Things that you appreciate more at the end of an Undergraduate Degree

I feel bad that I’ve gone through another 6 month blogging hiatus. However, in that time I have written 18,000 words of assessed essays, sat 3 exams constituting 20% of my degree within 3 days… and completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Warwick. Cut me some slack! Still, I wanted to get back on the blogging wagon, so here I am, even if it has taken me a few weeks of hitting the reset switch since my final exam to get around to doing it. This post is all about things which I have come to appreciate more now that my undergraduate degree is over. They are either things I missed because I was away at university, or, long for now that I am back home in Norfolk and removed from The Bubble. Personally, I have been glad to have certain things back in my life. But, simultaneously, I feel there are things I enjoyed at university, perhaps without realising it, that I am missing already. As I said, they are all things I appreciate more at the end of my degree. Things I appreciate having back

  • Reading for pleasure 

When you’re in the study zone, revising for hours of the day, trudging through notes and scribbling onto flashcards indefinitely, is it surprising when reading for pleasure takes a backseat? For me it certainly did. I’d been pouring over words all day, I didn’t want to add more onto my plate for these past few months! Moreover, it isn’t just the weariness of reading all day that put me off the pursuit of fiction in my spare time… it’s the way you think about what you read which put me off as well. Studying for humanities essays and exams, you critically analyse sources as a fundamental part of your higher education. At the end of my exams, I tried reading to wind down soon after. But I found no enjoyment or relaxation therein. I was over-thinking and critically interpreting the novels. My brain hadn’t switched back from exam/essay mode. And it sucked. It killed the reading experience for me. Gradually reading for pleasure came back to me. I don’t know what triggered it, but it probably came with activities which helped put a distance between me and my exams: watching crap TV, heading to the pub, going on long bike rides and eagerly returning to exercise. Since the end of my exams I have read hungrily, and it has felt amazing to read for pleasure once again.

  • Access to a dishwasher

Living with 12 people and sharing a kitchen with them hasn’t changed much since first year (I lived in the same campus accommodation in final year as I did as a fresher… made for some very strange deja vu moments). People don’t clean up after themselves, leave dirty dishes in the sink for days on end, and shared spaces deteriorate very quickly with only 2/3 inconsiderate people in a group of 12. As a bit of a clean freak, I found this particularly hard. But whatever- it’s over now, and I feel that I kept myself (relatively) in check… Although some of my housemates may disagree. Borderline psychotic Facebook group posts aside… I think I kept it together pretty well! Anyway, getting back home and having access to that magical machine known as a dishwasher was fantastic. No dreading the end of a meal because you have to stand and wash all the utensils, pots and pans. Honestly, they make life so much simpler and it’s easy to take this everyday appliance for granted.

  • Being back in the countryside

This is a matter of personal taste, of course. But as a guy from the sticks, I certainly missed big open spaces, rural quiet, and being so close to the beach. I know rural life isn’t for everyone, and living nearer to urban areas has its benefits as well… But at several times during my final year at Warwick I longed for the big skies, fresh air, scenery, and quiet that comes with living in rural East Norfolk. Even in Norwich, you’re never more than 10-15 minutes from fields and countryside! Best of both worlds if you ask me. And the beaches. Seriously, Norfolk’s beaches are so underrated. Holkham, Wells, Winterton, Sea Palling all have golden soft sand, beautiful dunes and all the makings of a sterling beach holiday destination. I think coming back from uni after my final exams made me appreciate home even more. Side note: The Telegraph recently named Noroflk the classiest county to live in! I’m glad my home county is being taken a bit more seriously, and receiving more positive, balanced press. I may be biased but I think it’s deserved!

