Keeping an eye out for the Little Things

A lot has happened in the past month. A helluva lot. There’s been an awful lot of DramaTM in my household to say the least, from hospital visits to discovering we had neglected to top up the dishwasher salt for over 3 months (how we were to know that was what the flashing red light meant? And okay, so that wasn’t so dramatic, but my mum was suitably horrified).

For me however, the biggest news has been having my Study Abroad location confirmed. No longer shall my bio for this blog read ‘studying BA History with a Year Abroad (at an as of yet undetermined location)’, because I’m going to Ottawa, (that’s the capital of Canada), ladies and gents. This time next year I’ll no doubt be bundled up from head to toe in layers against -20 degrees battling through the snow and ice to get to my classes, and ice-skating on the Rideau Canal on my weekends.

And I absolutely can’t wait.

I’ve been to British Columbia a couple of times to visit relatives, and so know I already love Canada, the landscape, the people, the Tim-bits (miniature donuts which are practically a national dish). But to know I’m going to be spending an entire year in a place none of my family or close friends has ever visited before is just the most exhilarating feeling. I am terrified and thrilled and nervous and impossibly excited all wrapped up in one- and it’s still 6 months away. There’s so much to plan (accommodation, visas, health insurance, flights- just listing them is making my head ache) and so much more to decide on what I’d like to do while I’m out there (make a weekend trip to New York? I think so.)

I will miss Exeter though, that much I already know. I’ll miss the practical compactness of the city and the fact it’s mild enough now that the daffodils and snowdrops are already all over campus. I’ll miss my friends too, but fortunately most are doing Industrial Placements for third year, so we’ll all be back together again for final year. A year away though I think will do me the world of good. This past term I have definitely felt myself slowing up a bit motivation-wise, and although I will be obviously working towards my degree, I hope I’ll be having a lot of fun too. Seeing as I didn’t take a gap year, this will be the first big chance to do the ‘independent travel thing’ as such.

With so much of my mind focused on the future however, I’m a little worried I’ll wish away second year. I have always been the type to look forward to things; ‘this next summer holiday will be the best ever’, ‘I can’t wait to see family at Christmas’, ‘when I get to Exeter I will have made it’- and while I know there’s nothing wrong with that, I do think sometimes I’m not appreciating the here and now enough. Because second year has been on the whole very kind to me, and I know that when I graduate this will be the part of university life I miss the most, the day to day stuff I mostly take for granted. The little things that keep me smiling through the deadlines and drama.

I couldn’t sleep the other night thinking this all over, so I ended up scribbling some of these little things down on my notepad. I know they might not mean much to anyone reading this, but this blog has become somewhat of a diary for me, and it might hopefully remind you too to remember the highlights of the mundane and ordinary.

The Little Things

  • The walk home from campus after my 5:30 lecture, rounding the corner to cross the bridge over St James’ Park platform and looking back up along the rail tracks to see the sunset.
  • Fernanda, my Brazilian basketball teammate on the university women’s team, who is always making loud jokes and constantly laughing, even at 7am training on a Tuesday morning.
  • The fact that every week when I get up for my 8:30 lecture it’s that little bit lighter outside, as the long dark days of Winter slowly ebb into Spring.
  • The days when I Skype my good friend Ellie in Colorado (who I met when she was on exchange at Exeter), and no matter how glum or down I might be feeling, her smile always cheers me by a country mile.
  • Piling into one bed with my housemates on a sunny Saturday morning, slightly hungover, to try and piece together what happened the night before.
  • The satisfaction of walking past all the prospective students looking around on Open Days and thinking ‘I remember being where you were, imagining myself here- and here I am.’
  • Laughing while collectively brushing our teeth in the corridor with my housemates before bed.
  • When I’m dreading doing the reading for a seminar, but it actually turns out to be so interesting I spend an extra hour doing background research on Wikipedia and Youtube, and I’m reminded that I chose the right degree.
  • Bumping into familiar faces on campus from my course or who I know through societies and getting a quick, unexpected hug in between lectures.
  • The fact that after a couple of tricky, tearful days I came home to find not one, but two huge bags of chocolate M&Ms bought for me by my housemates, who’d both unwittingly had the same idea to try and cheer me up.
  • Someone else giving in before me at the state of our kitchen and attacking the washing up.
  • When I’m just beginning to drift off to sleep and I can hear my housemates trying to laugh quietly in the room next door.
  • Getting really into writing an essay because, actually, I’m pretty passionate about the line of argument I’m going for.
  • When I happen to have an umbrella in my bag when a sunny day abruptly turns into a downpour.
  • Car trips back from National League basketball games, when we stop off for chips and our coach sings along to 70s disco tracks all the way down the M4.
  • Catching up with my parents on Skype on Saturday mornings, and when they take the iPad down to the dog so she can ignore me entirely.
  • Days when we all give in and order take-out, eating it sitting on my bed until my room stinks of pizza, and listening to whatever song of the week I’ve decided to play on repeat.
  • Going for a run just as the sun is starting to set and watching the clouds turn pink and gold as I’m coming back up the hill from Morrisons’.

