Bring on Second Year

The first week of term has flown by already in an exhausting mix of 7am alarms for painfully early 8:30am lectures and evenings spent at various second year house-warmings. Despite being shattered already, to say I’m glad to be back is a huge understatement. I’ve missed Exeter so much – I’ve missed the Forum and the pricey AMT milkshakes, I’ve missed the library and the satisfaction of finding 6 entire shelves full of relevant texts to your interests, I’ve missed being surrounded by young people and familiar faces; I’ve even missed the hills. The amount of reading and research that needs to be done this term is looming and my housemates are already attempting to secure placements for next year, but at the same time I can’t help but feel bizarrely content to be back in the buzz and minor stress of it all. Summer, despite the occasional interludes of lovely holidays and travelling, was for the most part quite a long and lonely experience, and it’s so good to be returned to my Devon home.

That being said, I can tell a lot of things are going to be different this year, and my course is no exception. This term I’m in the interesting position of taking only two 30 credit modules; an independent research module called ‘Doing History’ and an Intermediate French language module with the Foreign Language Centre (FLC). Combined, I have the terrifying total of 4 contact hours a week. Four.

Compared to the structured set up of last year, when I was up on campus every weekday going to this Medieval History seminar or that Modern lecture, the lack of any real timetable is definitely unnerving. I have plenty to keep me busy I’m sure, but I’m a hopeless procrastinator, and am a little worried that my days will blur into successive weeks of ‘not much getting done’.

So, in traditional September fashion – the month of New Beginnings for the past 14 years of my life in the British education system – I’ve decided to make a few resolutions. Not all are work related, but hopefully they’ll give me some structure to build my week around!

  1. Play a sport

When the recent league tables for 2015/6 came out, alongside retaining it’s top 10 position, the University of Exeter was awarded the prestigious title of the Sunday Times’ ‘Sports University of the Year’. Considering my sporting participation last year (or rather, sincere lack thereof) I think it’s fair to say that this title is in no way thanks to my contribution. This year however, I’m determined to join the two-thirds of the student population who are involved in sport, across some 50 different clubs and societies, and actually join a team. As someone who has avoided the intense fitness-based atmosphere of the Sports’ Park and has shockingly bad hand-eye coordination at the best of times, this might be an interesting one – but I’ve decided the women’s Development Basketball team can’t be all that scary. So I’ve handed over the £70, signed myself up for some stash, and will be going to first training on Sunday. Wish me luck!

  1. Learn a language

Is this a cop-out seeing as I’m already signed up to do a French module? Maybe. But it has been a good two and a half years since my AS French exams, and despite my best attempts at being put in the Beginners set (Me: “Seriously, I’m not AS standard anymore, I can barely remember the present tense let alone the subjunctive”, FLC Lady: “I’m sorry but I simply can’t put someone with above GCSE standard in the beginners group”) I’ve been signed up to an Intermediate course. So, we’ll see how that goes. It will be nice to use a different part of my brain memorising vocab and butchering the French accent instead of trawling through history books, and hopefully it’ll come back pretty quickly! A language is a great addition to any CV as I’ve been told, and the FLC really does make it very easy to sign up, so I’d recommend it to anyone out there considering it as well!

3.  Go veggie

This is nothing to do with university as such, but as a result of a combination of financial, environmental, ethical and sheer will-power-testing motives, I’ve decided to give the whole veggie thing a try. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of meat anyway, and in an attempt to spice up my culinary repertoire (which is pretty limited) I think actively trying to be vegetarian and having to seek out new ingredients and recipes could be a good challenge.

4. It’s second year already – embrace the fact that The Future is inevitable

It’s the classic question that all final years dread; “so, what are you going to do once you’ve finished your degree?” but I’m determined I won’t be left rambling on about internships that may or may not exist or vague plans to take a year out travelling. That means jumping on the bandwagon now, and starting to take a hard look at life beyond university, and what I can do about it now. The most important thing in the immediate future is deciding on my year abroad (which university is most suited to me? What are the courses like? What about the weather? And how cheap are plane tickets?) but I’m also keen to finish my Exeter Award, get involved in Career Zone ventures like the eXpert scheme, and sort out a useful Internship for next summer.

  1. Don’t get too stressed.

Last year I started well, far better than I anticipated actually, but ended up really struggling for the latter half of first term. More than anything, my aim this year is to not let that happen again. I’m surrounded by a supportive, lovely group of people and I know my way around the numerous support facilities the university offers, so I’m in a far better place to face a new academic year already. I’ve just got to keep my head and not let it all get to me when the workload and expectation inevitably ramps up as term progresses.

This year as part of student blogger duties, I’m also going to have a go at taking a snapshot of my daily life here at Exeter on the app ‘One Second Everyday’. It’s pretty self-explanatory, and now I’ve worked out how to use it (just about) hopefully by the end of this year I’ll have a neat, little video summing second year up. Bring it.

Adventures in Interrailing

It’s the week before Freshers’ and I’m all officially moved into my shared student house in Exeter. I’m the first one here and am currently rattling around this house for six on my own, so I’ve been keeping myself busy the past few days unpacking my stuff, thoroughly sanitizing the kitchen, decorating my room and attempting to mentally prepare myself for second year. Although I am slightly nervous about starting the new year, I am mostly hugely pleased to be back, and I’ve got a good feeling about second year being better than my first, despite the threat of ‘everything counting’ degree-wise and the inevitable drama shared housing is bound to bring. Before I get to all that however, I thought I might make a post about how I’ve spent some of the past 3 months away.