  • Access to a car

When studying at Warwick, it was impractical and unnecessary for me to have a car. I share my Mum’s car anyway (haven’t needed my own, so never saw the point in buying one for the sake of it), so couldn’t bring it even if I desperately wanted to. However, linked to the above point about being back in the countryside, you certainly need a vehicle here to get around and enjoy things. But the ability to head off and visit friends, places or the city, in private transport, on your own time, is great to have back. I don’t really mind buses, but you have to plan your time better, and it isn’t as flexible. Moreover, especially in Noroflk, there are just some places you cannot get to because there are no public transport options which reach them! Or, they exist, but they’re so convoluted and time-consuming the impracticality makes them nigh on impossible anyway.

Things I miss having 

  • Omnipresent coffee vendors

Instant coffee does a job. But then again, so does ITV’s coverage of the World Cup… But it’s not the real mccoy. Give me coffees based on espressos and the glory of the BBC any day of the week. On campus, I was never more than a 5 minute walk from a cafe which sold proper coffee. In the foray of dissertation writing and exam revision, I came to depend slightly on the boost a strong cup of coffee in one form or another. Still, I took it for granted. Now I am back home, in a village with no coffee shops of any description, and there is an espresso cup-shaped hole in my life. Admittedly, where there’s a will there’s a way, and some of the nearby pubs or cafes must serve proper coffee. But, with the ease and low cost of campus coffee, they don’t really compare.

  • Gym access

I need fitness in my life in one form or another, and the gym is my preferred outlet for physical exercise by a long stretch. On campus I lived within sight of a very decent gym facility, had access at an extremely reasonable student rate, and enjoyed a diverse range of equipment and free weights to support whatever fitness regime I chose. Now I am back home, I do so miss the equipment required for squats, deadlifts, bench presses and so on. I looked into gym membership here but I balked at £25-40 monthly membership fees, limited equipment, and up to 40 minute drives to even reach them. I most definitely took the university gym for granted, and miss having access to it. The silver lining is I have altered my workout routine, and I am focusing on classic bodyweight exercises like pushups, pullups and dips. It’s very beneficial to change it up with exercise routines every few weeks, so in a way the lack of a gym has forced my hand here, but to my own benefit. I will be writing a separate post all about this shortly, because I really have felt the bodyweight shift has been a positive change.

  • Student Immersion

I love my family and friends back home, and the following does not detract from that at all. BUT, as a student you get used to living and working on campus, surrounded by thousands of people who are working towards similar goals as you, that are like-minded and approach life in comparable ways to you. This is not to say that there are not people like this back home, of course there are. There just isn’t a comparable concentration or volume of these people. Again, this is possibly due to living in the sticks. But as a student, I love being surrounded by other students. Being able to drift unexpectedly to a pub on a Tuesday afternoon, and for it to still have a decent amount of people and hubub going on despite the random timing makes the experience that much better. Bumping into a classmate in Tesco’s and nattering as you do your grocery shopping makes the essential but dull activity much more bearable. I’m ever so grateful to be home, but I do miss the student community.

All is not lost…. Overall, there are several things that I have come to appreciate more now that I have finished my undergraduate degree. I’m sure there are many more that I could talk about, but these were the things which came to my mind first. But, as to the things I miss having as part of student life… I’m not losing them completely, just because I’m done at Warwick. Since my last blog post I applied for post graduate study and funding in the USA. I am very pleased and excited to be undertaking an MA in Public History at New Mexico State University! This is subject to a Visa meeting at the US embassy but hopefully that will go smoothly. Otherwise everything else is pretty much in place! I cannot wait to undertake this next step, further my education, get to know a new area and new people, and study abroad all over again.

Prepare yourself USA, the Wandering Canary is coming back!

(^ Visa pending, haha!!!)

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Things which make Final Year more bearable

It has been far too long. However, I began this blog as a means of recording my year abroad, and the experiences I had or observations I made in California. Since coming back to England, it has been very difficult to adjust my understanding of this blog to a new context, what I have come to call “The Post-Year Abroad Hangover”. Returning after such a phenomenal experience was always going to be hard. There are so many people and things that I miss in the Golden State. This is only compounded by how challenging the Final Year  of university is.

