Well, that’s it – I’ve left university for good. I’m now the proud owner of a first class honours degree in English Literature from the University of Warwick. I am not just Emma Goode, I am Emma Goode BA (hons). I am now a proper person, or at least I will be once I don a silly hat and robes, shake a few hands, and receive a piece of paper that says so.
I’ve packed up my things, transported them all back home, and attempted to fit them into my bedroom, which my mum secretly redecorated for me as an end-of-university surprise (I screamed when I walked in.) Yesterday I spent twelve hours clearing out my room, ruthlessly discarding things I’ve had since I was about seven (including my sentimental childhood collection of those sticky-feet bugs people put on their car bonnets, which I bought every time I went on a school trip anywhere – that was difficult to part with). I made just about enough room to accommodate the towering mountains of crap I managed to accumulate over university. Now I’m the occupant of possibly the tidiest and most organised bedroom in England, and it feels brilliant – something fresh, rather than simply a return to the same-old-same-old of pre-university life. In fact, I’m so proud of it that I’d like to include a picture here. I’d show you a picture of my super-organised, compartmentalised wardrobe too, but feel that would be too much of an intrusion into my private life:
My new room is appropriate for a new start, since things have changed a lot in three years, and I’m not the same person anymore. Now, I’m not usually fan of all that ‘journey of self-discovery’ crap – you are whoever you are at any given point in time, and there isn’t a secret inner self you need to unlock – but I’m interested in looking at how I’ve changed over the three years of my degree. It’s been an epic journey (not quite an odyssey, but close), and an incredibly expensive one too, but it was worth every penny. There have been extreme highs and extreme lows, but even the lowest of my low moments has helped me to develop as a person, and I wouldn’t change a single moment. If you’re thinking of going to university, allow me to guide you through what you can expect. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
It begins the night before you move in for the first time. You’ve got a new haircut, possibly bought some new clothes, with the intention of ‘reinventing’ yourself, and you’re full of resolutions: I’m going to be more confident, I’m going to be more spontaneous, I’m going to take up six new hobbies, I’m going to learn to cook and do my own ironing, I’m going to fall in love. It’s a more extreme version of the start of every school year, when your mum buys you a new pair of Kickers shoes (with a slightly higher, more risqué heel), a new schoolbag (the shabby rucksack is discarded in favour of the cooler Nike drawstring bag, impractical and uncomfortable), and a new pencilcase full of freshly sharpened pencils and an array of scented gel pens. Now, because you’re moving away from home, you’ve naïvely purchased even more pointless junk you will never use, including an egg timer, a steamer, a recipe book, a colour-coordinated stationery set, a desk organiser, and most preposterously, a bottle of fabric conditioner and an iron (get real). It will only take about a week before you realise that students slouch around in clothes that look like crumpled paper bags and smell slightly damp, eat baked beans and pasta out of the saucepan (taking it in turns to use the kitchen’s only fork), and use no stationery other than the leaky biro lurking somewhere underneath the nest of unread handouts creating a wildlife habitat on their desks. Your unused purchases will eventually be sold for ten pence each at a car boot sale. Incidentally, guess what I’m doing next Sunday?
You don’t sleep the night before the big move, excited but also bed-wettingly terrified as you try to imagine what you’ll be doing this time tomorrow night. When your parents drive you up, dump you in your boxy new room with the psychadelic trippy carpet and vomit-coloured curtains, and then swan off home to have a glass of wine and celebrate the prospect of having to wash up one less plate every night, you possibly shed a few tears, in spite of all your resolutions to be grown up about it. You have to hide this from your new corridor friends, despite the fact they are all doing the same thing behind closed doors. Once all the parents are gone, you all mooch out into the shared kitchen or common room, and the embarrassed socialising begins. Oh, the embarrassed socialising. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What are you studying?’ are the three questions issued robotically from your mouth every time you meet anyone else, and you find yourself speaking in a ridiculously exaggerated version of your own accent in order to assert your national identity. Once this initial ground has been covered, you realise you have nothing left to talk about – so the freshers’ t-shirts are donned, the Tesco Value vodka comes out, and the first excruciatingly awkward night out in the union commences. Everyone says freshers’ week is the best week of student life, but it’s really not. It’s weird and surreal. You stand in a circle in a dark, sweaty room with a load of vritual strangers, many of whom you would never have chosen to befriend had you not been thrown together in a corridor, and you are suddenly painfullyaware of how bad your dance moves are. Everyone gets horribly drunk to convince themselves they are having fun; the barriers are broken down when you stumble home at 3am and someone projectile vomits all over the kitchen table. (In my freshers’ week it was a lot worse – someone two corridors below got so drunk he smeared his own poo all over the walls of the corridor. My innocent fresher self believed this was going to be a regular occurrence, and that living in student halls was going to be similar to living in a monkey enclosure. Luckily it was a one-off.)
