Monday, September 01, 2008

Ancient History (2.2)

Ten years ago last week - yeah, alright, nobody's perfect - I had my first byline in the national press. It was a piece for the Observer's student pull-out, "On Course '98".

It's not very good. And they took out the best gag, about hall of residence rooms that would make Anne Frank feel claustrophobic. But sheesh, I was proud.

Should I switch to long trousers now?


So what now? Suddenly the single most important thing in the known universe for the past two years has been reduced to a few little letters on a tatty sheet of paper. And one month from now comes a great leap into the rest of your life, and then... what?

The overwhelming feeling that affects most soon-to-be students is that they have no idea what to expect. Most have little conception of what university will be like beyond the image given out by boastful siblings, a few bank adverts and the advice of a careers officer who went to university when you paid in the student bar with a ration book. Let's get one thing clear: it's nothing like Saved By The Bell - The College Years. Unless, you get really unlucky.

I asked sixth formers at James Alleyn Girls School, Dulwich, and Sidcot School, Somerset, about their fears:

'I'm worried about money. I always thought when I finished at school I'd be independent.' Tuition fees are a new area of stress this year. Labour, clearly irked by accusations that they had forgotten their roots of support in the working classes, decided to redress the balance by being absolute bastards to the middle classes as well. In the face of pounds 1,000 extra per annum that dream of independence is replaced with a vision of being shackled to the parental purse strings for another three or four years.

But let's be honest. What else are your parents going to do with it? If you're of university age your folks can't be far off their Honda Civic and beige clothing phase - once you're gone they'll have nothing to do but mope round the house with no one to shout at. And if you're worried that financial dependence on your parents will mean you are less able to branch out and be your own person, just take a look at what independence has down for them!

'I'm worried I'll miss home comforts.' Homesickness, in its most basic sense, is not a problem for most students. After nearly 20 years they, and their parents, can hardly wait to get a bit of their own space. Sure, bouts of flu will never be the same without the comforting maternal hand to mop your brow, but instead you'll have a whole new gang of chums to buy you Benylin and share your germs.

However, most students do find themselves missing the little things about home they took for granted - the opportunity to skank around the house in a grim dressing gown. And until alternatives have been fully explored, no one can really appreciate the importance of a proper TV aerial and a phone that doesn't bleep at you and eat money.

'I'm scared I won't fit in.' However cool you try to be with this one, there is always that feeling of being the new kid in the blazer with room to grow on the first day. You know that there must be people out there like you, but what chance have you got of finding common ground when the small talk is restricted to A-level results and what gosh-how-exciting things people got up to in their years off? Something it's all too easy to forget is that, in all walks of life, it actually takes quite a bit of time to get to know people, and that feeling uneasy is par for the course until you find the other person that knows all the words to your favourite episode of Red Dwarf, or liked Pulp before they were famous. And then you'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

So don't spend too long over selecting what outfit to wear for the first day (and don't pretend you haven't thought about it). Yes, people will judge you by it, and fit you into the sort of stereotypes they've had rammed into their brains by smug articles like this one. But be honest, you'll be doing exactly the same thing with that bloke over there in the rugby shirt... and just look at her in the short skirt.

'I hope my room's nice.' The accommodation pictured in most universities' glossy prospectuses stretches the boundaries of the Advertising Standards guidelines. Yes, from some angles that could be recognised as a first year room in Mandela Hall, but only when you take into account that it was shot from the next county through a fish-eye lens. The next county being where such places as the shops, pub and the actual university are located.

If you've rejected the idea of a campus in favour of city life you might just as well instal your ethnic throws and rubber plant onboard the local bus, as that's where you'll be spending the greater part of your time.

But hey, it's not what you've got, it's what you do with it. Untreated breezeblock walls can be cool in an Ikea sort of way, and listening in (whether or not you want to) on your neighbours' stereos and sex lives can reveal a lot more than the PR exercise of first week smalltalk.

And one last thing. Get some bleach. Because however good your intentions, by the end of the first term you will have had a piss in the sink.

'It's going to be difficult carrying on my relationship.' So you went through the stress of A-levels together. So you went on holiday together this summer, and it was fine. So you've talked it through and you both feel that a long distance relationship will be problematic, but you honestly feel that it would be unfair not to give it a try. So what.

However many pictures you put up of him/her, however many other distraught half-couples you befriend, however much you write in the first week, you'll reach a point where the choice between finding a payphone and doing frankly anything else at all involves no competition. Just wait and see.

Perhaps I am too cynical. After all, I know of two relationships which lasted all through university. Two friends stood by their men right through from Freshers' Week to graduation.

Then they went out into the real world and suddenly realised that when they had to spend any sort of decent amount of time with their boyfriends, they were absolutely sick of them.

'I hope I'm not really thick compared to the other people on my course.' For goodness sake, you're not to worry about that. You probably won't have any idea how any of your mates are doing up until the degree ceremony itself - unless you decide to go down the smug mutual revision sessions and communal stress path, that is. They don't actually read out the marks in class and award gold stars, you know.

And as for the work - think lower sixth. Think minimum. Think subsidised fun. And when finals come round, get very, very, scared.

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