However, rather than get bogged down in these sobering thoughts, I decided it would be more positive and healthy to look at some of the things which, for me at least, are making Final Year just that little bit more bearable.

Hopefully, if there are any other finalists out there feeling a little blue, who happen to read this, it might make them feel a little bit more positive too.

Here are the things which, for me, make Final Year that much more bearable:

A Huge Wall Planner

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This faces me as I sit at my desk in my room. It’s big, it’s right in my face, and it’s almost impossible to ignore. Which is perfect. It really helps me to visualise the coming weeks, know what lies ahead, and prepare accordingly. I would recommend buying one of these to any university student, not just final years. You can get really cheap ones from Amazon or other online stores. I paid a little bit more, but the planner was larger, which is what I was looking for.

Photos, lots of photos (and a flag…)

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I have surrounded said wall planner with photos or postcards of my family, friends, and places I have visited. When I’m buried in some horrendously dense (or scientific, which is perhaps even more vile for a history student) political theory or petty historiographical disagreement, it’s lovely to be able to look up from it all, see these images, and smile. Never fails to lighten my mood. (Note how the Beverly Hills postcard is upside down- could not be a more fitting summary of my time spent there!)

DSC_0913 I have a picture of Ashley right by my side too, who also never fails to make me smile. But enough of the soppyness. On a less mushy note, I also have a customised mousemat with a picture of my cat on it as well. Anya is far too plump to ever catch a real mouse, unless it’s nearly dead anyway. So I would like to think this is a small consolation for her, in her woefully inadequate huntress skills. DSC_0915Before I left California, I got all my wonderful friends to sign a state flag, which now hangs on my wall (shhh, don’t tell my Resident Tutor or Warwick Accommodation…) Credit for this idea goes to Ashley, who did the same thing after her year in Brasil. Hers is much more packed than mine! It’s not a photo, but the messages are special to me. Things like this are great for lightening the burden of the Final Year, especially after a year abroad.

Communication Apps

Seriously, having a smart phone really is a wonderful blessing. Useful apps allow me to communicate with my girlfriend, my friends scattered across the globe, and those who aren’t, in dynamic ways. Here is my list of must-download communication apps:

  • Whatsapp: text internationally send voice recordings and pictures for free (at least for the first year of use anyway).
  • Viber: similar to the above, but it actually lets you make calls too, as long as you have internet.
  • Google Hangouts: again, a messaging platform that allows you to send photos for free, engage in group conversations, and to make video calls.
  • Snapchat: fun and entertaining means of sending pictures, which can be as silly or sublime as you choose to make them. The possibilities are vast.
  • Skype: does it really need a description? A lifesaver in terms of free communication, whether that be national or international.

Healthy Eating + Regular Exercise = Happy Finalist

I know everyone bangs on about how beneficial a good diet and regular exercise is. But in your final year, you NEED a means of de-stressing and you MUST stay healthy. Still, I know that exercise isn’t for everyone, and in some cases, it can actually stress people out rather than alleviate it. But if this is the case, perhaps you haven’t found the right type of exercise for you? Try a new sport, take a zumba class, get off the bus two stops early, whatever it is. Having some form of exercise in your life really helps. It can provide a welcome break between study sessions, it helps you sleep, and benefits your long term health.

Same goes for a healthy diet. Why not break up the afternoon of studying with a cereal bar and a glass of water? This will stave off hunger until dinner, and allow you to stay in the library that little bit longer. Or maybe a mug of green tea and a banana? Energising, anti-oxidising, and cancer fighting, all in one snack!

