Thursday, 26 December 2013

The term that was

Thought that I better get round to publishing this, this side of the New Year!
Ok, I'll admit, I'm lucky enough to live somewhere where everyday looks like the front of a postcard.

I love living somewhere where the seasons change. Where you can mark the passage of time in all of the things you see each day, trees, a lake, an orchard. Strange to think I'll never get last year back again, when it was my first term, and everything seemed so new, so exciting, but also so daunting. I don't miss that at all. Going back to college this year felt like going "home", rather than to some strange, exotic, unknowable place.
This is the face of a Pumpkin Champion. No joke, me and my friends actually won the college pumpkin-carving contest with him. For three days or so it glared out of our kitchen window, just to brighten people's nights.

Forget the fancy dinners, evenings out and Christmas parties. One of my favourite things about the last term has been living on a corridor with a kitchen (we didn't have kitchens in our first year!). It's made so much difference to the social-ness of my day. I think we all benefit from having breakfast together, even if the conversation means take twice as long as it does for us to prepare and eat the food!
How I thought last term would be...
So just to be clear, I thought this term might be slightly challenging. For once, this wasn't due to the work, but the fact that I was trying to balance a couple of time-consuming extra-curricular activities, AND eat, AND sleep. I suppose I also allocate a fair amount of time to seeing can't live the life of a hermit-crab throughout your university years!

So I thought I knew what I was getting into. I'd even written the amount of hours that I expected each activity to take (per week) on a scrap of paper, just to check that it was physically possible.

I was wrong.

I guess in the end I forgot to factor in several important variables;

1. As term goes on you need more sleep to continue, fact.
2. Unexpected social events, e.g. Bonfire night, people's birthdays, charity events, pop up every week or so (ok, not Bonfire night, but the others, yes) and they are always very, very tempting.
3. You never quite get through your work as efficiently as you plan too... (I handed in 1 piece of work late this term, and all of the others were literally on their deadlines. I am writing this in public to shame myself into not doing that again...)
4. The good old "can you help me out" dilemma, in which people you know need "just a couple of hours" of your help in running an event, returning library books, buying the communal Christmas presents for the staff you work with etc. This always takes more time than expected, and you don't tend to think about these things in advance as they're beyond your control.
How last term actually felt...
Stuff I was trying to balance;

- work (ok, so we get set a lot of work. I try to work around 6 hours a day when I'm at uni)
- the obvious, eating, sleeping, social life
- being on the Student Council for my college (helping to run events, meetings both council-only and college-wide)
- being Student Union represent for the college (going to extra meetings outside of college, keeping up with university-wide elections)
- being a Sub-editor for one of the major student newspapers
- volunteering with a group of local school students, as part of the university's Access & Outreach programme

In addition, I also helped with Fresher's Week (see last post) and stayed behind a week after term officially ended, to help out with the candidates called to interview.

I mean, I don't regret any of it. University is the time to try new things, and learn stuff when they don't all work out. Plus, this is the advantage of 1st & 2nd year, if a single piece of work is late throughout the entire term, the world won't end (or if it does, it's a coincidence). I doubt I'll be doing Fresher's Week or the Interview period again (they're linked to the fact that I was elected to the Student Council for this year) but they were a fantastic opportunity to welcome new students into the College, and something very few students get to take part in.

In addition, I'm not doing the Sub-editing again next term, last term the editing deadline clashed with my essay deadline every week, and I felt my eyes turning physically square after reading all of the copy, then having to come home to my half-finished essay. This also resulted in some very late nights, and in all honesty I can't say that I've produced my best work this term, due to all of this extra stuff on the side-lines, competing for my attention.

Now I'm home and I can evaluate things, and appreciate all that I did, too. It's been great to get home and rest up a bit, when I was in college I was constantly running from one activity to the next, snacking as I went because I'd missed some of the conventional meal times. When I wasn't running I was trying desperately to cram work.

