Louise O’Neill was just a child when she first visited Trinity, during a family trip to see Dublin on Ice. Now an internationally renowned author and feminist, Cork-born O’Neill knew right away that this was the university for her and remembers telling her mother that she would love to study there. Sure enough, years later, she moved to Dublin after securing a place in Trinity to study English literature and history. It was a fresh start for O’Neill, who as a teenager had struggled “with body image issues and eating disorders”. “I didn’t want to go to Cork, I didn’t want to go to Limerick, because those were the two universities that most people in my year were going to”. Dublin was the perfect place to build something new.
But it wasn’t easy. O’Neill didn’t initially get the points for her course, and by the time her exam re-checks confirmed her place, freshers’ week had been and gone, she was put in Trinity Hall in an apartment with final-year students, and her course was entering its fourth week. “That day, I remember I was in Halls, and I went out to get the 14 bus into town, and I only had a fiver because at that time you could give notes in buses in Cork, and [the driver] was like, ‘no you need to have change’, and I didn’t have the change, so the person behind me had to pay for me”, she laughs. “And then I got off at Stephen’s Green, and it took me two hours to find Trinity. I think I must have gone up Merrion Square. I got completely bewildered.”
Adjusting to the course at this later stage also proved very challenging for O’Neill. She felt very daunted during those first lectures and tutorials. In secondary school, she had been a “big fish in a small pond”, “the best student in [her] English class”, but now she found herself surrounded by students who “had also been the best English student in their class”. “I just felt like everyone else knew so much more than I did”, she admits. “I got really overwhelmed by the amount of reading that I had for history and for English, so I transferred into single honours English.”
Despite her struggles, O’Neill felt under pressure to keep up appearances and the pretence that she was having the time of her life in Trinity. “There is this idea that first year is going to be the best year of your entire life, you’re going to be making friends and going out all the time, and I just felt really scared for the most of it. I didn’t know how to cook, and I blame my parents. They should not have let me leave their house so completely inept and ill-prepared for the realities of life.”
I think that I expected that I would arrive in Trinity and within a week I would be top of my class and that I would have 10 new best friends and the hottest boyfriend on campus
If she could go back to first year, this pressure is something that O’Neill would definitely change. “If I had actually just relaxed and given myself a little bit of space to properly settle in and given myself the time that I needed to find my feet, it would have been a much easier experience”, she says. “I think that I expected that I would arrive in Trinity and within a week I would be top of my class and that I would have 10 new best friends and the hottest boyfriend on campus. And then I was like, ‘why is this not working out?'”
Things did eventually work out for O’Neill, who says she began to feel more settled in her second and third years. Since graduating, O’Neill has thrived both nationally and internationally. She looks back on her time in university with great fondness and credits the teaching she received with the development of her feminism, as well as improving the critical thinking that would benefit her writing later in her life.
There is this idea that first year is going to be the best year of your entire life, you’re going to be making friends and going out all the time, and I just felt really scared for the most of it.
Her advice to new students? “I think it is really important to bear in mind is that everyone else seems like they are way more together than you are”, she says. “I think social media has added an extra layer of pressure in that you’re constantly comparing your insides to everybody else’s outsides and they seem like they are so together and they know exactly where they are at.”
But most importantly, a humble O’Neill advises freshers to make sure to treat everybody with equal respect: “You’re as good as every person you meet at Trinity, and you’re no better than any of them.”