On the subject of healthy eating…

Cous-Cous

Bear with me on this one. Students seem to default to pizza, Pot Noodles, or pasta as a quick and easy meal. Which they are, I’m not denying this. However, cous-cous is very quick to make, much healthier, and very tasty as well. Boil the kettle, crumble half a stock cube into a bowl of cous-cous. Add the boiling water. Bang, the carb section of your meal is sorted. And no naughty potatoes or pasta in sight. No saucepans to wash up either. Which is always a bonus. Combine it with a simple vegetable mix with a tin of tomatoes; houmous; or perhaps a tin of tuna and some sweet chilli sauce: voila, you have a very satisfying meal! Or, put it in a tupperware and hey presto: you have a healthy lunch without boring sandwiches as well.

Source: BBC Good Food

Cooking CAN be a chore. But with simple, fast, tasty components like cous-cous, meal preparation doesn’t have to be another dreaded task.

Living on Campus

I know this isn’t for everyone. Returning to campus and reliving first year couldn’t be more off-putting for some. But for me, this was an excellent option. I was relieved to have the opportunity to organise campus accommodation during my year abroad. It meant I didn’t have to coordinate renting a property from thousands of miles away, potentially without ever even visiting it. Plus it means I don’t have to get the bus to campus everyday. I can roll out of bed and be at the gym, the library, or any given lecture or seminar within a ten minute walk. If a book I REALLY need becomes available at a strange hour, I can get to the library and secure it much sooner, and with less hassle, than if I lived a 20-30 minute bus ride away.

During final year you have a lot to prioritise and many tasks to be juggling. For me, proximity to campus has made achieving all of this much easier, and for that reason I am very glad I chose to live on campus for my final year.

CARPE DIEM

Don’t forget, your final year of university has huge potential to be, wait for it, ENJOYABLE. University offers a wealth of activities, societies, events and social potential. Take a trip hiking the Three Peaks. Go to a beer festival. Play 5-a-side football. Not only are these opportunities prolific, they can actually be pretty cheap. Societies subsidise trips, universities host events for free, you have a rail card for one more year (at least)! As long as you keep a good balance between work and play, and don’t lose sight of your degree- the potential to “go out with a bang” are fantastic!

There IS Light at the End of the Tunnel

The Future is scary. Job prospects are bleak, CV writing is a mysterious art, and the KFC Graduate Scheme might not offer you the comfort you’re seeking. This is unavoidably true.

However, The Future is also exciting. When I feel crushed by the weight of the impending real world, or existentially pessimistic at the thought of a career, I remind myself that things don’t need to be as bleak as I’m making them out to be.

It’s a new phase of your life. You get to take charge of the future in new ways. People do get jobs after university, and keeping in touch with my friends who have already graduated serves as an excellent reminder of this fact. Whether you go on to post-graduate studies, a flurry of internshhips, travel, a job, or whatever: you’ve completed and achieved something. And that’s worth remembering.

Still, if you don’t want to be as abstract and wishy-washy as that, then be more grounded. Think: come June 2014, you might have sat your LAST EVER EXAM. Think: as you hand in your dissertation, you may NEVER HAVE TO WRITE AN ESSAY AGAIN. You might never need to footnote again! And if they aren’t somewhat exciting prospects, I don’t know what are.

So overall, I just want to say: don’t let Final Year get you down. It is tough. There is a lot to do. But if it’s getting to you, pause. Take a breath. Try and see things differently. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but I genuinely believe there are lots of things that can make your Final Year more bearable. Who knows. You could even say enjoyable.

Finals in the US

Well this is the first of several, long-overdue posts about the end to my first term at UCSB. I figured that I should work chronologically, so here are some thoughts on the examination process this side of the Pond. I am actually writing this in Santa Barbara Airport- I arrived ridiculously early, and it’s strangely deserted. However, I have the view of the mountains to keep me company, so it’s not so unbearable.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the system here, or haven’t read one of my posts before, the University of California Santa Barbara uses the Quarter System. There are three ten weeks terms, and you change classes for each. Therefore, all your studying, participation, midterms and finals all take place in this relatively short period of time. As a result, the quarters can go by very quickly, and I can personally testify to this. My first quarter has flown by.