Yet, the stuff I did last term has added so much to my experience of life. I'm better at reading, editing, grammar-fixing, time organisation and being able to condense lengthy material. Not to mention, I have my name at the bottom of all of last term's newspapers, which is a bit of an ego-boost! Next term I think I'll aim to do a little bit less, and maybe a few more different things too. I think I might help out at some local museum events, because I loved my time working in the Navy Yard museum in D.C, and I'm living in a city which has to have the most museums outside of London, I'd say. Volunteering remains the most satisfying thing I do with my time outside of studying, and it'll probably always be that way, even if it's stressful at times.

My advice for all university students....

  1. Try new things, outside of studying, could be useful for future, could just be for fun. Or potentially both...
  2. Try and plan for these new activities, and see how many hours they'll take up a week, which nights are the most suitable etc.
  3. Realise that trying to plan all of this stuff, and account for the unexpected, is impossible.
  4. Rather than giving up, try new things anyway, and work out the plan as you go along, within reason, and adjust as you go. What could possibly go wrong?

I've met new people, learnt more than ever (what I've written in this post doesn't even begin to cover the amount of material regarding Britain 1500-1700, which I was officially meant to be studying), and most importantly of all, I'm actually excited to go back. Ok, moving in will require effort, and I have a lot of prep work for next term to complete, and a mock-exam to revise for, but aside from that, I feel pretty sorted for the term ahead...

Sunday, 6 October 2013

On going into Second Year / my advice for Fresher's - ROUND TWO!

    I'm moving back to university today and in the next week I'll be helping to run the events for all of the new freshers! Seems like only a minute ago that I was the one packing up to leave home for the first time. In retrospect, I think that I had expectations for Fresher's week having to be the "best week ever/of my life", which were far too high.
    Despite this, I'm really looking forward to being able to return to university with a sense of routine and orientation, which to be honest, took most of the first year for me to find. In my defence, in total I only spent 25 weeks at university for my first year! So, as I'm able to live through the experience of Fresher's week again, I thought I'd summarise some advice for Freshers this year. This advice isn't just for Fresher's week (which is already over for most universities) but the entire first year of a degree.

    So, the first few weeks, and even the first year of university is sold as being like this:

    In all seriousness, you will probably have some nights a bit like this, potentially many nights like this. However, this can't last forever, sooner or later your bank balance (or your stomach) will give out, and you'll be forced to talk to people in a place where talking can actually be heard, and where you can actually make out their appearence...
    In addition, if you don't want to go out every night, or at all, just don't. There will always be people who aren't going out that night, just find them and organise an alternative activity, a movie night, a food-themed night, a pub, a cinema.
    Just to add, my best week of first year was not Fresher's. In fact, it was my last term, when I really felt like I'd got to know people. Yeah, that's right, sentimental, meaningful friendships do exist at university, even if the first few weeks just feel like random groups of people are just clinging to each other out of desperation. Which some probably are.
Don't do anything because other people tell you to/ imply you should. This might be drinking, this might be going out, this might be other stuff. Even "we're all going to X's flat, join us!", if you don't feel like going, don't. Equally though, there are times when you should try and meet new people/ do new things in general.
This is usually a better idea if a) you're at least moderately sober, or b) there are at least 2 other people you already know going to that event/person's place. Let's be real, whenever you go to an event with just one other person you know, they always end up disappearing, or worse, getting so drunk that your evening ends up being filled with looking after them.
PS, do NOT be that annoying drunk person who cannot handle their drink, yet chooses to do it anyway. Once is forgivable (especially in Fresher's) but after that you won't get off so lightly, AND you'll have a reputation for being that person.

If you get lost, stuck with something, or even forget someone's name, now is the time to ask.
For my first few weeks I struggled with using the washing machines, tumble dryers, and the phones we have in our rooms. Everyone did. It was only at the beginning of our second term that we realised there was a little heater-thing in our shower!
Even when you meet your tutors, and you're scared of looking stupid, ask questions about how many hours of work you should do a day, what are the expectations for assignments, where are the best resources to be found etc. Later you'll be thankful for that information, and you can bet some of the "ghost" (i.e. never-says-a-word-or-contributes) students in your study group will be happy that you asked a question they were also thinking, but didn't have the courage to ask!
Oh, and if you don't know someone's name, even after a few weeks, just ask it. Seriously, there's nothing more awkward than knowing someone for months and still not quite knowing their name, or thinking they're called something else. There will come a time when you will be left alone with them, and then the realisation that you don't know their name, with no one to gesture to, will become apparent.

