Reflecting on my first year at uni

Having just finished my first year at university, I thought it might be good to reflect on it and share some of my tips for people who are in the position that I was last year – terrified, excited, and almost completely clueless as to what they’re going to face come September.

There’s not much that I can say in terms of workload that hasn’t already been said a million times over – university learning is self motivated. No-one is going to chase you up if you don’t do it, it’s your loss, so discipline is super important – although the occasional nap (or daily in my case) won’t hurt you. At least it won’t if you do a low contact hour subject like I do!

Also, if you do the reading for the lectures, you will understand them far better. Granted, there is some reading that is a little redundant, but it is far better to do it if you have the time to start off with, and then later use your time doing more useful things. Just try to do the reading – you don’t want to be the person that turns up to the first seminar absolutely clueless. Like I said before, university is self-lead teaching to an extent, so get as much out of it as you can by doing the reading.

Realise you’re not necessarily going to get a first. I have a lot of friends who were very high achieving students at school, and they got to uni, got a 2:1 for a piece of work, and were really upset. I’m not saying you’re not going to get a first, you might do, and well done you if you do, but a first is not the be all and end all, and even if you don’t do so well in first year, learn from it. You’re there to learn, after all, so see a lower grade a chance to improve yourself. Go and ask for help if you don’t understand your marker’s comments, and if you need it, ask for help with your essays from the services that are available at your uni. Friends can be invaluable for this, especially with creative writing. Exchanging work and reading through each other’s helps both of you, both in proofreading and in seeing how they responded to the same prompt.

Make sure that you know where you can go if you need help – I have been in the fortunate position not to need any help this year, but knowing where those services are can be really helpful in those times of stress and panic, so you – or someone else – can do something about it.

Here comes another cliché – don’t be afraid to try new things. I started Ballroom and Latin American Dance this year through university, and it has honestly been one of the best experiences of my first year at uni. You don’t have to commit to everything that you sign up for – I signed up for four or five societies after my uni’s societies fair, but I now only regularly attend two of them. And the societies expect this dropout – it’s far better to try these new things and then decide you don’t like them than to not try anything at all and wish that you had come March. Most societies even offer a free trial session, or don’t require you to pay membership until a few weeks in, so you might as well give them a whirl. Societies are also one of the best places to meet people, as you’ll be with people with similar interests to you, and you’ll meet people from across the uni, across departments, across years, postgrads, undergrads… Basically, socieites are great, so sign up for them if you can.

But also remember that it is okay to say no. I was feeling a bit rough the first few weeks of uni, especially in Freshers’ Week, so I went to two quiz nights and one night out. My flatmates asked me if I wanted to go out every night, but as I don’t drink I was quite daunted by the prospect of going out with a large group of complete strangers, so I stayed in my room instead, and I was far happier for it (as was my bank account!). I’m not saying don’t go out, all I’m saying is that if you really don’t want to do something, you don’t have to do it. Try to do new things, but if you’re really not feeling it, no-one is going to hate you for saying no. I’m still good friends with my flatmates, so if my experience is anything to go by, there’s nothing to be feared in saying no.

On the topic of flatmates, remember that you need a little give and take, but at the same time you can’t be a doormat. If you have a 9am you have to get to, or like me have to get up at 4am to get ready for a dance competition, and they’re hosting pres, blasting music and yelling at the top of their voices, just go in and talk to them. If they’re decent people, they will offer to move pres (it’s not like there’s likely to be a shortage of accomodation in walking distance that they can use). If they don’t, just remember to make as much noise as you can getting ready in the morning. (I joke, of course). Do your washing up, tidy and clean up after yourself, take the bin out, but don’t let your flatmates leave you to sort the state of the kitchen or any other shared areas in the flat. I was really fortunate with my flatmates, we’re all quite clean and tidy people. I do, however, have friends who live with flatmates who use their stuff and leave it disgustingly dirty, ruin it, or (the worst flatmates I’ve heard of) don’t take out the bin, rather taking out the full bin liner and leaving it on the floor until it spawns maggots. So basically, good luck with flatmates, and try to be a good flatmate yourself.

Chat to people. There is never an easier time to meet people than the first few weeks of uni – everyone is out to make friends, no-one knows each other. I walked up to someone because I saw them wearing a Welcome to Night Vale t-shirt in freshers’ week, and we’re now really good friends. Granted, some people I spoke to in freshers’ week I now only see on occasion when scrolling through Facebook, but I didn’t lose anything in talking to them. And if you aren’t making that many people during Freshers’ Week, it’s not an issue. It becomes so much easier to meet people once term properly starts, and you have lectures and seminars that force you with groups of people.

Don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not. The best way to make the best friends is to be yourself, as you’ll end up with friends who are like you. That’s kind of general life advice, but from what I’ve experienced, it’s especially true at uni.

