Tuesday, 14 July 2015

'If I only knew then what I know now'

Yesterday I was lucky enough spent the day with 40 bright, keen and motivated 17 year olds, as part of the Royal Geographical Society 'Bridging the Gap' day. It's an awesome project developed by the Slowstreaming boys (in their days jobs!), providing an opportunity for aspiring geography students to find out more about the step between school and university geography, and ask any questions they have about applications, universities, courses and student life more generally. I simultaneously look forward to and dread these kind of events. They're full of great kids with lots of enthusiasm and questions and aspirations but I know, at some point, a student will tentatively approach me and say...

'Erm, sorry, did you said you study at UCL? What do you think of it? Do you like it there'

...and I'll get into a bit of a tizz, because I don't really know where to start, so I just sort of yell 

'NO, don't do it!' 

whilst I gather my thoughts, ready to destroy their dreams, and develop some sort of reasonable explanation. 

Yesterday the victim of this conversation was a 17 year old boy. Luckily, he'd just heard me reveal some of my opinions and experiences in a Q&A session, with my largely gloomy comments in stark contrast to the positive, constructive experiences of geographers from Lancaster, Royal Holloway, Exeter and Plymouth, so I think he was semi-prepared. 

It always goes the same way: it wasn't what I signed up for. Today's university students are consumers, buying into universities and their promises. Long gone are the days where we don't have a 'right' to demand more, demand a service that is better, or actually the service that was advertised. I remember going to the UCL Open Day, and subsequently a group interview day, where they suggested that I should expect 8-12 hours of contact per week. Next term, the first term of my third year, I should expect 4 and 4.5 hours on alternate weeks. I will be paying approximately £125 per hour to sit in a lecture theatre that may not seat everyone on the module, where I may not be able to connect to the WiFi, where there will almost certainly not be any sockets from which I can charge my laptop, and where the lecture may not even be any good (or may not have a PowerPoint...or may not even turn up). The boy stood, silent, and stared at me. I could tell he felt awkward, and suddenly I did too because I felt like I'd just ranted at him. And all he said was 'I went to the open day and I thought they were a bit cold, a bit corporate, I didn't think they cared about me'. He'd spent 3 hours at UCL, mostly in the Geography department. He hit the nail, at least my nail, on the head. 

Yesterday's situation was a particularly interesting example, since the day was supposed to replicate a number of seminar-style sessions. One of the students in my session asked, 'so is this what a geography seminar is really like? You sit here and chat and do activities with the lecturers?' and I had to say 'I don't know because I've never had a seminar with a lecturer'. In my two years at UCL, I have attended seminars with a postgraduate student (who was fantastic and gave me more time and effort and commitment than any lecturer ever has) for one module out of 16. It's not the most facilitating environment. I, personally, would be hesitant to put my hand up in the middle of a lecture and ask a question about something I don't understand; and I know I'm not alone in this because, god forbid, if anyone ever does ask a question, everyone just stares in shock and amazement. Lecturer usually included. Sometimes the lecturer is so unprepared for said question that they get themselves into a fluster, don't answer it, and send an email reply at a later date. I don't think any lecturers, except perhaps my dissertation supervisor, know me by name. For the purposes of my course, I am zcfalwa, a code, an examination designation, a debtor. 

I spoke to another student who, with a lot of confidence, announced to me that he would be applying to UCL. I asked why. He said 'because it's one of the best'. He was challenged: what does being 'the best' mean to him? I could see much of my 18 year old self in his response; well, it was a top university according all of the various newspaper university guides. True. UCL's research is unmistakably impressive - they publish huge amounts of research all the time. But that doesn't mean anything for him, or I, or our university experiences and this tends to be the factor that pulls UCL right up to the top of the rankings. Then I asked if he'd looked at the student satisfaction. According to Unistats, 49% of UCL Geographers are 'satisfied with the quality of the course' - not overjoyed, amazed and astounded, 'satisfied'. Only 19% were 'satisfied' that feedback on work helped them clarify their understanding. I, personally, find this pretty appalling. I don't need to pay £9000 a year to read journals; if I am not learning from the one of the only real one-on-one conversations (be they written, typed or verbal) then what's even the point? I'm having a similar situation with my exam results. The exam period finished 46 days ago. 32 days ago I was told I had passed my second year. I am still awaiting my results (which the university clearly have to know that I've passed), and they cannot confirm when these results will be published. I don't really think 'sometime towards the end of July, or maybe at the beginning of August' is satisfactory. In fact, it's rubbish. I feel like George left that conversation rethinking what it was to be the 'best', and I wish someone had pointed that out to me three years ago. 

The Q&A session of the Bridging the Gap day, I always think is the most useful. It's the opportunity for students to ask the questions they won't find out from the universities, the open day, the prospectuses. We were asked 'what has been your favourite moment of university so far?' and I panicked. I'm not saying that my entire university experience has been 100% dire and that nothing positive has come out of it, but nothing really stuck out for me. I couldn't think of one particular thing about university, apart from the friends I've met, that has been really great. I listened to my peers talk about their exciting field trips to Iceland, USA and Sicily...and my memories of Slapton Sands didn't compare. I learned about a friend's experience in halls, which he described as the best year of his life with his best friends. My 3 months in halls are a blur of being ill, eating sweetcorn, having a damp floor, and the water being turned off once a week - with some fun days and nights out with friends dappled somewhere in between. When I got to me, I said 'reaching the middle of second year and realising that I kind of knew what I was doing now; that university wasn't quite as baffling as it had been'. I don't know how good that is, really. It's more that it represented a time that wasn't bad. Next I was asked 'what would change if you could do university again?' and the first thing that came to my head, and what I said, was 'go to a different university'. What I wish is that I hadn't been blinded by supposed prestige; that I'd not been so naive; that I'd spent more time visiting other universities and looking at other courses; that I'd not let me ego get the better of me and demand that I went to the most academic university I possibly could. What I wish is that I'd had this opportunity, where a current student had warned me, and I hope that I'd have listened. 