    Ok, so you've left home, you've posed with photos of your flatmates and there are pictures of your uni room of Facebook. You are an adult now.
    However, some of the best nights of your university time may still be spent inside, watching classic Disney DVDs, or eating cereal in the middle of the day. Don't deny it.
    I think 2 of the hardest things to accept about first year are that;
    1. You still have a long way to go. Those days when you are literally forcing yourself to do work? Check. Those days when a tiny part of you considers leaving, even if for only a fraction of a second? Check. Those days when you want to cry because the work is too hard/ too much/ you're scared other people don't really like you yet? Check. It's tough, and all part of behaving like an adult that you deal with the challenges thrown at you.
    2. Leading on from there, 1st year is not always a picnic. People have definitely mentioned to me that they found 2nd year easier in general. You know people, you know places, you know coping strategies. Don't be upset if everyone on Facebook seem to be having the perfect university experience, surrounded by friends and parties. You're not there, and you just don't know the half.
    Focus on yourself, and, without seeming hedonistic, take each day as it comes. A new society? Might be cool. Someone approached you in a library? Maybe you should get coffee with them.
    Who know what you'll be saying and writing about in a year's time, when it's your turn to give advice to the next generation of Freshers. 

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Why helping at a college open day is actually a microcosm of modern life...

Main quad, view from cloisters. Worcester college, Oxford.
Working on college (as in, my college at university) open days is always a humbling experience. It reminds everyone of their own intial explorations in Oxford, of the wonder of the setting and surroundings, and that lingering feeling that their time in Oxford might only ever be confined to a dream.

I've worked on various open days this summer, for the History department and the college. 99% of people are enthusiastic, happy, excited and have a fantastic, if busy, day in Oxford. However, I'm going to do something that people in Oxford hate; I'm going to talk about the "1%".

The 1% are the tiny minority of people who make me uncomfortable on open days. Although I'll treat then identically to all other guests, as politeness dictates, something inside me feels uneasy. I'll answer their questions, laugh awkwardly at their jokes, and walk around with them as I do with the other 99% of people, who are, by comparison, sadly anonymous.

I think the worst behaviour I saw (and by this I refer to the conduct of grown adults) was the parents who spoke non-stop on behalf of their children, to which the children would object, but they'd continue nonetheless. I think some people may have even had the idea that I could influence the admissions process in some way (of course I can't, I'm a current student!) as they sought to remind me of the great qualities and abilities their children possessed. Some parents would directly compare the relative strengthes and weaknesses of their different children in front of student helpers. Some prospective students insisted that they didn't have to worry about interview preparation, as so many people from their school had already been accepted into Oxford in previous years.

I am describing this for no other reason than to point out that all of the above paragraph is completely ridiculous, which is why I'm going on about it here. Current students DO NOT take part in the admissions decision-making process. Extra-curricular activity IS NOT part of the application process to any Oxford college. Whether your father/grandfather went to Oxford, or if, in fact, no one in your family has ever been to any university before you (like me) IS NOT relevant to those making decisions regarding admissions. Frankly, student helpers on open days do not want to hear about it. It's not making you look any better than anyone else, and obviously the only person intimidated is yourself, otherwise why would you even bother listing your own achievements? (I sense an inferiority complex...)

By the way, when I say "1%" I don't just mean people from well-off backgrounds, or people who might come from a certain social demographic or part of the country. The "1%" in this sense is the name I'm giving to all those people who make a fool of themselves on open days, due to ignorance about the Oxford application process. Hopefully, through continuing Outreach & Access events, and general awareness (perhaps even promoted by this post?) people will soon realise that Oxford is a diverse and constantly changing place. What was true of the admissions process, even one generation ago, or 30 years ago, is not true now.

Rant over. Like I said, 99% of the people, families, students, teachers, I meet on open days are lovely, genuinely interested and sincere people. Another section of the 1% is the 1 or 2 students who clearly don't want to be at the open day in the first place, but have been heavily "encouraged" by their parents/ guardians/ teachers. If you're reading this, then please bear in mind that Oxford is a real place. It's not a fantasy dream world, which people might paint it to be, it's hard work to keep up with term-time assignments, though I'm not saying that they can't be rewarding to complete, and that I'm not counting down the days until 2nd year starts!

