Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Review: My First Year at University

As you may or may not know I just finished my first year of university. Throughout the past year I've done update posts at the end of each term (see term 1, term 2 and term 3) but I thought I'd do more of a general post to wrap up the year and reflect a bit more on what I have and haven't enjoyed. In fact, since I'm going to break it down into sections lets call this a review - see the links above for the more personal life stuff/drama if you're interested in that. I've been watching a lot of 'my first year at uni' videos on YouTube and they've been really interesting to compare my experience to and generally get an idea of what other people's first years have been like. So I hope this might help anyone who's trying to decide where to apply to uni (especially my university) or just wants a general idea of what to expect. Get ready because this is going to be a long one!

The city
I don't think I've said it in as many words before (kind of for privacy reasons but whatever, I'm sure I've said it on instagram) but I go to Durham University. Durham is a really small city about 3 and a half hours from London on the train, way up north near Newcastle. It's most famous for its beautiful cathedral and castle, and its medieval origin means it's full of little alleyways, quaint caf├ęs and cobblestone roads, while the river that runs through the city makes for lots of scenic spots. The centre isn't the best place for shopping but there's a New Look, Topshop and H&M which is all I really need! And of course there's a post office, banks, Boots, WH Smiths, Tesco etc, basically everything you might need on a day to day basis while Newcastle just a 10 minute train journey away for a much bigger range of shops. Durham is small, really small for a city, but that makes it friendly and it feels safe even after dark. The small size also means it's walkable, and it's a running joke that you can get from one side of the city to the other on foot in about half an hour.


To be honest location wasn't the most important thing to me when I was choosing where to apply because I was simply thrilled enough at the prospect of living in the UK. All I knew was that I didn't want to live in London - it just seemed like too big a step to make at this point in my life although I think I would like to live there at some point in the future. From a practical point of view it would have been more convenient to go to uni somewhere further south as it would be closer to London and therefore easier to get the Eurostar home, but in the end I made my choice based more on Durham's reputation than anything else. I'd visited once, back in February after I got my UCAS offer, but it wasn't an open day so my mum and I had just wandered around a bit and tried to get a feel for the place. I felt at home straight away and I'm really glad I made the choice I did because I've grown to love Durham. For me it was exactly the right decision, also since it meant I was able to adapt to life in the UK more easily than I might have done in a big city. It's also provided me with lots of instagram opportunities!

Durham Uni is an odd mixture between a campus uni and a city uni - which is sort of ideal because I couldn't decide which I preferred. In a way the university is the city, purely because it's such a small city and the buildings and colleges are quite spread out. For instance some subjects, such as theology and music, are mostly taught on the Bailey (which is the bit with the cathedral which sticks out into the river) while the languages department is close to the centre of town. Most other departments are located on the 'science site', a 15-20 minute walk from the centre and roughly central to all the colleges. For me this was the perfect set-up, as I was hesitant about choosing a campus uni because I didn't want to get trapped in a bubble but also a bit apprehensive about the idea of having to travel around a big city just to get to lectures.

The course
I study geography (BA, any fellow geographers will understand the important distinction between BA and BSc) and this year I really enjoyed most of my course. I am VERY much interested in the human side of geography rather than the physical side (think population, migration, politics and cities instead of mountains, glaciers and rivers) but unfortunately I had a compulsory physical module in first year. I understand that the point is to have a good grounding in all aspects of geography, especially since there is an area of crossover between the two, but to be honest it was difficult to think rationally about that when I was having to research the effect of vegetation on river channel patterns or the factors that drive the ice ages. I literally DO NOT CARE AT ALL about any of that so it was only essay deadlines and the prospect of exams that got me through such boring topics. It also didn't help that I was starting pretty much from scratch with physical geography, as we focused a lot more on the human side at school and the last time I did anything about e.g. rivers was 2nd year secondary (so aged about 12). The only thing I had a small amount of background knowledge on was weather, but the lecturers seemed to be trying to cover literally every aspect of physical geography in a few months including climate, tectonics, water, ice ages and sea level rise. Geography isn't actually a required subject for entry which was slightly comforting, but everyone I spoke to had studied it at A-level where I understand there is more of a focus on the physical side. Case in point: my final bac exam was on the composition and history of the EU's parliament and other institutions, while someone on my course's A-level exam was on coastal management.