However, I have to be brutally honest, the examination methods seem…. favourable for students? I’m not sure if that is an adequate description, but perhaps if I list some of the examination types I have either experienced or heard about, you might get my drift. For all the UK readers out there, keep in mind that this is like-for-like as a third year student..

  1. Multiple Choice:
    We have these in the UK, of course, but no-where near as frequently. Sometimes entire finals can be 50 multiple choice papers. I guess the downside to these questions is that I have heard they can have misleading answers to choose from, or they can be absurdly specific. If a lecturer mentioned what seemed like and aside during the quarter, these seemingly insignificant facts could well form a part of a multiple choice question. Nevertheless, most people I have spoken to have found these quite easy.
  2. Fill-in-the-blanks:
    60% of my American Literature mid-term AND finals were based on this. It required pure memorisation- authours, titles, and basic images or themes in poems or short novel extracts. 40% were essay questions, but even in the final, this consisted of two 1 page essay responses. I had three hours to complete this exam, I doubled the essay response required with 4 pages of essays (any less would have been ridiculous, take my word for it), I took my time and read the questions thoroughly etc, and I still finished in under half the allocated time. I haven’t been examined with such short essay responses expected since high school, and even some of those like my History GCSE were longer than this…
  3. “Take-Home Essays”:
    Now this really was alien. This was an assigned list of questions…. which you chose between… had to respond to from home…. by an assigned date… just like any other essay you might have for homework… except it has a “Take-Home” attached to the name… Why not just call it an essay? I had two classes that had no finals, but the major assessment method in each, as it were, consisted of two 12-15 page essays. That’s fine, I get it. I didn’t have a “Take-Home Essay”, but the only minute difference I can see is the time frame. These essays are set quite late in the quarter (compared to the major ones I had to do) so you have a smaller turnaround to complete them, but they do tend to be shorter: 5 or so pages. 5 pages double-spaced, I should add….
  4. Presentations:
    Ok, so this wasn’t an actual Final examination method for me, so to speak, but it formed part of an attempt to get “extra credit”. Personally, I haven’t really experienced opportunities for additional marks or credit in the UK, so I was interested to see how this system panned out in the States. In one of my classes, you could gain extra credit by reviewing the recent Lincoln movie… I didn’t take the Professor up on this, and elected for another option: presenting the thesis of my long essay. I was able to do this in two of my classes. I had to present my arguments/s, explain some of my sources, discuss any problems I was facing in writing it (the presentation came before the deadline, obviously) and invite any comments or questions from other members of the class. The idea was we could get some feedback and respond to this before the deadline, and in theory this was a great idea. However, when you have various members of the class, looking at wildly different topics, all at different stages of writing the writing process, the results could be mixed to say the least.

Overall, I have to admit that the experience of finals in the US tends to reinforce my conclusion on the general comparison between the education systems across the Pond. In the US, you have a larger, denser volume of work (comparatively, in the 10 week period), which you get through quicker, but it tends to be easier. In the UK, your assessments are less densely packed, but harder and generally longer in length (in terms of essays, exams, etc.) Moreover, the marking system is different: to attain top marks in the US, an A+, you have to be hitting 95%+ in the exams. To get a First in the UK, the percentage is technically lower, 70+ marks secured out of 100. Nonetheless, I feel that receiving a First in the UK is as hard as getting an A+ in the States, if not harder, because the expectations and requirements you have to meet to get a First are very high, even if you only get a red”70″ at the top of your paper, and not a “96”.

I am not necessarily passing judgement or drawing any conclusions on which system is “better” or “harder”… I’ll leave that up to you readers. However, I hope in reading this post, you can understand some of the differences, similarities and comparisons that I have experienced first-hand. If this helps you draw your own conclusions, or offers an interesting affirmation or contrast to your own experience, then all the better.

(Featured Image courtesy of http://www.socialstudent.co.uk/)