Seriously though - and this goes for all prospective university students at this time of year - make UCAS choices based on where YOU want to go, to do the course YOU want to do. In the long run, you can live with having to go to somewhere that you'll enjoy, and temporarily "disappoint" your parents. Your parents may not be as sad as you think to see you making some well-informed, independent decisions! Do this rather than trying to persevere for 3 years or more at an institution that doesn't suit your learning style or interests.

Persuading people that Worcester college could suit their interests is my job on open days. Well actually, my job is to give a realistic and accurate description of college life, and then it's up to the potential applicants to decide whether it'd suit them. However, 26 acres of college grounds, including a lake, an orchard and the lawn on which the first ever frisbee was supposed to have been thrown (what do you mean we can't prove it?) makes my job a lot easier. It also reminds me of why I'm so happy to live there, which can become obscured sometimes, especially mid-way through terms, by work and stress.

The open days were full of some really poignant moments for me (not to mention giving me the chance to catch up with people in my year who I hadn't seen for months!).

  1. Some alumni were back for the annual Alumni weekend in Oxford. Whilst we were in the cloisters, handing out leaflets, course guides and the college prospectus I noticed two older men were skimming a copy of the 2013 prospectus. "It's all changed" said one man to the other. "Bet's it's tougher...", said the second man, "don't think I'd get in here now". Perhaps they were right.

    2. On the bus home I found that I was sitting next to another Oxford history student. Another  Oxford history student who'd also just finished helping at her own college open day. She's in the year above me. This was great, because it was like being able to speak to my future self, and ask for advice on module choices/ the general routine of second year. As everyone does in Oxford, we found mutual connections and experiences to talk about, and I slowly realised just how much serendipity was involved in this meeting. I was talking to someone who had gone to the same Grammar school as I was supposed to have, before I failed the 11+. At the time, failing that exam had honestly felt like the end of the world, but now, somehow, me and this former Grammar school student had ended up in the same place, at the same time. I guess that's testimony to the secondary school I attended, and the merits of individual effort over everything.

And I wasn't even supposed to be getting that bus...

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Where She Went

I already have a link on this blog which explains my absence for the last 8 weeks (6 1/2 weeks in the U.S, and then 1 1/2 weeks recovering & generally sorting my life out...) however I think it's time I outlined everything that's happened since I last posted on here, which was, admittedly, about 4 months ago.

View of part of Keble college, from the University Parks

The main focus of my last term at university was preparing for Preliminary exams. I would write for pages about how annoying it was to have to sit my exams after term finished, and how I didn't even get a day after my exams ended just to enjoy being at university, with no exams. Yet, having got my results (I did just fine :) this seems kind of irrelevant now (I guess this is the problem of blogging everything with such a time lapse)...

I'll talk about some better things which happened last term;

- We had a garden party. There was Pimms. And croquet.
- I finally got to see Oxford in the sunshine and summertime (kind of)
- I watched the end of year rowing competition - Summer Eights
- I went out on May Day morning (along with half of Oxford) to watch the sun rise over Magdalen tower, and hear the choir sing, and watch maypole dancing
- I did a "discovery hunt" with some potential Oxford applicants, around the city centre
- I saw a performance of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice on the lake in my college
- I got elected to serve on my college's student council! (Known as the JCR, or "Junior Common Room" committee)

Provost's garden party!

Shakespeare on the lake ("Lakespeare")

So, after getting over my bitterness as I watched everyone else finish exams ahead of me, and actually enjoying being alive, I had a pretty good summer term. I should also say that after we finished our exams, there was still a chance to get silly string and various other items thrown over us, and spend a great evening chilling on the lawn by the lake. I remember going to bed towards 3am (I stayed up talking to people for what felt like a lifetime) and then having to get up at 8am, to move my stuff out by about 9 'o'clock...adrenaline does great things.