This might seem a little cheesy, but even if these parts of university life maybe aren’t the most exciting or noteworthy, they are the parts I know I will miss the most. They’re what remind me that for all the down days and days where I question myself, I know I should remember that I’m lucky that I am here, with the people I am with.

One Second Everyday Video – Year 2, Term 1

At the beginning of this academic year, I was asked by the Student Blog team to have a look at creating something with the One Second Everyday app to document day-to-day life as a student in my second year. It’s been an ongoing project in which I’ve been taking a second long video each day of what I’ve been up to – whether it be a day in the library actually getting some work done, a basketball away game, my parents coming to visit and taking me to Cornwall or just nights in fooling around with my housemates. By choosing just a second a day I’ve obviously had to be very selective, and this video has by no means caught the best (or the worst) moments of this term where I’ve invariably not had my phone to hand, but it is nonetheless, I think, a lovely collection of memories and short but sweet insight into student life.

Watch the video

The Student Housing Panic

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, sorting housing was without doubt one of the most stressful aspects of first year for me. We waited, just as all the Guild-endorsed promotions told us too, until after Christmas, and then spent a nightmarish few weeks charging around house viewings, ringing up landlords 24/7 and securing our current residence by pure luck that our email arrived 2 minutes before another interested party’s.

It was not a fun time, least of all because we had no idea what to expect and what we should be looking for. Everyone had different ideas, but we quickly realised we were going to have to collectively lower our expectations. Dramatically. ‘Student living’ is a catchphrase for a reason. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy living where I am now (although I think I could be living in a shed and still have a good time with my housemates) but there’s certainly things I’ll be bearing in mind when I go looking for final year housing.  Just because you are probably going to end up somewhere a bit grotty, as is student tradition, doesn’t mean you should be sacrificing all comforts, and it’s best to be as knowledgeable as you can be.

So, from my experience here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re going about choosing and securing your student house:

  • Collectively decide on your requirements/wishes.  Getting together everyone you’re going to be living with and having a good ol’ discussion about everyone’s personal requirements and wishes for the house before you even start viewing is the best way to go. You might have to compromise later on, but it’ll help you make a shortlist out of the vast number of possibilities for housing in Exeter.
  • Living space. Look for a nice kitchen/living room living space. Unless someone has a big bedroom they’re willing to host communal gatherings in, you’ll quickly miss the kitchens and wide corridors of halls. We weren’t a fan of homes where the front downstairs room had been converted into an extra bedroom (as a lot of houses in Exe have done) but as long as you’ve got a big enough kitchen I imagine you’ll be fine.
  • Double glazing. A biggie. No one wants to wake up with a damp duvet because of condensation. Also along this vein, ask about the house’s insulation. It’ll save you a bundle on heating bills.
  • Look for mould/damp. It likes to lurk in the corners of ceilings and under stairs. A little bit won’t harm you for a year, but excessive mould can be a health hazard.
  • Ask about furniture. This was a big one for us- we had no idea how much of the furniture was the property of existing tenants until we moved into a far sparser house than we were expecting.  This leads me onto what I think is my most important point-
  • Talk to the current tenants. Preferably alone. To get a real feel for the house without the estate agent glaze, it’s best to get a chance to chat to the current tenants. Ask how they’ve found the house, if they’ve had any problems with the landlord, how much their bills have been on average. If you’re short on time, ask for a tenant’s email so you can contact them later on with all your questions. Most tenants will be happy to help (we’ve all been there with you) and I guarantee it’ll be the most honest and helpful review of the house you’ll find.
  • Get promises in writing. When it comes to putting your signature on the dotted line, actually read the contract you’re signing up to thoroughly. I’ve heard lots of stories of landlords who on house viewings promised to redo kitchens or bathrooms over the summer, and then never ‘quite gotten around to it.’ If the landlord makes you a promise in person, ask for it to be included in the contract- otherwise they’re not legally obliged to do anything.
  • If in doubt, go to the Student Advice Unit. That’s what they’re there for! Any concerns or queries about your rights as tenants or the fine print in the contract etc, it’s best to check it out with the Uni first.

This might all sound a little doom and gloom, but although I’m sure there are plenty of reasonable and fair landlords out there, it’s best to be aware. Ultimately, they want to sign away their house for the coming year and will be happy to tell a few white lies to do so- but don’t let that and panic about finding somewhere make you rush into decisions.  Where you’re living isn’t the be all and end all but it doesn’t hurt to try and find somewhere nice. So don’t be afraid to ask hundreds of questions, talk to the current tenants and remember the Uni is there to back you up. Best of luck!

Dealing with Rejection (though not the relationship kind)

Rejection quoteFailure happens to all of us at some point. Whether it’s a GCSE you knew you always hated, your first, second or even third stab at a driving test, or aiming for and just missing out on a spot in the first team. This time last year I wrote a post about choosing and applying to universities, and I’m aware it’s once again the season of personal statements, UCAS and acceptance emails – but also a time when you might be experiencing your first taste of rejection too.

