Thursday 13 July 2023


Annabel reflects on how volunteering in the local community helps her manage her mental health whilst being a student.

- Annabel Rose

Bubbles are great, they're simple, fun, pretty - what's not to love? University is often described as a “bubble”. You’re surrounded by like-minded people, sharing a similar universal experience. As soon as you've accepted your offer on UCAS, you're welcomed into this huge community. No matter your preferences, interests or demographics, there is a network ready to welcome you. You all live by the same calendar of exams, lectures and celebrations. Things that wouldn’t usually pass are suddenly the norm: piles of dirty dishes, 3am library sessions, bottomless brunch at 10am on a Thursday. Everybody gets it. You can chat about your least favourite lecturers and the world's most expensive Sainsbury’s to your heart's content. You're a student, it's your identity now. So often, you hear news days after it occurred and you manage to forget Father's Day altogether. There's this whole new world where parties go hand in hand with academics. 

The problem with bubbles is that they can be isolating. The outside world can feel like a distant memory. Whenever people head home for the holidays and campus feels deserted; you can be left wondering, how can I fill my time? With students working the tills at Lidl and living in your house, it's easy to forget that children and the elderly even exist. Bubbles can only hold so much air, they quickly become suffocating. Exam season comes around and it's all anybody can talk about (when they’re not hidden away studying, that is). Friends check in, ask how exams are going, and you get all the well-being emails and the “de-stress” kits. People mean well, and it's great that the community is supportive, however, it would be nice to take your mind off of the matter every so often. Within the bubble, it feels impossible. 

I find it essential to take a break from the “bubble” to care for my well-being. Every Tuesday, I give my time to run Rainbows meetings for 4–7 year olds with Girlguiding. We play games, do crafts and have adventures. These kids don’t care how my Organic Chemistry exam went, or if I produced a high enough yield in the lab; they are just obsessed with how many badges I have on my blanket. They have no interest in Mendelian genetics, but they do want to know about my dog or if I like their drawings. They want to talk about their wobbly teeth (admittedly one of my least favourite topics) and recent escapades. Their refreshing outlook makes my problems feel almost irrelevant. I can greet them with a brave face after a rough day, and regardless be met with hugs and gestures from these sweet, empathetic little people. Despite being overwhelmed, I often feel guilty about taking breaks. This is when I appreciate even the administrative side of volunteering; I can take my mind off university and still feel productive. Some may say it's procrastination at its finest! You'd be amazed at some of the spreadsheets I've produced to simply track girls’ badge progress or the effort I've put into planning the most basic of activities. They aren't necessarily essential but they keep me busy without any sort of wordy journal or bibliography in sight. 

After a recent trip to watch The Little Mermaid, I received an email from a parent: “I just wanted to thank you all for organising the cinema trip at the weekend and giving up your time. We really appreciate how precious your time is and we are grateful for you giving [A] a great ‘first trip’ experience.” What I do is not only appreciated but also regularly acknowledged - something you just don't get in academia. I know that my self-worth shouldn't be based on external validation, but it certainly helps. Community is a huge and wonderful part of university life and it's important not to deny yourself of that. There are certainly perks to being surrounded by students. Every 6 months, life as a student feels completely different to the last. There are new friendships, completed modules, moving to and from home; it's a truly exciting (and terrifying) experience. 

It can be comforting to remember the structure that exists outside of the “bubble”, where there are more constants to rely on. I know that my Rainbows will be here, waiting for me after the summer break, in eager anticipation to show me what they've been up to - not forgetting the badges they've earned. 

Society tells us that bursting bubbles is inherently bad. Luckily I'm not suggesting that. Instead, try testing the rigidity of the bubble, take a step outside where possible. Whether it's singing in your church choir, tutoring in a local school, or volunteering in the wider community; escaping the bubble can be freeing. I love my university bubble and the people within it, I wouldn't give it up for anything. There is, however, such a thing as too much of a great thing. 

PS. When was the last time you played with some bubbles? You know you want to! 

Explore tips and resources to help you navigate university life in Student Minds’ Transitions guide.

My name is Annabel, an undergraduate student at the University of Nottingham. Having struggled with my mental health since before starting university; I've been trying to navigate the distinct challenges that come along with being a student with varying success.

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