Socialising is a very odd experience in freshers’ week. You meet more people than you can remember the names of, and for a few days you feel like the most popular person in the universe. The explosion of new adds on your Facebook page attests to this. You join almost every obscure student society going – windsurfing, juggling, mah jong, paintball, curry appreciation, improvised theatre, bell ringing – because ‘that sounds interesting’, and you’re convinced you’ll be able to maintain them all. You’ll maintain one if any, mainly because you discover you’re crap at almost everything, but also because anyone who founds and regularly attends a society based around a board game is, let’s face it, a bit sad and unlikely to become your best friend. Unfortunately, freshers’ week is not reality; you simply can’t sustain such a high level of social interaction. Some people you meet will go on to be your best friends, even friends for life (often, it’s the people you least expect – don’t trust first impressions). As for the others – give it a month and you will be averting your eyes as you shuffle past one another on campus, refusing to acknowledge that singular night when you drunkenly swapped shoes on a rooftop at 4am. After six months one of you will silently cull the other on Facebook, and you’ll both be glad not to have to read the other’s inane, irritating status updates anymore. Then, there’s the other downside of meeting so many strangers: the inevitable freshers’ flu. You simply don’t know where people have been. You suffer from an almost permanent sniffle throughout the year, which often escalates into a more full-blown illness, often conveniently when you have an essay deadline or a seminar you don’t fancy attending. The other kind of sickness is homesickness, which sets in once the craziness of freshers’ week has subsided into the more humdrum existence of life without your mum to bring you a cup of tea and a digestive whenever you get stressed. Hopefully, your hall friends will become your substitute family – but rather than cheering you up by letting you come to Sainsbury’s and use the bleepy scanner to buy posh food, they will distract you from your sadness with sheer silliness.
And the silliness is very, very silly. In first year, you forget that you are supposed to be a civilised human being who has come to university to receive an advanced education. You are too occupied with throwing each others’ mattresses out of top floor windows, having roly-poly races down the corridor, building giant fortresses in the kitchen, battering down the door while someone else is in the shower, and throwing eggs at one another whilst wearing kitchen utensils as armour (these are all things we did). Humour becomes incredibly puerile. On my first snow day at uni, I opened my curtains to see a giant penis artistically drawn in the snow on the tennis court below. It was beautiful. I was dared to put my foot in the toilet and flush it, and to lick mayonnaise off someone’s face. The boys got points for doing wees with the toilet door open and not getting caught, bonus points if they did it on another corridor, and points if they caught someone else in the act (‘danger weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’). I look back on these things with nostalgia, but I’d never do them now – we’ve all grown up a lot since then, and penises no longer draw so much as a stifled titter from anyone. With all the silliness going on in halls, you forget that you’re supposed to be doing work, but it doesn’t matter because nothing counts in first year. If you get more than five books out of the library over the course of the entire year, you’re considered a sickening keeno; if your bedroom door is shut, it is assumed you are either out or dead, as it’s not possible that you could actually be writing an essay. Your marks are unfailingly mediocre, and you start to wonder if maybe you’re stupid and not cut out for university, especially when you compare yourself to the pretentious guy in the beret who has somehow managed to end up in all of your seminars and who accuses you of having a ‘bourgeois attitude’ whenever you make a placefiller comment to prove you’re not asleep. This guy is, luckily, an anomaly, and probably talking a load of rubbish. Later you’ll realise that you’re not stupid, and that you were simply a lazy arse in first year.