Getting a rejection from a university that you’ve probably visisted, researched, and then given the highest honour of one of your five UCAS slots hurts, there’s no doubt about it. If the university is a prestigious one, it can feel like a personal blow to you – a failure that despite your grades and hours spent drafting and re-drafting your personal statement, you still somehow ‘weren’t good enough’. If the rejection is from your first choice, all the worst. You might have built up a mental picture of yourself at that university, where you’d be living, what societies or sports you’d get involved in, and having to move on from all of that is tough going. And then there’s arguably the most difficult part; telling everyone else. Rejections aren’t something you’ll cheerily inform family and friends of as soon as you get them; they’re instead brought up in an awkward and often delayed conversation that isn’t much fun for either side involved.

Rejection for me came in the form of a blunt ‘unsuccessful’ email from the University of Durham some time in the winter of year 13. It was quickly followed up with an offer for an alternative course, if I really wanted, but it wasn’t History. I can’t say I was all that cut up about it, I had already been accepted to Exeter, my first choice, but it niggled at me nonetheless for a few days. What if I had wanted to go to Durham? My grades were what they were asking for, so it must have been my personal statement. In which case, what had I done wrong? What was wrong with me?

It was at this point, I realised something. I was proud of my personal statement – I’d spent a long time putting it together, even more time re-drafting it with the advice of my teachers and Head of Year in mind, and then even more time again re-drafting that version until I felt it was an accurate representation of myself. I’d avoided the white lies as far as possible, I hadn’t exaggerated about the books I’d read or the things I’d done; I’d just tried to speak honestly about why I loved my subject and why I was good at it. Personal statements are always going to be cringey to an extent – after years of learning that above all else ‘modesty’ was the most important characteristic to maintain as a teenage girl, to shove all that aside and sell yourself goes against the grain. But, despite the cheesy intro and awkward synonyms for ‘passionate’ because we were told it was the Number One Word to Avoid, when I submitted my personal statement on UCAS I felt it did me justice.

It was knowing this, that in the long run enabled me to turn the rejection from Durham into something positive. Gradually I realised that there was nothing wrong with me per say; instead the admission team at Durham had just been doing their job. They had looked at my application, thought ‘this girl isn’t the type who would do well here’ and sent off my rejection. Later my Head of Year told me that I should have mentioned more academic works that I’d read, but to be brutally honest, reading up on historiographical trends in my free time is not my idea of fun, and never has been. I didn’t put those sorts of books on my personal statement because I hadn’t read them, and if Durham rejected me on those grounds of not being ‘academic’ enough – then they did exactly the right thing. If I had crammed my academic reading in the summer, and reduced the paragraph on my extra-curricular pursuits to tailor it to Durham’s expectations, I might have got in – but it would no longer have been ‘me’ they were accepting. I’d have then turned up in September most likely unprepared in comparison to the rest of my coursemates, and, in all honesty, not suited to the university.

I think I’ve gone on quite a long winded way of saying it, but essentially I’m trying to explain that if you give your all, prepare as best you can and put yourself forward in a way that you feel does you justice; rejection can never really hurt you. It’s the same for other aspects of life as well; if you fail that first driving test, it’s because you just weren’t ready, if you don’t make the first team, it’s because you need a little more training, if your essay comes back with a 2:2 instead of 2:1, that’s just letting you know that there’s something you need to look at to change for next time. One of my favourite lecturers here at Exeter recently told me the best mark you get in your first year is your worst, because that’s the most helpful in terms of your improvement. University applications can feel a little daunting as often people worry that they’ve only got one shot, but that’s really not the case. If I’d set my heart on Durham, I could have reworked my statement, read the books I knew they would be interested in and re-applied. I could even now have a shot at applying for a Masters if I wanted to.

Rejection can really hurt your self-esteem and confidence, but (and excuse the cheesiness) if you’ve tried your best that’s really all you can do. You can’t be any more than the best you can be. It’s bound to feel a bit rubbish for a while, but try not to see rejection as a door closing – instead try to imagine it more as a whopping great big ‘Diversion’ sign blocking your way. It’s not permanent, and you might come back to that very same door later on, but for the time being life is directing you down a different corridor.

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!

A Level Results Day: One Year On

A level results day is fast approaching; there are university guides and advice on Clearing appearing in the papers, some of your more confident friends might be preemptively joining Freshers’ groups on Facebook and there’s that slight anxiety in the air when asking any recent leaver where exactly they’re going in September. (I was always overly deliberate when answering that one, “Well hopefully I’ll be going to Exeter, but it could all change!!” – just in case anyone got the wrong idea and started assuming things.)

For the millions out there with conditional offers for places at university, that awkwardly placed day in August (following an entire summer of deliberately not thinking about the whole thing) can feel like a life-defining moment, a major turning point in your academic career. The exams are over, the coursework is in, the UCAS form long since submitted; at this final hurdle it’s as simple as a yes or no answer, in or out, and there’s not a lot you can do about it either way.

My experience of A level results day was an overwhelming one, just as I imagine it is for most people. I can vividly remember the low-grade nerves that built up in the week before, which manifested themselves in carefully constructing plans B, C and D if my grades weren’t enough for my History offer. Up until the night before I was trying to distract myself by making notes on how exactly to go about navigating the Clearing website, and writing down numbers for people to contact in Exeter if needs be. Even the best friend, famously chilled about academic drama, later admitted she had to go for a late night stroll to try and walk off some of the tension. We’d already been warned (read: lectured on multiple times by teachers and received numerous emails about) that UCAS would absolutely not be accessible at midnight, and that we might as well sleep through. Needless to say, it was not a great night’s sleep. More like Christmas Eve as a kid again, but without the guarantee of any presents in the morning.

