By Hugh Johnson
First year has been a surprising time. The transition from school to university is a change that is heavily stressed, but this doesn’t make the change easier. It is certainly challenging to go from an environment where you are told what to do to being given the freedom that university has to offer. One of the things that I have enjoyed most about my first year of Durham is the friends that I have made here, and I was surprised by how many students older than myself I ended up knowing. First year also has not let down on the side that many expect first year to offer – the fun of sports, societies, nights out and day to day Durham life. However, when I first arrived I came with a certain expectation of what university would be like, and while I have enjoyed my first year, I think that a big realisation many students face is the fact that university is not as you expect it to be, yet everything you knew it would be. The nature of academic work at Durham was not as I had expected it to be, and the year has been challenging for me due to the level of independence I was given in my studies. While this has been a challenging thing, it has also been a crucial development, as through writing many questionable summatives, I have grown to be a more independent worker. Durham is a place that offers a huge variety of activities, and a simple fact that I had never considered before university is that I wouldn’t be able to do them all. For me, first year has been a time to find what areas I want to pursue. I would sum up my first year as a fantastic time that was nothing as I expected it, yet a truly great experience in a university town like no other.
Second year has brought vital but positive change to me, and my perceptions of Durham. Moving from the frenetic, communal energy of first year into the more paced and measured tempo of the second has been an interesting transition. It has shown me something important about university life: you need not indulge people who you do not want to. Whilst the prospect of living in my own windy chateau with only five friends for company may have smacked of social isolation, the truth was far different. One simply sees those one wants to see, you’re always seeing your favourite people, or eating your favourite food, or reading your favourite book. This freedom is a joy. Any stress caused by the increased difficulty of work is offset by this social reality, and the breath of fresh air that has been living in Durham itself, frequenting cafés like faux Parisians, buying stir fries, pasta and sausages (and not much more), the option of a pub a mere five minute walk away. The eyes of the college Big Brother dissipate, and novelties like merely having to step out the door to have a smoke, or cooking dinner at whichever hour tickles your fancy, have certainly introduced me to a freer and more mature Durham. After greater access to events in Durham, the city itself feels more alive. To risk absolute pretentiousness the perception of this ‘new’ Durham is best concluded with an anecdote. Sitting in the burgundy glow of Empty Shop, sipping on a beer with my friends and girlfriend by my side and listening to stand-up poetry I was suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that, honestly, I had thought this was what university would be. Second year has therefore met those expectations, and exceeded them, and Durham looks all the better for it.
By Jake Goldman
Being a student has taught me, to use a tired cliché, far more about the ‘school of life’ than anything else. It has been a true learning curve in so many different ways. For me, it has been an exercise (often unsuccessful) in time management and dealing with crises. I have learned never to give up an opportunity to try something new or challenge yourself. You never know where something may lead, from a new society you’ve joined to an academic contact you’ve discovered in your department, or a new acquaintance you’ve met on a night out or on an all-nighter in the Billy B who will become a close friend in no time at all. Most of all, getting involved in extracurricular activities has been a great way to meet like-minded people. Instead of worrying about what the ‘cool kids’, or indeed your crush, may think of you, worry about the people who care about you, those friends who will look out for you and make sure you are okay,, text you when you are down and come and visit you with food before a deadline. Those are the people who count, and the people who will make the effort to remain close with you for years to come. I’ve also learned, however, that I’m terrible at heeding my own advice. I would tell everybody to not stress about degree, exams and essays; it’s just words on paper! But I spent most of my time fretting and procrastinating. Obviously, our degrees are important, but there is so much more to life! Other things are equally important, in different ways at least. Don’t neglect your mental wellbeing, ability to socialise, and your time alone or with friends relaxing and unwinding. Durham, despite first appearances, has a plethora of people from so many different backgrounds. It may not be a true reflection of society, and it’s vital to remember this in order to not get too caught up in an elite culture that can be quite intimidating. However, there are some incredible people here, and I have really tried to capitalise on speaking to everyone and drawing on their experiences. Never judge a book by its cover is another cliché, but a true one. On first meeting many of my closest friends, I would not believe you if you told me these would become such. Friendships take time to mature and grow, and shared experiences, drunk or sober, are vital in cementing this. It’s not important to know everyone or to be the biggest BNOC. It’s important to be yourself and to find people you enjoy being around. I have been incredibly privileged to spend three years at THE BEST university in the country, which has given me so much academic and social food for thought which I am positive will forever remain with me.
Photograph: Venus Loi via Palatinate Flickr