That’s why second year can come as a bit of a shock: you suddenly have to be a lot more responsible. The novelty of moving from the cushy world of halls into a rented student house wears off when it dawns on you that Maureen the cleaner isn’t there to clean up the broken eggs left all over the kitchen floor after last night’s rousing egg-throwing battle (I laugh as I write this. She was not happy about that, poor Maureen). You also realise that your student house, as ‘cute’ as it looks from the outside, is in fact on the verge of collapsing: it has a creepy slug-infested dungeon/basement where people were probably tortured in the past, the kitchen and bathroom are mouldy, you have to light the stove with a match, the cupboard door falls off in your hand every time you open it, and even if the heating had any effect, everyone is too stingy to want to turn it on. Instead, you wander around with a hot water bottle stuffed under your three jumpers, and sit hunched over your laptop attempting to write an essay in fingerless gloves and a hat as the freezing wind shakes the rotten window-frame (is this Soviet Russia or something?). If the boiler doesn’t explode, and the internet doesn’t go down after rats chew through the cable, the toaster will probably cause the entire electric system to blow, leaving you shivering in the dark like someone from a Second World War documentary. Still, there are many benefits to living in a house: house parties, for example. A spontaneous house party, where only the elite are invited, is always better than the student union’s pitiful attempts to organise fun – and if a dodgy song comes on, you simply change the track. Unfortunately, you can only have about two parties before the non-student neighbours despise you, post angry notes through your letter box, complain about the weeds in your front garden and glare at you from their window every time you walk past. The presence of neighbours reminds you that now you have to live in the real world.
Living in the real world also involves doing work, because now, things actually count towards your degree. You start to spend more and more time in the library, largely because it’s actually warm in there, but your finances are seriously run down by the fact you take about three coffee breaks an hour. In fact, the library is more of a social experience than a place of work. Coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, a quick walk around campus? Sure, why not! The essays and assignments do get finished, however, and when the marks come back you discover that when you put work into something, you’re actually quite clever. You now know things: very esoteric, course-specific things that have no practical use in the real world, true, but things nonetheless. When you go home and your relations ask you what you’ve been learning, you’re officially allowed to attempt to explain in baby language before giving up and concluding, ‘It’s a bit complicated for you, really,’ in a patronising voice. You slip words like dialogism and carnivalesque, orientalism and gnomic into your everyday conversation, seemingly unaware of the baffled looks you receive. You’ve become that guy with the beret in your seminar, but now the shoe is on the other foot you’re loving it. However clever you sound, however, by the time it gets to third term – the dreaded exam term – you suddenly realise that you know nothing, and sheer panic sets in. Exam term turns you into a monstrous stress beast: your skin breaks out from stress, your fridge contains nothing but pizza and microwave meals, you wander around with purple circles under your eyes making faint moaning noises like something that has just emerged from the grave. The lead falling out of your pencil is enough to trigger a fit of hysterical tears, and everything your housemates do makes you want to scream – but because everyone’s under the same pressure, no one actually falls out in earnest. Before you know it, exams are over, and if you’ve put in the work then you will probably do quite well. But you’re two-thirds of the way through your degree, and you have no idea how it went by so quickly; before you know it, summer has gone and you’re a finalist, the university equivalent of an old-age pensioner.
By the time you reach third year, you’ve grown up. You’ve realised who your true friends are, and it’s not just the people who have stuck by you since freshers’ week: you’ve made some surprising new friends too. That guy with the beret? He’s actually pretty cool once you get to know him. The things you did in first year seem like a senseless blur. Did you really stay up almost until dawn every night? Now, you’re in bed by ten o’ clock with a mug of hot milk, Classic FM and a nice book to send you to sleep; you just can’t hack more than the occasional crazy night out nowadays. Did you really throw eggs at your friends whilst wearing a colander on your head? Tsh, that would be a nightmare to get out of the upholstery. When did you find time to do work? Right now you’ve got two essays and a presentation to write. And how could you eat pasta and pesto for dinner almost every night? That doesn’t sound very nutritional. You’ve finally learnt how to cook, and you’re practically a michelin-starred chef now, wrapping chicken breasts in pancetta and oven-roasting sweet potato chips with a sprinkle of paprika and marinading a nice fillet of salmon in a bit of soy sauce with some ginger. In fact, you’re starting to wish you hadn’t sold that electric whisk for ten pence at a car boot sale last summer, because you really fancy whipping up a batch of orange and polenta muffins to take along to your next revision session.