When morning did come it was at the leisurely hour of 8am, just as I was getting ready to head to school to collect my results, that an email and a text arrived from Exeter confirming my offer. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day – I was absolutely thrilled and intensely relieved that the hard work had paid off, and that plans B, C and D would not be needed. I didn’t quite cry, but my Dad certainly did – loudly and shamelessly down the phone from work. Arriving in the school car park I met the best friend (whose place had been confirmed at Manchester) with a hug so violent I think we gave each other mild concussion. The sixth form centre was a sea of emotion, crying, both happy and sad, from teachers and students, and a whole lot more hugging.

I can’t really remember the rest of the day, but I know it passed in a never-ending series of congratulations and condolences, of yelling at classmates across the street in town and sending friends cautious texts along the lines of “is everything alright?” in an effort to be as tactful as possible in case of the worst. I quickly realised as happy as I was to be set up with my first choice of university, I was also very lucky to be in that position. Close friends I’d been through the whole 7 years of secondary education with had just missed out on offers and were second-guessing insurance options, and some had missed out completely. Painfully, one friend who’d been in the coveted position of getting an offer for medicine just missed out on her grades, while those aspiring medics who had received 5 rejections were delighted with multiple A*s that pretty much assured them an offer in the coming September. It was a long and emotionally-charged day, and as much as I tried to tone it down for those for whom things hadn’t gone as well – I literally spent the next 3 weeks on cloud nine. A friend several years into uni told me somewhat cynically “this is a great time, enjoy it while it lasts before the real work starts” and I definitely did.

There was no room for feeling worried about leaving home and moving 200 miles away in and around the dorky happiness and sense of pride I felt about now being officially a ‘university student’. In the coming weeks by day I raided Wilkos for bathroom bins and bedside lights (I could write odes to what a fabulous student shop Wilkos is) and Tescos for an all-inclusive crockery set; by night I was buying tickets for Freshers’ events (with mixed results – see my first post on advice to Freshers) and shamelessly stalking the Facebook profiles of people in my halls. As my older and wiser friend advised, it really was a great time – and for those of you whose place in September is a sure thing, enjoy it. Make the most of seeing friends before you all go your separate ways up and down the country, feel proud of yourself that you’ve made it past the final hoop-jump of our education system and if you’re feeling über keen, maybe have a look at reading lists or advisory prep material so it’s not too much of shock come your first lecture (she says, despite that being something I certainly didn’t do.)

For anyone already feeling anxious about making friends and being homesick, it’s best to embrace the fact you’ll inevitably encounter those issues at uni at some point. What’s important to remember is that time-old cliché that every other first year is in exactly the same boat. Everyone wants to make friends as soon as possible, and everyone will have a night or two where they wish they could be back home – though most will do their damnedest to try and hide it. I’ll admit to being guilty on this front; to any of the friends I wasn’t in regular contact with, my Facebook/Instagram/Twitter probably gave off the impression I was enjoying a seamless transition from school to the ‘#studentlife’ experience. The reality of course, was far from it. I don’t think it would be too much of an assumption to say that nobody’s transition is ‘seamless.’ Be wary of social media in that respect, particularly when it comes to starting university; everyone wants to project the freshers year they want other people to think they’re having, not the one they’re necessarily experiencing.

May your results day be worthy of a cheesy photo op

May your results day be worthy of a cheesy photo op

To come back to the subject of this post however, while it’d be nice to wish you all an A level results day worthy of the cheesy High School Muscial-esque jumping photoshoots that appear on the front of The Times the following day, I know that realistically that won’t be the case for everyone. While I can’t speak from experience and am therefore probably not best placed to be giving advice, I can say that from following others’ experiences I do know that as awful as it can be not getting the offer you dreamed of and the results you wanted, in the end, it really does all work out. Promise. Friends who went on unexpected gap years have truly had amazingly enviable times, and for some it has completely changed their life plans – who wants to do a business degree at Leeds when you can be a fully-qualified ski instructor in Austria? Likewise, for those who really did want to do the uni thing, they re-applied in September and are no worse off for it. On a sidenote, everyone will tell you (and I’m happy to join that number) that age isn’t a thing at university, and it really isn’t. No-one asks how old you are. People might assume, but if your birthday comes around and it’s an iced 20 on your dodgy student-kitchen made cake as opposed to a 19, no one thinks any differently of you for it.

And with that, there’s nothing left for me to say other than good luck (as redundant as luck might be at this point!) I’ve got my fingers crossed for you all x

Inspirational Quotes: The First Year Edition

Surreally enough, the day I officially left first year accommodation for good coincided with a university Open Day. While surrounded by lost looking Sixth Formers clutching Open Day guides and wandering around with their parents, I was busy hauling never-ending boxes of books and kitchen supplies out to the car. As hundreds of potential new students descended on campus with their lists of questions and maps to subject talks, I was saying goodbye to my friends as quickly as possible so I couldn’t get too emotional about it all. I’ve never been very good at long goodbyes, but as everyone keeps reminding me – we’ll back before we know it.

