My friend asked me to tell her about my year in five words. It caught me off guard, and I quickly realised how tough it was to summarise the year in just five words, whilst giving her an overall feel of how things went. I could have just told her the five modules I did, the plays & musicals I’ve watched, or a shortlist of the restaurants and cafes I’ve checked out. But this is what I ended up telling her – mountains, football, stress, fun, growing.
I’ve climbed up two mountains in my first year – Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England, and Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales. Collectively, these two experiences have taught me 1) to not underestimate the challenge ahead, 2) to surround yourself with the right people, and 3) how important it is to get out of the city every now and then.
1) is especially relevant for first years. This is from a post that I wrote on Facebook right after my Scafell Pike hike –
‘I can confidently say that it was the most physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting thing I've ever done. From less-than-ideal weather, to put it lightly, to excruciating cramps and immense physical exertion, I can confidently say I've been pushed to my limits, if not beyond them.’
The main takeaways from this is to be aware that it will NOT be easy, and to try as best as you can to prepare for the challenge. Whether that’s physically preparing yourself for a hike, or making sure you keep up every week with your readings and notes, always try your best to prepare yourself for the challenge ahead. Because, as many opportunities that university will offer you and as fun as it can be, life in university can be excruciatingly difficult. So, aim high, and aim to achieve great things. But, prepare yourself for the huge hurdles you’ll face and importantly don’t let the height of these hurdles intimidate you. You can do it, but be mindful.
2) Before I flew off to London to start my first year, my brother’s key advice was to surround myself with the right people. On both hikes, I was fortunate to have wonderful people around me. Here’s another quote from the Scafell Pike post –
‘Be with people who will support you and be there for you while you cry out in pain from leg cramps. AND, be with people who offer to share their salmon-kimchi sandwich’. This was directed to my roommate and best friend Alya. Simply, be with people who will unconditionally support you; be with good-hearted people; be with loving, and kind people; be with those who are passionate, and strive for excellence; be with people who are constantly critical and curious.
On the one hand, one person does not have to have all these traits – once you meet people who have any one of those traits, keep them close; and if you’re lucky enough as I’ve been to find people with all those traits, treasure them even more.
On the other hand, your time is limited, so be wise with who you choose to spend it on. You can be friends with several people with different values, characters, motivations, and backgrounds. One of the unique things about studying abroad is the opportunity to meet and befriend people from all over the world with contrasting views, cultures, and beliefs. But if someone’s character doesn’t strike you as one you would want to be around often, you can distance yourself from them. What I tell myself is yes, be kind to everyone, but you don’t have to and can’t be good friends with everyone.
3) Make time to get out of the city! It is honestly so refreshing and rejuvenating to breathe in pure, crisp, and cold mountain air, or to enjoy the breeze and the smell of sea mist. The city is constantly buzzing, which does have its ups (i.e. there’s always something to do!), but take the time to relax, both by taking yourself out of the buzzing environment (this could just mean going to the nearest park and immersing yourself in the greenery and tall trees), and by doing things that are relaxing (i.e. reading a book that’s not part of your course). It’s worth it – trust me.
So as well as literal mountains, I’ve had to climb metaphorical mountains too, namely having to overcome the overbearing mental, and emotional stress that 1) came with climbing Scafell Pike, and 2) became particularly acute during revision period. (I’ll go over this later).
Currently, I’m in the 2nd team of LSE’s Women’s Football Club.
(Note: To be completely honest, 1) when I tell people this they usually are in so much awe and respect but frankly 2) there are only two teams, and if you don’t get into the 1st team, you can play for the 2nd. Trainings are done together (i.e. 1st team and 2nd team have the same training), which indicates and supports the fact that there’s no absolute demarcation between the teams – also, if players are needed for a 1st team match, someone who usually plays for the 2nd team can play.
I really have enjoyed being able to train and play football every week, and, in retrospect, it was a great way to have some sort of balance in my life. Trainings were on Friday evenings, and there were usually matches every Sunday. I think I played in around two matches a month, which isn’t too bad I think – ideally, I’d play in every match but the fact that a football match virtually took up my whole day (by the time I got back I was so pooped out – I wouldn’t have much energy to do work) meant that I had to be realistic and tactical. I couldn’t afford having a one-day weekend for my work every week, so I tried to achieve a balance where I did commit to my team, as well as to my studies.
