Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Uni Life Series Part 5: Top 10 Things I've Learnt

So here it is, part 5 of my uni life series: the top ten things I’ve learnt over the last 3 years. The previous posts covered living in halls, friendship, holidays and the academic side. This post pulls together the whole experience as I look back over my time studying for my degree. Some are directly course-related, and some are larger life lessons that I’ll be taking away with me.

Read widely
This has always been a bit of a motto for me, English geek that I am, but my degree has taught me even more the value of reading. I have learnt so much from the pages of the novels we’ve studied, be they about different countries, experiences or time periods. Reading widely challenges you to ask questions, and that’s something we all need to do more of.

Take the support on offer
I remember sitting in the talks at the beginning of university and wondering why I’d ever need ‘welfare support’ or help from a supervisor for any more reason than filling in forms. But then your degree runs away with you. I was very lucky to have a brilliant supervisor. Friends of mine have sat in her office sobbing that they don’t know what to do with their lives. When my Nan passed away during my second year, she was there with exactly the words of support I needed. Even if something hasn’t necessarily gone wrong, it’s comforting to know someone is there watching over you throughout the course of your degree. Knowing there is support there if you need it is definitely nothing to be ashamed of.

Don’t leave essays until the last minute
This is a mantra that’s been drummed into our heads throughout school, but never is it more important than when you’re at university, with nobody chasing around after you and a huge volume of work and conflicting deadlines. Yes, there will always be the people on Facebook the night before the deadline joking about how HILARIOUS it is that they still have thousands of words to write… but it’s just not worth the stress. Pace yourself, and just get it done.

Take opportunities to build your CV
University isn’t just about the academic work, especially if you’re studying a degree such as English, which doesn’t lead directly down a certain job path. I’ve jumped on opportunities to build my experiences. I’ve been student manager for my department, working on the organisation of open days, and have worked during international orientation week. These skills of organisation, meeting a variety of people, and general confidence can only be an asset when embarking into the job world after university.

Don’t worry if you don’t have your entire life planned out
I only really decided the path I want to head down work-wise during my final year, and it’s vastly different from my plans during sixth form. But that’s ok. People change, people learn, and people discover their own assets. University has allowed me to realise where my strengths lie, and what I enjoy, which have then helped me form a plan of what I might want to do next. Realistically, people change jobs numerous times throughout their working life. Use university to develop those skills that will allow you to have choices.

You can choose your friends
Not everybody you meet will be your best friend. Not everybody you meet is meant to play an integral part in your life. Some people will be your closest, closest friend, but just for a short space of time. Relationships change as people grow up and learn more about themselves, and I’ve learnt that I’m fine with that. I have a cluster of friends that have been around for years, and some I’ve met during university. There are people I was really close to in sixth form that I barely speak to now. It happens, and it’s nothing to stress over. Spend time with the people you want to, and the people who make you happy.

Make the effort with the people that mean something to you
This is really a continuation of the previous point, but make sure you look out for those people that you do care about and want to stick around. Remember birthdays, get a thoughtful gift, or send them a text on the morning you know they have that horrible exam. What are friends for? You know you love it when they do the same back.

You’re not the only one that isn’t having ‘the absolute best time of your life’
All we ever hear is that university is ‘amazing’ and ‘the most fun years of our lives’. Parts of it are. But nobody is happy 100% of the time, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. As I mentioned in part one of this series, I found myself in a difficult position with the people I lived with in first year, and I found it really, really hard. I would then feel almost guilty that I wasn’t completely loving the experience. Months later, when I spoke about those feelings with friends, it was all revealed that we’d all felt the same way. Not exactly the same, but everyone had had their issues or bad days, yet felt like they couldn’t speak about it because it’s not ‘normal’ for a fresher. Be true to yourself: if you’re having a bad day, week or month, talk to someone. I promise it’s ok.

You can’t be the best at everything all the time
At school, you can juggle a lot of balls at once. You can get As, you can perform in shows or be on the netball team, you can go to lots of parties, you can be a prefect, you can…. You can do a lot. But as you move through your university life, the pressures of each element of your life increase. You have the workload of a degree, a social life, extra-curricular activities, job applications… You’re suddenly pulled so hard in so many directions that something has to give. You have to learn to prioritise. Don’t completely sacrifice huge parts of your life, but be prepared to bring certain things to the forefront at certain periods. You cannot do everything and be the best at everything every single day.