Despite looking forward to seeing family and friends and having a few months of reading for leisure (which feels like a foreign concept it’s been so long), it’s comforting to know it won’t be too long before I’m back in Exeter again.

Now, I’ve already done several reflective posts on first year (I’m a sentimental sap, to be honest you’re lucky I haven’t written more) but this really is my final one. Looking back on it all, first year has not been what I expected. I hadn’t anticipated the challenges I ended up having to deal with, which were unexpectedly more on a mental level than an academic one, and at the same time I hadn’t imagined I’d meet the people I have, and that I’d spend my 19th birthday on the beach at sunset.

I think it’s important to realise that though lots of people hype up university to be the time of your life, that light at the end of the tunnel after years of GCSEs and A levels, we should remember that the ‘grass is always greener’ mentality just isn’t the way things work. Because while in the beautiful city and campus of Exeter the grass certainly is very green, it is also reality. University life has its pros and its cons just like secondary school did, but I’ve found them to be exacerbated. The good days at uni have been amazing; the bad days terrible.

This is not to say everyone’s experience will be the same as mine (if I’ve learnt nothing else other than facts about Charlemagne and the Great Irish famine, it’s that no one ever experiences things the same way) but that’s what this blog was for I guess, to give my personal take on things. I hope anyone who has skimmed a couple of my posts have found it to be what I initially intended – light-hearted, advisory and honest.

At the risk of coming across as horribly pretentious, I am going to share a few quotes that I’ve found to be particularly relevant and inspirational this past year to round this off. I have a lot of quotes I’m fond of, but these are the ones that make it to the cork board, and while I think they’re good advice for life at university I’ll probably try and remember them in the long run too.

    • “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

QuoteMost history students will be familiar with this one, as I’d wager it’s probably the most popular personal statement quote for historians out there. Despite it’s ‘cliché ness’ however (she says, writing a blog post on inspirational quotes), in the midst of inevitable course doubts and post-modernist induced crises of “but what is the point of the past?!” it can be useful to be reminded why I’m studying my degree. For me, the idea that our best guide to the future of humanity is to look to our past is what makes history such a relevant, fascinating and enlightening subject. Outside of academia however, it’s also relevant advice for other aspects of life – learn from your mistakes to make sure they don’t happen again. (*Cough* no matter how drunk you are, be sure to fall asleep somewhere you’ll be happy to wake up.)

  • “Today was the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.’” – Dale Carneige

If you are the type to lie in bed at night, worrying and over-thinking the things you’ve got to do in the day to come fear not – you are in good company on this blog. I only found this quote recently, but it really resonated with me. Too often I will stress and over-analyse the next day, the to do’s to be conquered, the tight time schedule to get through, and yet when the day is over, usually without event or incident, I move straight onto the next one. The reality is, however much I might build up a day with this presentation to deliver, or this book to get back by 11am unless I feel like facing a fine, nine and half times out of ten, everything turns out fine.

  • The only person you should try to be better than, is the person you were yesterday.”– Anon

There are various iterations of this on the internet and no obvious source, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. The constant desire to compare and compete with others is one that I’d imagine most people encounter through their education, but while it can motivate you to work harder and improve, I’ve found it can also be very draining and counter-productive. Sure, knowing you’ve done better than your neighbour can be a bit of a confidence boost, but at the same time knowing you’ve done worse is a horrible feeling, and in reality neither scenario will change the fact you’ve got the grade you’ve been given. This past year I’ve been trying to remove myself from the temptation of comparing with others and just trying to focus on my own progress in a well-intended self-centred sort of way. Again, it works outside of academia as well; we all say or do things we regret or wish we could do differently, but when all is said and done, the best way to combat that regret is to try and do things better in the future.

  • “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” – Mark Twain

Oh the woes of procrastination. Forget 4am fire drills and 9am Monday morning lectures – the real enemy of first year has been how much time I’ve spent putting off what I should have been getting round to. There are those who seem impossibly sorted and organised, but really they just got going before you did. There is no secret formula, no cheat sheet, no short-cut at degree level, just the cold reality that if you want to avoid the hideousness of an all-nighter in the library you’ve just got to get started. To reference another quote; “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop” (Confucius).

  • “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.” – JK Rowling

As perhaps the most famous University of Exeter alumni, it only felt fitting JK made this list, and this happens to be one of my favourite quotes of all time. Rowling was referring to her own struggle as single mother on the poverty line in this, but it can apply to a lot. Knowing that at one point I was seriously considering dropping out but made it through that phase is a comfort to me now. Times can be hard, but getting through them is only strengthening your resolve to face similar challenges in the future.

JKR(If you have 20 minutes to spare and are a fellow fan of All Things Inspirational, I highly, highly recommend JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech where this quote is taken from; if nothing else watch it for the gay wizard joke. The speech was so well received it’s also been recently released as a book ‘Very Good Lives’ which pretty much permanently lives on my bedside table.)