[Note: membership for sports clubs are usually exceptionally expensive, in contrast to other societies. But don’t let that immediately deter you – if you really want to play, and if you can afford it, go for it AND be consistent once you’ve signed up, so go for trainings every week. And to be fair, once you take into account that the membership is for the whole year, it doesn’t seem too bad – i.e. WFC’s membership was 55, but if you split that into two terms (well there’s actually three but summer term doesn’t really count since we all have exams), that’s only around 28 per term, for a minimum of 4 training sessions and 4 matches]
I won’t go too much into this, but basically university, as I’ve said, can be excruciatingly difficult. I can honestly say first year has definitely pushed me beyond my limits. Up till university, I think I’ve had things pretty easy. Of course I did struggle and was stressed during IGCSEs and A-Levels, but 1) never to the extent that I experienced last month, and 2) the understanding of a topic or of a way to answer questions or essays usually came pretty easily to me (except for Art in IGs lol) – not this time. With high achievers on the waves, I was on the bedrock. I don’t think I experienced culture shock when I got here, but I definitely faced academic shock.
What I’m trying to say is that university will not be easy, and you’ll feel like you’re being pushed to your limit, and sometimes you’ll feel wholly inadequate and, to put it simply, stupid. But, as painful as the experience was, it was a necessary and fruitful one. If you end up feeling this way, you know that you’re being pushed to your limit and it’s only when you’re right at your limit that you have a chance to go beyond it. Feel stupid, feel stressed, feel the pain. It’ll get you down, but don’t let it keep you down. Persevere, and try to overcome your limits – ‘Trivial people suffer trivially, great men [and women!] suffer greatly’ (from Bertrand Russell’s imaginary dialogue between Buddha and Nietzsche)
Make sure you make time to have fun, and to enjoy your time wherever you are in the world! Go for a jog in the park; go to a museum; meet up with some friends, cook together, and have a feast; watch a play or musical (if you’re in London and love the Mamma Mia movie, watch the musical!! It’s phenomenal); go to parties and clubs. Make time to do whatever that you find fun and enjoyable. But, like with most things, take these breaks in moderation!
What I first learned at the start was to do things that you want to do. Don’t feel pressured to do things just because there’s a strong culture for it. I tried to go clubbing/partying once aaaand I didn’t enjoy it much – I haven’t been ever since. It initially required conscious effort to refrain from going clubbing since, especially for sports clubs, there’s a strong culture for it as well as heavy drinking. It may require conscious effort, and a consequence may be that you’re not as close to a certain group of people, but eh, it’s possible if you think it’s worth it. So one thing I’d definitely advise any fresher to do is to do things that you want to do and to not let peer pressure or cultural norms ‘force’ you into doing things (another example is the strong ‘culture’ of going down the corporate/investment banking line). On the balance, do be open to trying out new things (i.e. climbing a freaking mountain, signing up for a fundraising challenge with a whopping target of 3000).
What I’ve found useful is to keep a journal, which I’ve used to note down happy moments, to reflect on myself, or to ponder after listening to a podcast. Be reflective, and be aware – both of yourself, and of the world around you. In regards to being aware of yourself, at some points I began to lose sight of who I am, or what makes me ‘me’, especially since I didn’t feel like I was at the top of my studies. Remind yourself of what your motivations are and have been, especially in the times where you feel inadequate and like you’re falling behind. You might not be great at what you’re doing now, but that won’t stop you from becoming great at it. Through all the troughs and hurdles, keep in sight of who you are and who you want to be, and what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it. Acknowledge, value, and utilise your tailwinds (i.e. all the things that have helped to get you to where you are now, whether that’s being blessed with a supportive family, going to an exceptional school, living life safely in a democracy, or having high-achieving friends around you).
No matter how challenging growing as a person can be, always try to be a force for good and kindness as well, whether that’s just smiling and greeting the guy or girl at your accommodation’s reception, giving a lady or man on the street some change or even buying them a meal, being part of soup kitchens, mentoring kids in low-income areas on how to debate, or treating your friend if she or he is feeling down. Give back, and be warm and empathetic, even if, or especially when you’re not at your best. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘With malice toward none, with charity toward all’.
I sincerely wish you all the best with everything that’s ahead of you. Embrace the challenges, the opportunities, and friendships, and remember to keep your chin up through it all. Take care of others, and take care of yourself.