I'd considered other courses at other unis before I decided on Durham, mostly because they were more flexible in terms of what modules you could take in first year, as while a lot of unis have compulsory modules in human and physical (both BA and BSc) there a few who don't and I was desperate to find a way to avoid the dreaded physical. In the end the reputation and quality of teaching and research at Durham won out and I endured a year of reluctantly learning about earth systems, but it was honestly the worst part of my whole university experience. Think of a school subject you really didn't enjoy and were forced to take, then imagine that at university level where you have to read academic articles on stuff you find deathly boring and also don't understand - yeah, not good. On the plus side, there was an awful lot of stuff I was interested in which helped me struggle through the boring stuff. For instance, blocks I really enjoyed covered cities in the Middle East, landscape, domestic violence, the financial crisis and the migrant crisis. I also got along pretty well with my compulsory research module, in which we received a grounding in methods that would help us carry out various pieces of research. Luckily next year should be a lot more interesting as I've chosen modules that I actually enjoy, though there are still some compulsory ones.

For me one of the most exciting things about uni was being in an academically stimulating environment with so many lecturers who are truly world experts in their field. It's not like school where you might sometimes wonder if the teacher has even studied the subject, let alone is qualified to teach it - these people know their stuff, and the reading lists were full of books and articles written by the teaching staff. Speaking of reading lists, holy moly it was overwhelming. I don't know what other unis and courses are like, but for every lecture we were expected to read about 2-3 journal articles, which may not sound like a lot but they can be 40ish pages and with 9 lectures per week it got on top of me really quickly. I struggled to even read one article per lecture even for subjects I found really interesting, and when it came to my physical module I basically didn't bother with anything more than the recommended textbook after a couple of weeks - what with reading for essays, prepping for tutorials and practicals, writing up lecture notes and generally trying to sleep and have a bit of a social life it was too much to handle. So yes, I found my course quite demanding but I also knew it was to be expected, especially at a high-ranking uni (also since Durham is ranked 2nd in the UK for geography, woop).


I should probably also mention that I chose to do a French module as one of my optional ones which for me was a really good choice. I'd studied French for 13 years (and taken some subjects in it at school, including geography) not to mention lived in a French-speaking country nearly all my life so it seemed a shame not to keep it up a bit longer. I'm by no means a natural linguist and I have next to no confidence speaking in another language, although my writing is pretty decent, so for me this was a great opportunity to improve my confidence orally in a different environment from what I was used to. The course was aimed at post-A-level ability, which to be honest was much lower than what I'd been doing at school, so for once I found I was one of the best in the class (not trying to sound arrogant here I promise!) and that really encouraged me to participate and speak up more. It also meant that it was a module I didn't feel too worried about, as nothing was really new and I didn't have to work that hard at it. Most of the course consisted of speaking exercises in pairs or small groups, re-learning grammar and reading or watching news reports and videos about French society and culture. The only thing I felt was lacking was any writing, as we did a few small exercises but not as much as I was used to and I missed gabbling away in French on paper! I also really enjoyed having a break from geography and learning in a completely different way, which is the main reason I've decided to take the next level up next year to try and carry it on a bit further.

Accommodation
One of Durham's distinguishing features is its college system. You can think of colleges like Hogwarts houses - they're kind of like halls in that they function as accommodation but they also have their own facilities, sports teams and societies, as well as identities and reputations. I'm not going to talk specifically about my college, but I know it was the college experience that really made my year at Durham. I think it can be easy to get lost in a big university where everything is so anonymous so it was so wonderful to be able to experience student life at a smaller scale. Everything at college level is so much less scary than uni level, from joining societies to playing sports or just heading down to the bar of an evening - which made such a difference to someone like me who's introverted and isn't that great at socialising. For example, when I was studying for my exams I found it much less intimidating to revise in my college library than to head to the university's main library. It was also really easy to meet new people not on your course and from different years as everyone eats together and there are so many fun college events throughout the year, from formal dinners and balls to bar quizzes and secret santa! There's also a whole support system of people to help if you have a problem or just point you in the right direction, which was so lovely when I was ill and struggling.

My college is divided into accommodation blocks, and each corridor has about 14-16 people who share a lounge, toilets, showers and kitchens (although thankfully I was catered in first year so I didn't need to worry about cooking for myself). Unlike in house or flat-type setups there was nothing forcing you to interact with the people on your corridor if you didn't want to, which was both a blessing and a curse because sometimes it could feel quite isolating. Luckily there were some really lovely people on my corridor who I'm living with next year, and it also meant that it was easy to get out of your immediate living environment and socialise with people in other blocks. I was so glad to have a single room as I'm one of those people who definitely needs their own space and I'm also a bit of a neat freak so I don't think I would have dealt well with sharing a room!


I think that's more or less everything I have to say about my first year. Aside from the ups and downs I went through personally it has been a really positive experience and I'm confident I made the right decision both in terms of my course and the university itself. Although I didn't feel comfortable immediately it was easy to find help if I needed it and I felt like I had settled in by the end of the first term. Hopefully next year I will feel even more at home and start to enjoy uni life a whole lot more!

xx

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