  • “You can’t control the outer circumstances of your life, but you can control how you react to them.”- Anon

A good friend of mine recommended this to me, and I think it captures pretty much everything the rest of these quotes are trying to say. Life happens and goes on regardless of the impact it might have on us as individuals, and all we can do is try and keep a level head and deal with everything that comes our way. Found yourself in a flat of party-hard folk as an introvert? Join societies or look elsewhere to find like-minded people. Got a third on that last essay? Learn from the criticisms, maybe ask your tutor, and change your technique for next time. There’s a line of thinking which says ‘the only thing stopping you is you’ and while this is easier said than done, I think for a lot of things it’s the truth.

I’ll definitely take up this blog again for second year, but until then I hope people have a great holiday and a relatively stress-free results day! See you in September! 🙂 x

Five of the Best Exeter Eateries

So last week I finally got my act together enough to do something I’ve been wanting to get around to since the beginning of term; writing for Exeter’s prestigious student paper Exeposé.

ExeposeI decided not to challenge myself too much, so settled on opting for a nice humdrum article for the Lifestyle section on five of my favourite places to eat in Exeter. I changed the topic slightly to look at places to take visiting friends and family, and drafted it more than a few times to check I met the terrifying vague criteria of ‘quite light and fun’. That being said, it was good fun to write something a little different to the student blog posts I’ve been working on, and I was pleased with what I came up with.

Fast forward to today and cue me waltzing casually (I wish) into the Forum for my 9am Medieval lecture, sweeping up the latest edition of Exeposé on my way. Flicking through the headline articles, I genuinely did a double-take to see my name bolded on the front of the Lifestyle section. I had honestly completely forgotten my article would be in this week’s paper, and never expected that my first attempt would be given almost a full page (pictures included) on the front of the section! I don’t think I fully processed what I was doing when I submitted my article, but I’m pretty chuffed to say the least 🙂 I love writing in any form, but the satisfaction of seeing something I’d reworked over several days in print was something I hadn’t anticipated. I’ll definitely be writing for Exeposé again if I get the chance!

As a bit of a cheat post therefore, here’s my Five Best Exeter Eateries to take Guests article, as published in this fortnight’s Exeposé, reproduced for my blog.

We’ve all been there; you’ve got guests trekking their way across the country to visit for the weekend whether you like it or not. You can’t be expected to sacrifice that lone can of Heinz beans left in the back of your cupboard (or that tin of tuna that might, one day, finally get eaten) so eating out it is. While Exeter is blessed with a plethora of eatery-options don’t worry about trawling Trip Advisor attempting to come to a decision – here’s a fool proof guide to impressing friends and family with some of the best, most iconic places to eat out in Exeter.

Tea on the GreenFor Breakfast

Imagine every possible egg-related breakfast you can. Double it. Now throw in a front-row view of the Exeter’s best-known landmark, and you have yourself a winning combination. Tea on The Green is about as quaint, cosy and quintessentially English as it sounds, and while it’s perfect for afternoon scones, I’d argue it’s the breakfast takes the biscuit, guaranteed to keep everyone happy with options ranging from the lowly ‘Monk’s Choice’ of marmalade on toast, to the full-out Full English.

Boston Tea PartyFor Brunch/lunch

Boston Tea Party

Boston Tea Party

Ideally located for a quick, tasty, mid-shop lunch – Boston is the home of honest, nutritious food, and particularly fancy latte art. Second only to Tea on the Green on the brunch front, Boston Tea Party also offers a whole host of mains, from burgers and toasties to butternut squash mac and cheese and roasted sweet potato cous cous. The unexpectedly huge upstairs seating space will impress guests too, especially if you manage to nab a couple of the vintage chesterfields in the corner.

Exploding Bakery For Coffee and Cake

Space is definitely limited in this wee little cafe tucked in a corner by Central Station, but the Exploding Bakery is about as wholesome as it gets. While it offers a relatively limited lunch-time range of homemade soups (rustic hunk of soda bread included), savory croissants and tortillas, it’s the coffee and cake that it’s really famed for. Costa, Starbucks and Café Nero too mainstream for your hipster, organic friends? The Exploding Bakery’s cappuccino and carrot cake is where it’s at.

Thai Restaurant For the Fancy Dinner

Bae is visiting for the weekend; the Firehouse has been done one too many times, and even with Valentines over and done with you’re thinking about pulling all the stops out. Allow me to recommend the humble Thai Jasmine. A little on the pricey end for student-eateries, but oh-so-worth it for the delicate lemongrass curry, the oozing deep fried vegetables, and the soup so fragrant it’s genuinely like drinking perfume (and I mean that in the good way).

The Old FirehouseFor the Pub (and pizza) Experience

The Old Firehouse

The Old Firehouse

This is an article about student-recommended eateries in Exeter, did you really think The Old Firehouse wouldn’t make the list? Home of many a society social, and the famous Firehouse Challenge of an entire pizza (and a bottle of red wine, depending on who you talk to), the Firehouse is an Exeter student staple and rightly so. Treat friends and family alike to a pint of west country cider and make them jealous of the fact your local pub is such a Harry-Potter-esque haven of twinkling-fairy lights, live music and constant buzz.

The Big Taboo: Thoughts on Dropping Out

In my introductory post about the sort of content this blog would feature, I may have promised ‘light-hearted’ but I also promised ‘honest’. Hence the nature of this post.

