sunday, 24 January 2021

Life as an 'estranged student'

An experience of coping with life at university when you come from a complicated and unstable family background. 

- Anonymous

Universities attract ambitious young people from far and wide. Some students come from different countries, or live nearby to their chosen uni city – but there is the general knowledge that every student comes from somewhere. This is because university is not really designed to be anyone’s ‘home’. It does not count as a legal permanent address and many uni accommodation buildings require their students to move out of their rooms in the holidays. For most university students the holidays mean returning home to familiar surroundings, family, home cooked meals and a free laundry service. But what about those who dread the holidays? What about those who have nowhere to go?

As a university applicant with a difficult and mostly broken relationship with my family, I was fortunate enough that one of my parents’ home was still my legal address, so was able to apply for university and SFE. However, this does not mean that the door is always open, it is simply a few words on a form rather than a genuine source of stability it is meant to be. There are students, like me, whose parents are not practically or emotionally there to support them. This can be for a variety of reasons, for example I have been ‘sofa surfing’ since I was 17 as my mum suffers from clinical depression and therefore cannot support me. I instead, support her. During freshers I responded to the usual ice-breaker questions about who I was, where I was from and what my family was like with various stories. Many went along the lines of ‘it’s just a bit complicated’, ‘I live with my aunt and uncle’ and even ‘oh nothing interesting really, I’m just from the south’. In truth, I had no idea how to explain my situation and did not want to appear strange or complicated.

Luckily though, during the first term I met some incredible friends who I felt able to be somewhat open and honest with. They listened and tried to understand as they pieced together bits of information that I shared with them. I often wondered if I did the right thing in sharing my situation with people who were so different to me, but I came to be very grateful for it when the holidays arrived. For students from complicated family backgrounds and home lives, the last few weeks of term are filled with anxiety. I had specifically chosen accommodation that allowed me to stay in my room during the holidays (a key piece of advice for students like me coming to uni), but the idea of being completely alone for a month was scary. Yet because my friends were aware of my situation, they came together to host me with each of their families. To anyone like me who is scared to be open with friends and peers about your situation, I know you’ll feel a lot less alone if you do. I still feel anxious when the term ends, but I know my friends won’t leave me behind and I get to see different parts of the country and meet new people!

Covid-19 certainly created challenges for every student, no matter how stable your home life, but lockdown has also meant that the time estranged students spend alone or worried about accommodation has increased dramatically. If you know of a friend from any sort of complicated background make sure to check on them now more than ever. The government’s advice to stay home and save lives is simple for those who have a family home to go back to. For those who are independent, speak to your university welfare officers or your friends – there is always someone there to help! Many universities also have an ‘Estranged Students’ group who offer advice and support.

Now that I am in 3rd year, I have built up the confidence and experience to say that I am an ‘estranged student’ who is not dependant on my parents. I can now say that without feeling any shame or embarrassment. Yes, I’m in the minority, but I’ve come to realise that it is okay to be different. If you had told 18-year-old me I would eventually feel proud of my independence, I doubt I would have believed you. But I am. I hope that anyone like me who reads this realises they should give themselves a pat on the back for getting to university with less support than most. I certainly found that people do not judge me or look down on me because of my independence but are generally impressed by it. So, try to feel impressed with yourself and still ask for help. Just because you’re independent does not mean you’re alone! 

Visit Student Minds for further support and Student Space is here to help you through coronavirus. Explore online resources, access direct support via text, phone, web chat or email and find the support available at your place of study.



I absolutely love life as a student, however I found it very challenging at first to cope without the emotional and practical support that most students receive from their parents. In my first year I felt incredibly isolated and didn’t know how to be honest with my friends or seek support. I wanted to write this to give advice to students like me and be a reminder that you’re not alone.  

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