Yes, revision sessions happen, because this is the year you have to pull it out of the bag. It’s the year in which you will probably want to find a graduate job or an MA course, and your results may very well determine whether you’ll succeed or not (you never thought about all this stuff when you were sticking your foot down the toilet and flushing it for giggles). You might as well take your duvet and toothbrush and some dry shampoo with you to the library, because you’ve basically become a permanent fixture in there. You make ‘library buddies’, people who you know because they sit in the same place in the library as you, all day, every day; you nod and smile at these people and exchange knowing looks with them (‘You again, eh? How’s the dissertation going?’) but the unspoken rule is that if you see them outside of the library you are not to acknowledge one another. What happens in the library stays in the library, and once you’re outside and blinking in the sunlight, you don’t want to see anything that reminds you of that awful place with its grey carpet, strip lighting and the fascist beady-eyed library stewards who constantly try and confiscate your coffee (even though you both know you’re going to keep drinking it anyway).
You’re old and wise now, and you like to adopt a cyncial, disillusioned air, referring to your own degree as ‘a joke’, making wisecracks about the avalanche of debt about to crash down on your head, and discarding all the university paraphernalia you bought in an exciteable frenzy during freshers’ week – the hoody, the t-shirt, the mug, the keyring, even (in the case of my university) the ‘undie-graduate’ thong – as all this stuff is now considered overenthusiastic and deeply uncool. While you were an intimidated mute in your first year seminars, you are now best mates with all your lecturers, calling them by their first names, possibly even going to the pub and attempting to get them drunk after seminars, at the same time as bitching about them behind their backs to your friends (be warned if you’re going to do this: the acoustics in those lecture theatres are far too good…). The lecturer’s word is no longer god, and you have started to form your own opinions on things, opinions that might even be valid. Exams come round again, and yes, they’re just as horrible as the last set, if not even more horrible, because if you screw up this time you won’t get a chance to rectify it. Third term before exams is pretty much a realisation of your very worst nightmare, but third term after exams – a period of sheer, unadulterated laziness, entire days in bed watching movies, basking in the sun in the park (sunlight! Fresh air! You forgot what that was like), meeting friends for breakfast, brunch, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner, drinks and nights out – more than makes up for it. Until you open your purse and discover tumbleweed blowing across a desert wasteland, and you have to start eating odd combinations of tinned sweetcorn mixed with couscous and enough emergency frozen potato wedges to fill an American school canteen in order to use up your food before the end. Life without any structure is actually quite boring, and that’s when you start looking forward to the next stage of your life, whatever that may be.
Then it’s the emotional whirlwind that is graduation ball, results day, and the saying of all your final farewells. You repeatedly experience the awkward moment when you say ‘See you later then!’ knowing full well that you won’t see that person later. ‘Have a nice life,’ is too blunt; ‘See you at the ten-year reunion, when I’ll hopefully be richer, more successful and more youthful than you,’ too optimistic, and so you perform a happy little charade in which you both pretend you’re going to bump into each other in Tesco next Tuesday. But you’ll probably never see either that person or that Tesco again, because – what seems like five minutes after you first unpacked your egg-timer and colour-coordinated stationery in that boxy room with the vomit curtains and then hugged your parents goodbye – your parents have arrived to pick you up, and you’re desperately attempting to bundle all your stuff into the car, wondering whether you hadn’t better call up Eddie Stobart to come and pick up the contents of your wardrobe alone. And that brings you to where I am right now, sitting in my room at home, reminiscing about the amazing three years I’ve had and wondering what’s going to happen next. I’m not as sad about leaving as I thought I’d be; I’m ready to move on, and I’ve got living in London and doing my MA next year to be excited about. I’m a little envious of all those who have what I’ve just described here yet to come, but one day they’ll be in this position too. I’ve had my time. Now, it’s time for adult life to begin, and I’m looking forward to being independent and (hopefully) earning a living, maybe even writing a novel. In one final unnecessary literary simile before I give up my academic career (for now at least): Odysseus has returned to Ithaca, and it’s time to start killing those bloody suitors.