‘Dropping out’ is traditionally a pretty scary idea, and in many ways has become something of a taboo topic. When applying to university, I was often told to look at the drop out rates when gaging the best institutions. The theory was, the higher the drop out rates, the worse the general student experience, the ‘lesser’ the university. At the time that made perfect sense to me, but now the idea of  ‘drop outs’ defining a university is far from clear-cut.

If I’m being honest, dropping out crossed my mind more than a couple of times during first term. This wasn’t necessary Exeter’s fault, rather how I imagine most students feel at some point or another. There were days when I felt isolated, homesick and unsure about my course; days when the deadlines and reading lists seemed never-ending; days when I took a step back in a mini-existential-crisis sort of fashion and thought to myself “is 4 more years of education really what I want?” University is built up to be this huge, life-affirming, amazing experience, but in the cold light of day, sometimes it just doesn’t work out like that.

People’s reasons for dropping out can vary hugely, and I for one have had two close friends make the decision that Exeter, at this particular time, just isn’t for them. In many ways, their courage and decisiveness was in part what inspired this post – I respect them both hugely for their decisions, and wanted to make sure their stories were heard in the hope of dispelling any myths surrounding why people drop out. They were kind enough to share their thoughts on the process with me:

1.  What were your reasons for dropping out?

J: “My reason for dropping out was simply that I really didn’t feel the course was right for me and I wanted to choose something that would suit me more. I tried to switch courses at Exeter, but I was too late as all the places in other courses had filled up at this point (after the October reading week). In the end I had to take the other option and drop out with the intention to reapply on a different course for next year.”

B: “I was really struggling with stress and anxiety from the workload and frankly it was making me very depressed a lot of the time…at first I tried to just push through it but gradually it got worse, to the point where I had no real motivation and was just stumbling through each day. All this just had me asking myself the question, “What am I trying to achieve with this?” and suddenly it seemed obvious that University was not something I had to do – I had always asserted that I did not want an office job and had often pictured myself in a more vocational career, plus I knew I wanted to start travelling again soon. When I properly started to research other options, such as vocational apprenticeships, I started to feel hopeful about the future once more and as soon as I made the decision to leave, I felt like my old, happy and confident self again, which is something I had not felt in months.”

2. How did you find the ‘dropping out’ process?

J: “I felt the process logistically through the University went smoothly and there were lots of people to advise me on what to do and they were supportive of the fact I was certain that the course wasn’t for me and I would be happier on a different course. Emotionally I felt fine about the process, my parents were supportive too and I just knew it was the right decision. However reapplying for university on UCAS was very daunting.”

B: “The process was not too bad logistically – there was a fair bit of going to see various people, such as senior tutors and people in the administration offices, but they were all quite friendly and the Guild advice unit were really helpful on the nuts and bolts of student finance and the like.  Emotionally it was a bit of whirlwind…I think about 75% of the time I was confident that I was doing the ‘right thing’ but there were definitely times where I thought, “Holy crap, what am I doing?”. Talking to people definitely helped though – I also think being open about the whole thing prevented any irrational feelings of embarrassment or shame over dropping out.”

3. Looking back, do you still feel your decision was the right one?

J: “I definitely still feel my decision was the right one. Even though I do miss University, I knew I wouldn’t have been happy continuing on with the course I was on for the next three years of my life.”

B: “Yes. Whenever I feel uncertain I look back at diary entries from the last few months or think about how much time I spent crying down the phone to my Mum and then look at how much happier I am now. That’s not to say I don’t have uncertain moments or even moments when I miss my course, but when it comes to rationally weighing up how much happier I am it seems like it was clearly for the best. I also do not think though that coming to University in the first place was the wrong decision either as I have had a really valuable experience – I’ve met new people, tried new things and apart from anything else I have found out what it’s like. But I don’t think it would have been worth me pushing through the next three years in the state I was in when there is so much else I would like to do with my life.”

4. How do you feel about the future now?

J: “Even though taking a gap year isn’t what I thought I was going to do, I’m still going to get a degree so I don’t feel too differently about the future.”

B: “Nervous but optimistic. I have just found my first full-time job and I have big plans for the next few years, although I am still figuring out the details. So yes, I am looking forward to the future and more importantly, I’m enjoying right now.”


With these two testimonies in mind and from talking to others, I’d like to offer up three key things I think affect people’s decision when it comes to dropping out.

1)   Course – is it the right thing for you?

In a lot of cases, course is a big influencing factor in people’s decisions to drop out. You can have loved your subject through GCSE and A level, but at degree it’s a whole new ball game. If you realise you chose wrong early on, there is some flexibility to change, but usually before reading week. If not, there’s absolutely no shame in admitting it isn’t right, and taking the decision to drop out. Better that than face around £30,000 worth of debt for 3 years of misery.

2)   Support – if you’re struggling with adjusting to university do you have the support, emotionally and practically, that you need?

I imagine some people sail through university without ever dropping their Personal Tutor an email or visiting the Student Health Centre. I also imagine that they’re probably the minority. Support is there, just not always immediately obvious. When I first asked about support, I was genuinely amazed at how much there was – everything from deadline extensions to taking extended leave and returning in the new year.

3)   The Bigger Picture – is university just not for you?

It can be hard sometimes to think against the grain, but the reality is that the university environment is not for everyone. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If the course isn’t the issue and you’ve sought out support but it still just isn’t working, university just might not be your thing.