Do what makes YOU happy, not everyone else

The biggest lesson I’ve learned at university is to listen to myself. I’ve learned to do what is right for me. I was having lunch with a friend last week, and we agreed that moving into the world of work feels right for me. I like routine, I’m quite homely, I love going out or going away and doing things, but then I absolutely love getting home again. For other people, student life is ideal: they can arrange their own time, cram in as much as they like, and pull all-nighters to finish essays if they want to. Some friends will graduate and then spend months and months travelling before deciding where they want to settle. And we need to all do those things because they are right for us. I’m learning more and more who I am and who I want to spend time with and what I enjoy doing. And that is just fine. 

Uni Life Series Part 4: Academic

Part 4 of my uni life series is focused on the academic side of university. In the series, I’m also looking at living in halls, friendship, holidays and the top tenthings I’ve learnt.

Whoever said English Literature is a ‘doss’ subject at university clearly hasn’t studied our course. I obviously expected a degree to be difficult, but there have certainly been weeks throughout my degree where I’ve thrown my pen or book across the room and declared that I know nothing and will never accomplish anything in my life. It’s pretty intense. Who would have thought that preparing for 4-7 contact hours a week would be so stressful?

For the York degree course, the entry requirement is 3 As… In working so hard to get those grades, I didn’t think about the implications of this when I actually begun the course. Chances are, the majority of people doing our course are doing it because they like the subject, and because they have always been good at the subject. When we then arrived at university, we realised we’d gone from being some of the best in our school at that particular subject, and had become a distinctly average smaller fish in a sea of English geeks. Suddenly, you’re being measured against lots of people who received As and A*s at A Level, as opposed to the broader range of people in a school environment. Getting marks in the 50s (out of 100) in the first few terms is a bit of a wake-up call, and it’s easy to feel completely out of your depth. But whatever course you’re doing, you’re being compared to a whole group of people who achieved at exactly your level all through school, so there has to then be some way for universities to distinguish between students: scary marking systems.

A strange adjustment when embarking on an English degree is the dramatic reduction in contact hours in comparison to being at school or sixth form. Throughout the course of my degree, I had between 4 and 7 hours a week of timetabled seminars and lectures. That leaves a lot of hours to be filled. If any of us were under any illusion that that meant endless hours of free time, lecturers made sure we wouldn’t feel that for too long. When people question the low number of contact hours, my general answer is that we simply couldn’t do more and prepare for them all effectively. Our seminars are 2 hours long, and feature heavy discussion of the texts or periods we’re looking at that week. The reading can vary wildly. I’ve had some weeks where we are looking at an 800 page novel, and some where we have to read a couple of short novels, or a novel and a group of theoretical essays. Sometimes you have to prepare group presentations. We usually look at a text for only one seminar. So even just getting through the set texts alone is a time-consuming job.

It gets extra-fun when you add essays into the mix. Term-time essays need to be researched and written whilst still preparing an average of a few novels a week (across 2 modules) for the seminars themselves, which are unlikely to have anything at all to do with your essay topic. Similarly, holiday essays are due at the beginning of term, usually just a few days before seminars begin, so there’s then a mad rush to get hold of the books and begin seminar reading.

All I’m trying to say is: a degree is not easy. Whatever you’re studying, it will be demanding, there will be time pressures, and you will have to stay on top of your workload. The last few months have been hard work: essays, my dissertation, and on top of that you’re having to plan what to do when university ends. It’s hard, and it’s ok to admit it’s hard. At the end of the day, you’re being tested consistently for 3 years, but at the end we’re all leaving with something we can be proud of. Let’s just say I’m now enjoying having a bit of time to relax, and read the books I want to read, that don’t appear on any seminar list.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Uni Life Series Part 3: Holidays

This is part 3 of my uni life series – 5 blog posts in which I reflect back on my three years at university. I’m looking at halls, friendship, holidays, the academicside and the top ten things I’ve learnt.

By far one of the oddest things about being at university is that strange limbo between being independent yet still being in education, reliant on your parents and/or loan, and returning home for university holidays. Realistically, the minimum student maintenance loan is rarely enough to cover all rent, utilities and living expenses and most students have to get jobs (term time or in holidays) or rely on extra support from their parents.