Rowing...the undoubted mother of all sports at Oxford

Trinity (the Oxford summer term which runs from April-June) should have been the most stressful part of my first year. In some respects it was, days spent revising in the library, near silent meal times before major exams, not seeing friends properly for days because they were buried in their own work routines. Yet somehow it also wasn't. Was it the weather? The range of activities and things to do in Oxford that can only be done in the summer? (Punting, croquet, walking round the University Parks, the list is endless...) I feel as though last term was the term in which I was able to make the most of physically being in Oxford as a student. I think that's down to logistics - my timetable in particular - as we were supposed to be revising for a lot of the time, we were only taught one paper, our "optional subject", and so had the flexibility to structure our days as we wanted. This is the benefit of being a History student.

As a historian, May Day morning was definitely the earliest I have ever been awake in Oxford...

The downside is that other students will hate you (just kidding, though they will envy the whole "no-lectures-before-midday" thing) or that most of your study time is extremely anti-social. You're not in labs, or scientific classes, or busy science lecture halls. You're by yourself, in a silent library, for hours at a time. But hey, you get to choose when/ if to do that, so that's a good thing, right?

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Friday, 5 April 2013

116 days

Since I last wrote. Apologies. What do I have to show for those days? A few photos, (see below), some great memories and 12 assignments (well, 11 essays and 1 presentation to be precise. And I've written another essay since I've been home this vacation...that's another story!). In addition to a Neon yellow vest (for dressing as a Bumblebee) and what feels like about 10 hours sleep (across the entire 8 weeks)...

Not that I can talk now, it's the middle of the night here, and rather than genuinely get a good night's sleep, I'm updating this blog. Why? Because in the long term I'll be thankful, even if right now I'm stumbling in the half-light (don't want to wake the rest of the house up by turning on my bedroom light, which is non-energy efficient and the equivalent of a mini solar-flare) and trying to remember what I've just written, so that I don't repeat myself.

Actually, this is quite a good frame of mind to be in, I've decided. Good in the sense that this is an accurate representation of how I feel 99% of the time I'm at university. For 1% of the time, I function like a normal teenager/ student, I eat, sleep and socialise. For other 99%, I am an Oxford student. I work whilst other people sleep, I study whilst they daydream (well, I attempt to, is the point) and I (often accidentally) laugh at anyone who tells me they've done less than an essay a week (usually people I know at other universities...I don't mean to, I'm just so tired).

So last term. Went by so quickly (much quicker than the first term!) that I can already hardly remember it (this is promising for my exams...) but I found it less overwhelming and so more enjoyable. Like I was ready for the flood of work (though it still came) and I was better at locating myself (though I still took time to get lost in the can tell I'm back in my hometown!)

It's going to be weird going back and seeing the college in a different season completely. When I left it had been snowing, and looked like the middle of winter. My life's like that though, all these snapshots in different places, different times. Seeing as I'm at home approximately 50% of the time and at university 50% of the time, I get this strange, disorientated sense of having somehow missed things in both my worlds, as though they move slightly out of sync with each other. In reality, fixed places remain the same, like rocks against the tide. It's that's changed, but I just don't feel it, like the fact that currently the earth is spinning and keeping us on it, but I can't feel it, and I doubt you can either.

So, next term. It's a longer and harder term than previously (not sure how I feel about this...) my exams are after term ends too. I have more hours of exams this year than I have for the past 2 years of A-levels. I haven't sat more than 7 hour's worth of exams since GCSE. Now I'll have to sit 12 hours of exams, probably in the timeframe of about a week or two. Fantastic.

As soon as exams end I'm hopefully going away, literally within 2 days, (ok probably 3 days, I don't have a timetable yet but it seems unlikely that even Oxford would put exams on a saturday...but hey, it's Oxford, they do what they want. I've already made travel arrangements, so the exams had best not continue into July!) for six and a half weeks. Basically, seeing as I last wrote 116 days ago, what I'm saying is, it's probably going to be over 116 days until I write again. If I'm busy now, I can only imagine what I'll be like for the duration of next term, and the weeks that follow! In 116 days from today I'll be in the middle of my vacation, and so I shall return to Blogger some time at the end of August! Time flies! A year ago last August I was still waiting for my A2 results!

Scary thought.

PS, I'm now a year older!

The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.

- Niccolo Machiavelli