Whatever the motivating factor, I’m a firm believer that dropping out of university isn’t nearly so shameful or embarrassing as it seems to have gained the reputation of being. I think the experiences of my friends are both important examples to bear in mind; although some might hype up the idea of dropping out of university to be ‘the be all and end all’, sometimes it’s just the right decision.

Putting Things into Perspective: Reflections on a lecture from Moazzam Begg

When American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001, the world could only watch. Something shifted in American consciousness, shock, incomprehensible horror, national grief, and then – anger. Anger towards the nameless hijackers who had brought about the deaths of 2,753 Americans going about their daily lives, anger, and a desire for justice and revenge.

Daily life came to an end that day on the other side of the world too.

-Moazzam Begg, born and raised in Birmingham, had moved with his wife and children to Afghanistan in early 2001 to build a girls’ school, and recalled the day the bombs started to fall on Kabul. The daisy cutter craters that swallowed whole streets, shattered every window in his house and killed thousands. Eventually forced to evacuate to Pakistan, Moazzam’s life was yet again turned upside down with a knock on the door at midnight, 31 January 2002.

Arrested on his doorstep by American soldiers, handcuffed and hooded, Moazzam would not see his family for 3 years. Just under 2 of those would be spent in the highest security detention facility in the US: Guantanamo Bay.

IMG_2285As guest speaker of the Arabic and Middle Eastern Society at Exeter, news of Begg’s visit to the University gained a lot of publicity in the past few weeks. Over a thousand people on Facebook said they would be attending the event, and queues on the night extended outside the Forum doors. I was fortunate enough to have been in a lecture in the Alumni Auditorium beforehand, and so was able to save some friends and myself seats on the 5th row from the front.

While it was only an hour long, I think it’s fair to say it was one of the most inspiring, horrifying and mind-altering things I’ve ever witnessed.

In many ways, much of Begg’s recollection almost sounded like a bad film; surreal, ridiculously violent and bizarrely comic at times. Begg spoke of the dehumanizing shaving process he endured, the trophy photos taken of him by American soldiers, and in the same breath recalled a conversation he had with a US soldier about his visit to Stratford Upon Avon. He recommended the documentary Taxi Drive to the Dark Side, inspired by the murder of a taxi driver by American soldiers that Begg himself was witness to, and managed to make the audience laugh with the implication that it had won an Oscar thanks to his performance. He interrupted his description of 2 years of solitary confinement, of press-ups and poetry and nightless-days of boredom, to recall the time he ironically ended up comforting his guard whose girlfriend had left him through the bars of his cell.

Guantanamo-BayMuch of what he said though, particularly about the acts of US soldiers, palpably shocked the auditorium, and this was in many ways perhaps empathetic of the shock that Begg himself had experienced. “We thought the Americans were the good guys. We couldn’t have been more wrong.” He spoke of how Guantanamo guards were supposed to swear that they were ‘honour bound to defend freedom’, but the irony of the fact he was padlocked in chains was lost on them. He described the brutal beatings from American soldiers who swore at him in badly accented Arabic, and he recalled word for word the first thing he was told by a senior officer upon his arrest:

“You are now the property of the United States. You have no rights. You forfeited those on September 11th.”

Begg constructed a visceral narrative, hard to listen to at times, and impossible to imagine how it would have been to endure. Yet, despite the difficulty of the topic and the very political nature of his situation, Begg managed to put humanity at the forefront of his lecture.

He spoke of the ex-Guantanamo guardsmen he now considers friends, described the time a female soldier brought him a Cadbury’s Crème Egg in solitary confinement, and recalled the tears of his eldest daughter the first time he saw her after 3 years of imprisonment. Begg argued that it is easy to hate our enemies from a distance, but once up close it is all too easy to empathise with their suffering. He also raised the difficult and unpleasant truth that while we know that 2,753 individuals were killed in 9/11, those murdered by the bombs dropped by Americans were never recorded.

I won’t pretend I know much about the situation in Iraq, or the controversies surrounding Guantanamo, aside from what makes the BBC news website or comes up in my Googled research. From this perspective, I can’t comment on the factual accuracies of Begg’s narrative, and I will say that some of these, particularly the details surrounding his arrest, remained unclear at the end of the lecture – though this could well have been due to time restrictions.

What I can assert with confidence though, is that what he had to say gave me an awful lot to think about.

I don’t think I’ve been so profoundly affected by something of this nature in a long time. I was 5 years old in 2001; I can barely remember 9/11, but I do know that the conflict stemming from it has shaped the news stories of my childhood and adolescence. The on-going terrorism of the Middle East and the West’s dubious interventions are a fundamental part of my generation, and I feel almost duty-bound to gain as many perspectives as I can on the issue.

Moazzam Begg is a controversial figure, but was undoubtedly an inspiring speaker and obvious advocate for the continued plight of human rights. I’m very grateful to the Arabic and Middle Eastern Society for organising the event, and that I was able to hear his side of the story.

 

“Still the papers do I pen,
Knowing what, but never when –
As dreams begin, and nightmares end –
I’m homeward bound to beloved tend.’”

‘Homeward Bound’- Moazzam Begg