In this post I’m focussing on those ‘in-between’ times, the holidays in between terms. Most of us, when it gets to Christmas, Easter and summer, pack up and return home for at least a portion of those breaks. The packing itself is hard enough; 5 weeks at home is a large amount of things to fit in a suitcase. In addition to that, there are the books. Every holiday there will be some sort of work, be it revision, essays or preparation for the next term’s modules. Books aren’t light. Books are really, really heavy and you can’t fold them up.

It can be hard to strike the balance between spending time with your family, catching up with friends whilst everyone is back from university, and actually getting any work done. In addition to that you might have a job. My summer after first year was spent working full-time at the local Post Office, sending parcels, doing car tax and checking passports.

Student loans cover you during term-time: you receive 3 payments a year, in week 1 of each term. There is no allowance for the fact that summer term is far shorter (this is actually when I receive my larger payment!), and during holidays you have to sort yourself out. It seems obvious that the loan is for whilst you’re living at university, but you definitely do have to consider what you’re going to do in between those instalments.

Christmas holidays are shorter, and I tended to spend them working on essays – the English department were huge fans of filling these breaks with lots of words. The Christmas of 3rd year I had 3 weeks to write 8000 words, do more dissertation research and begin preparing for the upcoming modules. Remember that the 3 weeks includes Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day – all designated family time.

It can also be frustrating not to have all of your things in one place. My room at home still looks as though it is lived in full-time, whilst my flat is also bursting at the seams. Trying to fit everything neatly back into one room will be interesting, definitely. I’m forever having to sacrifice certain items from my bags as I can’t carry them on the train to whichever room I’m on route to.

University has taught me how much I dislike trains. Between York and Manchester the only option is a Transpennine Express, and there is NO luggage room. For a train that travels between Newcastle and Manchester Airport, you’d expect a couple more carriages and some decent suitcase storage. But, oh no, there is never enough room. I’ve lost count of the amount of journeys I’ve taken where I’ve wedged my suitcase wherever it will fit, and have squidged into my seat on top of my coat, with my laptop bag and handbag blocking me in. When the conductor arrives, reaching my railcard is anything but easy.

I think what I’m trying to say here is that university is not the first step of your independent life. It’s more of a final step in education: it teaches you to budget, feed yourself and live alone, but just for ten-week spurts. During your three years, you will be pulled between two centres. You’re still wrapped up with your friends from home and the comforts of home, but you’re experiencing new and exciting things at university. It’s sort of a limbo time, in which you’re finding your feet, but far more tentatively than you realise. And you’ll spend a lot of time packing and unpacking bags. And lugging books around. And when your bank balance dips a little low, or your water cuts out and the taps are useless, I bet plenty of you will still call your parents.

It’s a learning process, and very few of us will fly off into the big wide world at 18 and never look back. You need support as a student, emotionally and monetarily, wherever that support comes from. Embrace that. No-one can be fully self-sufficient and love every aspect of university life instantly. You are studying, and that’s a lot of learning, but it’s also a lot of time where you’re not earning money. Hours that are costing you thousands and thousands of pounds. So get your head down, be careful with the money you do have, and enjoy those weeks of respite where you can enjoy home cooking and family comforts. It’s a limbo period at the end of your ‘schooling’ career, and you need to take that time to explore, to dip your toes in the real world, and to think about where you might like to head next.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Uni Life Series Part 2: Friendship

So here it is: part 2 of my uni life series. Having just completed my three-year English degree, I’m looking back at the experience and thinking about what it’s taught me. I’m looking at living in halls, friendships, holidays, the academic side, and the top ten things I’ve learnt about myself.

In this post I’m thinking about friendships, both making new ones and maintaining your ones from home. I love my friends, but I also like knowing exactly where I stand with people, so the thought of being thrown into a sea of new people and new experiences, not yet knowing who I would click with and who I could trust was more than a little daunting. As I discussed in Part One, my friends were definitely not the people I ended up in halls with, so I had to open myself up to trying more new things on my own until I met more like-minded people.

The first thing that I pass on now to people who are nervous about starting university is simple, but often forgotten: everyone is in the same boat. Everyone is moving away for the first time, most people know nobody, and everyone is desperate to make new friends. It’s not like changing schools in year 9, where everyone already has established friendship groups.