This summer, while many of my Exeter friends were off being responsible students getting themselves sorted with useful internships at banks in London or part-time jobs in their local areas, I instead decided to blow a chunk of my savings on something I’ve wanted to do since I was about 14. The pinnacle of traditional student vacations: Interrailing.

I was admittedly in part influenced by the fact I had a friend from Canada making a brief stop-over who was very much of the mindset that ‘Europe is all so close together, right?? Surely we can see basically all of it in 9 days’. Though we had to work on her expectations a little, I’m not the type to step down from an excuse for travelling.

After hours of Skype discussions, emails back and forth and debates about whether this was all just a ludicrous idea, in the space of those 9 measly days we ended up making our way from London to Paris via Eurostar and then flying to Italy, stopping off in Milan and hiking the Cinque Terre coastline before finishing our trip in Rome. It was a packed schedule with a lot of painfully early starts, sleeping on public transport and insane amounts of walking, but it was also a truly awesome experience and something I can’t recommend enough to do as a young person.

Me being me though, I couldn’t help but make a note of blog-worthy titbits of advice along the way. We were complete novices and learnt a lot through trial and error and from other backpackers we got talking to, so I thought I’d share some of them here in case anyone else out there was planning on their own interrailing adventure at some point.

  1. Choose your travelling companion carefully – Best friends don’t always make the best interrailing buddies. Consider things like taste in tourist attractions (are you going to be traipsing around art galleries or hitting the shops?), budget, whether you’ll be happy to get along with them at 5am on an early train on 3 hours sleep, and even things like fitness. That last one was particularly relevant to me, as my Canadian friend is a national cross-country runner and exceptionally fit. I am decidedly not. Needless to say, she could probably have hiked the Cinque Terre in half the time it took us.
  2. Don’t forget budget airlines – In the days of yore a round-the-continent train ticket was indeed the way to go, but things have changed since the 80s and now £50 for a 2 hour flight from Rome to London just makes sense.
  3. Look up key phrases in the languages of the countries you’re visiting – This does not need to be extensive; ‘thank you’, ‘good morning’, and ‘excuse me’ will do (that last one is especially important if, like me, you spend an inordinate amount of time accidently bumping into people). Even if you butcher the pronunciation most locals will appreciate the effort.
  4. Make the most of each city – Or if you’ve never been before, know in advance what you want to see. In retrospect, Florence would have been more our scene than Milan and we should have thoroughly researched what was available before we stopped off there.
  5. If you’re going to hostels, make the most of the common room – The Canadian and I had a pact to try and make at least one friend in each place we stayed, and although they mostly ended up being Americans, I’m glad we made the effort to talk to people. Heated debates about gun control and ObamaCare vs. the NHS aside, the international chat with other people our age really made the ‘interrailing experience’ for us.
  6. Ask people to take your photo instead of selfie-sticking it – Now, I’ve got nothing against the selfie stick, it’s a fab invention – but we met some lovely people and had some useful conversations through taking each other’s group shots.
  7. Prepare for at least one thing to go wrong – And by prepare, I mean make sure you’ve got emergency money. For us, it was within the first 15 minutes of our 9 days when we forgot one of our train tickets to London. Cue me splashing out on a hideously expensive one-way £80 ticket.
  8. Check for Air Con – I cannot stress this one enough, especially if you’re going to Italy in July. As a born and bred Brit who is well adapted to drizzle and mild summers, 35 degree heat at midnight was not enjoyable. If I were to do things again, I definitely would have spent a little more and invested in somewhere with air con given the chance.
  9. Take a padlock for your luggage – Particularly if you’re staying in shared dorms in hostels, it gives you peace of mind to know your stuff is safe overnight. Plus, most places have luggage rooms to leave your things during the day, but not all of these will have lockable lockers.
  10. Print off maps of how to get from train stations to your hostel – If you don’t fancy traipsing through a new city for hours on end with all your luggage, like *cough* some people, I’d recommend Google mapping it before you get out there.
  11. They like their lunch breaks on the continent…make use of this – If you’re doing big tourist attractions e.g. climbing Notre Dame or visiting the Colosseum, early in the morning (and I mean 8am early) is a sure way to beat the queues, but lunchtime isn’t a bad bet either. We joined the queue for St Peter’s Basilica at 1:30pm and were in in a record 20 mins. On the way out at around 3pm the queue must have been pushing three hours.

And a side note for Italian interrailers:

  • Remember dress codes when visiting religious sites – In the 30+ degree heat of Italy, we spent most of our time in shorts and dresses, but you won’t be allowed into Churches and Cathedrals if you don’t have some means of covering up to be sufficiently modest. Either remember that you need to keep your shoulders covered and dresses/shorts down to just above the knee or get into the habit of taking a scarf or two around with you.

All this being said from lessons learnt the hard way however, interrailing is amazing fun and if you’re careful about it, it really doesn’t have to burst the bank. Italy and France are pricey destinations, especially in summer, but you can stay for as little as a tenner a night if you opt for hostel-hopping in Belgium and the Netherlands. Plus, many tourist destinations and museums have student or under-26 discounts, so make sure to take some ID.

Independent travelling is a unique experience after years of family holidays, and although it takes some time and effort in the planning, it’s definitely a good way to use up some of those long summer months in between university. Plus, as the adults in my life keep so kindly reminding me, holidays this long won’t be around for much longer now, so if you can, I’d say make the most of them!