My biggest piece of advice to anyone who isn’t enjoying uni within the first couple of weeks is to at least stick it out until Christmas. What will you lose by staying at uni for a few extra months that you would gain by dropping out after a few weeks? It’s a rollercoaster of emotions – you’ll feel fine for a bit, then you’ll feel a bit wobbly, then awful, and fine again – not necessarily in that order. As I said in my previous post on change, I would quite happily have not gone to university the morning of travelling up, and I would have quite happily gone home many a time during the first few weeks. But now I’m home for the summer, I miss uni terribly. I miss my friends, I miss the city, I even miss my lectures and seminars. So give it your best shot, it can feel really hard at times, but before you know it, it will be the Christmas holidays, and if you don’t feel better by then, then uni probably isn’t for you. Which there is no shame in, uni definitely isn’t for everyone. But at least you would have given it a good go, and you know for sure.

On a more practical note: budget. I sat down with my mum a few weeks before uni started and we worked out what allowance I would need on top of my maintenance loan and the savings I had from working over the summer. I opted for uni accomodation with an en suite, which was expensive, I’m not going to lie (it worked out ~£700 a month, bills included, on an 8 month contract), but I am personally glad I did. I then had to budget a lot, because my loan didn’t even cover my accomodation, so I had to watch my pennies. My recommendation would be to cook as much as you can, if you’re going to be on campus all day, take a packed lunch with you, and find the cheapest place to shop locally. I’m lucky in the sense that I am a vegetarian, and vegetarian food from the supermarket is so much cheaper than meat in my experience. I didn’t go out very much, and when I have gone out I’ve never paid more than £5 for a ticket to get in, and never buy any drinks once I’m out. I also don’t drink alcohol (a personal choice), so I didn’t have that to pay for either. I would add at this point that you don’t have to drink if you don’t want to, you can drink occasionally, no-one really cares. I was convinced prior to going to uni that there’s a massive drinking culture at uni, everyone drinks, and you’re considered weird if you don’t drink, and whilst yes, there are a lot of people who like to drink a lot at uni, they don’t care if you drink or not. It’s your business. And, at least at my uni, there are a lot of societies opting for more non-drinking events – laser tag, bowling, and trampolining, to name but a few. So if that’s a concern of yours, don’t worry.

I hope this has helped someone, and I wish everyone going to uni in September the best of luck, and I hope that you enjoy the experience as much as I do!

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: brilliant inside and out

I had heard about The Girl of Ink and Stars many times from many people before I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave – it was Children’s Book of the Month not once but twice at Waterstones, (later going on to win Children’s Book of the Year), was a Financial Times Book of the Year, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Award, and was shortlisted for both the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award. Not only that, but many people I trust for book recommendations and follow online, such as Carrie Hope Fletcher on YouTube, read it and recommended it. And I, as an aspiring young adult author, really wanted to read it.

Initially, many other books got in my way. Naturally, studying an English and Creative Writing degree, I had a lot of poems, novels, short stories, and plays to read for my course, and these obviously took precedence. Everytime I walked into my local Waterstones, there was a lovely display of copies of the book, in windows or on the tables, and I desparately wanted to pick up a copy, but just… didn’t.

But then I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She came to do a guest lecture at my university about writing “children’s” fiction was inspiring, especially for someone like me who sits working on my young adult novel whilst my friends work on amazing pieces that sit nicely under the label of ‘literary fiction’. She was incredibly lovely, no pretenses that the process was easy as she projected the word counts of her numerous drafts to show how the first draft was never the finished product, frank talk about the effect of mental illness on her writing process and how she battled through it, and information about the way things are done publishing-wise either side of the pond. She also discussed with us how ridiculous it is that some books are considered better than others due to their genre, a sentiment I very much share. Needless to say, The Girl of Ink and Stars jumped up my reading list, and I bought a copy almost immediately. And I am so glad I did.

The first thing that amazed me was the beauty of the whole book. The cover itself is gorgeous, but the pages themselves are where the true amazement lies. Each page is decorated like a map in keeping with the protagonist Isabella’s dreams and her father’s job as a cartographer. The result is that every page feels like a step on the journey that the characters undertake, mapping out the unknown of their island. I’ve never seen pages like it, and I urge you to pick up the book if only to see the pages.

The only potential issue with a gorgeous cover is that sometimes the contents don’t quite live up to their presentation.

This book definitely did not have that issue.

The story centres around the character of Isabella, who volunteers to guide a search for her friend after she gets lost in what the people of her village call ‘The Forgotten Territories’. More than eager to explore the island and chart it on a map, following in the footsteps of her father, a cartographer, she ventures in to the Forgotten Territories with the search party, and finds herself facing a lot more trouble than she initially expected.

The exposition of the story is slow and subtle, revealing a world that is not too dissimilar from our own – after all, Kiran Millwood Hargrave does say that the places in all of her novels are real places, but they obviously feature some slight embellishments. The relationships between the characters are great – I particularly enjoyed seeing the friendship between Isabella and Lupe, as a focus on friendship rather than romance is so refreshing to see. The mythic elements were really interesting, and tied well into the rest of the plot.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I feel it could have been a little longer. As it was, at just over 200 pages, I felt the world wasn’t explored to its full potential. I would love to have seen adventures spanning over the whole island in depth, as there are some villages displayed on the map that are barely visited, only for a page or two, and some that are not visited at all. The world of the book was so great, it just seemed a shame to leave it at what felt almost like the bare minimum exploration, especially when the protagonist talks about how much she wants to explore the entire island of Joya throughout the novel.

Overall,  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and adventure, and wants to read something refreshing.