You will not meet all of your best friends in freshers’ week. In fact, you’re very likely to meet none at all. There’s so many new things going on, a lot of excitement, a lot of drinking, and it’s easy to cling to people for fear of being left alone. And that’s fine. Just enjoy the beginning! Meet as many people as you can, and some relationships will fizzle away whilst some will stay. One friend who I met at the beginning was Olivia: we met outside the very first lecture on the very first day of term. I met Amy very early on – we both lived at the same college and walked to lectures together. Emily was in all my seminar groups right at the beginning. But there are plenty of people I was close to in first year who I barely see now! Many friends came later. Grace was initially ‘Olivia’s friend who might revise with us’, and when I met her she was fab. Jagoda was in my seminars in second year and I’m not sure how I got through first year without her! Tess was in early seminars, but we only really got to know each other later in the degree. And I underestimated just how quickly you establish a wide net of people who you might not talk to every day, but can have a huge chat to when you bump into them by the lake. At school, you tended to establish your friendship groups and you were comfortable. At uni, you have to make a bit more effort, but equally you have so much more choice about who to spend time with and who to avoid.

I’m sure most people spent the last day of sixth form vowing to stay best, best friends with every school friend. That’s just not realistic. When you move away, you realise that friendship takes work, and it’s not so easy when you don’t sit in the same classroom every day and have every teacher in common. As people move away and grow up, you naturally drift apart from many, and that’s ok. You’ll realise who you should stay in touch with, as they’re the people you’ll get a random text from, or you’ll meet up with each holiday and realise nothing has changed despite having been away for 3 months. You need to give yourself space to grow up and realise who you are and what you want to spend time doing. I don’t want to return home every holiday and revert back to the Sophie I was five years ago. The friends to stay in touch with are the ones that grow with you. Realistically, I’m only in close contact with about 5 or 6 people from school. I chat to lots more on Facebook, or at parties during holidays, but I prefer to spend the time now with the people I actually want to spend time with. That’s a huge lesson to learn as you get older.

I’m not going to say now that I know exactly who I am, exactly who all my friends are, and exactly who I’ll be close to in 20 years’ time. But what I do know is that friendships will grow, will alter, and some will fade more into the background as people grow up and grow apart. What’s important is putting yourself out there, meeting new people and having new experiences, and really making the effort with those people you want to keep close to you. It’s ok to know your own mind, and spend time with the people who build you up, rather than break you down.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Uni Life Series Part 1: Living in Halls

Last week, I handed in my dissertation and completed my 3-year English Literature degree, so I’m doing a mini-series of 5 blog posts attempting to sum up some of my thoughts about university: halls, friendship, uni holidays, the academic side, and the top ten things I’ve learnt during this 3 years.

Snowy Goodricke 

First up, and a vital part of anybody’s first year, was living in halls. York is a collegiate university, and I went for Goodricke College, which was on the new campus. It was possibly a little early to be on the new campus (we were the 2nd year to live there), as there was really nothing there. Now it has a bar, another college, and much more of a buzz to it. Anyway, the campus was pretty and it wasn’t far from main campus, so I thought it would be fine.

My room

My room was amazing – on the third floor, it was a corner room, and because of its bizarre shape it was far bigger than anyone else’s. I had a huge floor area between the door and bed, and a whole separate area for my desk and wardrobe. The first thing to do is definitely to make your room feel homely. As it is for most people their first time living away from home, it’s important to normalise it quickly. I covered the noticeboard in cards and uni flyers, covered my wardrobe in photos, and made my bed as soon as I arrived.

 The other end of my room
My notice board, which by the end of the year was ridiculously full

The thing about halls is that you can’t choose who you live with, and it really does come down to luck. In my flat, there were six of us. J was lovely, but she was never in the flat, as she spent all her time away with people she had met in International Welcome Week. L and H were great – normal boys who would go out, meet people and generally enjoy themselves. They were very like a lot of friends from home. However, there is always the possibility of ending up with people you don’t necessarily get on with. On either side of my room were R and R. One (female) was practically nocturnal, drank a lot of cider, and liked to turn her nose up at me and the fact I might want to wear make-up or have friends around. The other (male) promptly announced to me he was into fetish, he wore a corset to create a 20 inch waist, ate only cheese and pizza, and had an imaginary girlfriend. He was a huge fan of arguing against everything I said. I don’t think this pair had anything against me personally, just against all of us, but I’m the type of person that takes things to heart. So when I washed up for everyone after the first night (a nice, new housemate gesture, no?), hearing one bitch that she was living with a ‘total weird neat freak’ wasn’t the best wake-up call.

I’m not going to say that two people completely ruined my flat for me, but they definitely made me feel very, very uncomfortable. And I learnt that you’re just not going to get on with everybody you meet. Luckily, H and L were there to eat with, to go out with and to talk to, but my experience of halls was definitely tainted. I would dodge in and out of the kitchen, hope I wouldn’t bump into R and R on the way to the bathroom, and preferred when in the flat to be in the sanctuary of my lovely room.

I wasn’t all doom and gloom. I met K and N, two girls living downstairs, and it was as if I had known them for years. There was also H, upstairs, who I would head to dancing with, and A, who did my course and is one of my closest friends still, three years down the line.

 K and N from downstairs, with me on the right
Before Winter Ball - me in the middle with K and A

I think what I’m trying to say is that the first experience of university living won’t be perfect for everyone. It was the first time I had been faced with people being outwardly rude to me when I literally couldn’t escape them.  So yes, there were plenty of days when I would return to my room feeling hurt, or upset or judged. But then I would ring K, N, A, H or L, and they’d be in my room watching rubbish tv and laughing about our days within 5 minutes. And those were only the people I met within the first couple of days. When you live in such close proximity to so many people, they won’t all be your best friend, but there will equally be lots of like-minded people you will instantly connect with. As I said, I do very much take things to heart, but maybe my experience in my flat has taught me to develop a bit of a tougher skin. Since moving out of my first year room, I have never bumped into R and R again. And I’m perfectly fine with that.

 Housemate L, with K, N and me on the right
K and me before Winter Ball at the end of first term

Three years on, my closest friends are course friends and friends from things like dance society.  No, the ‘pot luck’ draw of housemates didn’t work out perfectly for me, but I’m sure that by accepting people I’ve made far more friends that R and R have turning their nose up at everyone. Halls will throw you in with a huge number of people from many different backgrounds. You won’t click with them all, but some will also turn out to be some of the best people you’ve ever met.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Photographic Nostalgia

This post has taken me a while to put together, simply because my life has been taken over by essays, my dissertation, and trying to plan for life after university! Anyway, on Easter Sunday, my mum’s side of the family all came for lunch, and my parents decided it was the perfect time to sort through huge boxes and suitcases of photo albums and other memories that have been filling up our garage. The collection has grown as we have acquired collections from my grandparents and from great aunties, so going through them with the whole family present seemed appropriate. At the gathering was me, my sister and my parents, my Auntie Anne with fiancée Will, Auntie Jane and Uncle Bill, Auntie Elaine and Uncle Mark, and Great Auntie Jane with husband David. A lovely full household of Tophams (my mum’s maiden name).

Baby Sophie, looking like I'm wrapped in a cloud

A picture I now love which I discovered of me and my lovely grandparents, who are no longer with us. Very, very special! 

The actual sorting and dividing up of photographs was pretty pointless. I think everybody left with a tiny handful, because we all got carried away just looking at photos rather than being organised and sorting them between households as my parents had intended. In fact, when I was at home last week the old suitcases hadn’t even been returned to the garage, they’re just waiting in the dining room! What did come of the afternoon, though, was a lot of laughter and memories. There were baby pictures of my sister, me and our cousins. There were childhood photos of my aunties and uncles, along with amusing pictures of all the couples when they first met – my dad used to model a rather impressive moustache and interesting fashion choices. There were also wedding albums, and memorabilia from events such as Charles and Diana’s wedding.

Me as a baby with my dad 

Royal wedding memorabilia  

My mum as a beautiful, beautiful baby!

 My mum at graduation, which now for me is only a couple of months away...!!

What I found most interesting, though, were the things relating to my grandparents and great aunties and uncles. They are things that I have seen far less frequently, and some of what we uncovered were true historical documents, like letters and postcards.

A collection from a tin of beautiful old letters

Arguably my favourite discovery of the day was my Great Auntie’s scrapbook from a trip to Paris in 1961. It was absolutely beautiful, so neat, and had been kept immaculate. There were photographs, ticket stubs, postcards, coins and a tiny collection of journal entries from the friend she had been travelling with.

Selected pages from the scrapbook

Despite the fact that most of the photos are now still sitting at home, which wasn’t really the idea, we all had such a special afternoon of laughing and remembering, and sharing family stories. I can’t think of many better ways to spend an Easter Sunday.

Easter cake! Made by my sister... yum
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