I've spent a lot of today thinking if only I knew then what I know now, how different things would be. I am not saying that the last two years have been wholly awful, because I've met some lovely people, I've experienced living in London, I've lived with friends and randomers and my boyfriend, I've been forced out of my comfort zone, I've learnt to look after a house plant, I know how to use buses, and I've done some good modules - I have learnt some stuff. It is unfair to say that absolutely everything about my UCL experience has been horrific; there are some incredibly intelligent and passionate geographers there, and I've had some really cool lectures and lecturers. But it kind of ends there. I find the ethos hard to respect. I find it difficult to see the institution as anything other than money-grabbing, businesslike and unethical. I have never once felt like the students and the learning are at the heart of UCL's objectives. I have never felt like a person they want to invest in (...or arguably they should be investing in because I've paid them £9000 to do that). I feel like a number, a code, a profit-making mechanism. Yesterday was a great opportunity to tell the prospective UCL geographers that (if they hadn't already heard about or experienced the open day protests last week). I don't want other students to make the mistakes that I have. UCL may be happy lying to its prospective students, but I will never lie for them. 



Saturday, 11 July 2015

Birthday Treat to Longleat Safari Park

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to go on safari, and I'm pretty sure I mention this to Simon every other day. Knowing that neither of us could afford to jet off to Africa, for my birthday, Simon arranged for us to go to Longleat Safari Park on a VIP tour. We waited a few months, in which the excitement and anticipation built, until the summer hoping that we'd have a really sunny for it. 4th July came: it was a beautiful day, and we were off to Longleat! 

Up bright and early, we arrived at the park before it opened to the public we were directed to the VIP hut and met our guide, Richard. We hopped aboard the safari jeep, and our first stop was the handling area. We met another keeper, James, who bought out a python, a boa constrictor, a Chilean tarantula and scorpion for us to hold. I'd never done anything like this before, so it was a really exciting (and also a bit scary...). It was interesting to learn that lots of animals at Longleat were in fact rescued pets: snakes that had grown too big for their owners to look after, some neglected lemurs, and a rogue skunk! Next, we were shuffled along to the penguin enclosure where we could feed the penguins their breakfast. As we threw the fish in, the penguins dashed and fought to the front to catch them; it was amazing to see, and really good fun - we left sufficiently splashed! 

We continued on around the park, meeting an anteater, some meerkats, and a binturong (an Asian bear cat!). On the way, we got to handle Oreo the rescue skunk, who was absolutely lovely - and, for the first time, I could sort of understand why someone would want a skunk as a pet! We also had a chance to feed Brussel and Sprout, Longleat's resident porcupines, their parnsip breakfast. It was great to be up so close to these animals, and see just how tame and friendly most of them were. Before our handling experience finished, we were taken into the lorikeet pen to feed them some nectar. As we held out our pots, the lorikeets flew over, sitting on arms, shoulders and heads and lapping up their food. It was amazing, and they're such beautiful birds! 

We said goodbye to these smaller animals, and it was time for the safari! Giraffes, which I'd been looking forward to most, were first and we were fast-tracked through the giraffe feeding queue and promptly handed our branches. The giraffes heads towered over onto the pier at a perfect height for us to feed them; after watching the giraffes quickly steal some branches right out of little girls' hands, we made sure we held onto them tight and watched them strip the leaves off. This was one of my favourite parts of the day, I loved it, and would quite happily have spent all day there doing it! 

We made our way around the park, beginning with the big cats. We were shocked to have been able to go offroad in the safari jeep, right up to the animals so we could see them all really well. They didn't seem phased at all but us, which was fantastic; you really felt like you saw the animals in their natural habitat (well, as natural as lions in Wiltshire can be) and going about their business irrespective of the cars driving around. We were lucky enough to see the tigers having a wander around, unusual for such a warm day where they'd prefer to rest in the shade. I couldn't believe what a huge pack of lions were in the park as well, 30 of them, but the cubs were separated from the males to stop them being eaten! 

We moved on to the MONKEYS! I remember this bit of the safari from going as a kid 10+ years ago, and it definitely lived up to the memory. It was hilarious to watch such mischievous monkeys ripping anything and everything they could off people's cars (in the safe knowledge that your car wasn't being destroyed also!). They're all so fearless, jumping from car to car, and it turned into a bit of a game for us to see how quickly the monkeys could pull the aerial off the car in front! 

The moment we'd all been waiting for (well, the moment I'd been waiting for) was approaching: were we going to be able to see Anne the elephant? Anne is a rescue from a circus and, as you can imagine, is extremely traumatised as well as being very old. Longleat have made 'Anne's Haven', a space just for her, viewable from the safari road but far enough away not to disturb her. There's an indoor and outdoor area, which she moves between as she chooses, so the chances of catching her outside can often be quite slim. Unfortunately she was inside that morning, but Richard took us as close as he could to her pen so we could get a cheeky glance! Although I was disappointed not to have been able to see her, I'm glad Longleat have provided her with such an excellent enclosure such that, for the first time in her life, she's treated as an animal above an attraction. We moved on past the rhinos, which we'd been told had been pretty feisty in the past week getting into lots of fights, so we kept our distance a bit. We met Stacey and Smithy the ostriches (RIP Gavin), and some rather scruffy camels in the middle of their moulting season. The last part of the safari was marked by a venture into the deer area! Richard fetched us some food, and we rolled down the windows on the jeep and could feed them out the window. I half expected the deer to be quite shy, but they quickly surrounded all the cars with no hesitation to poke their heads in through the window and fetch any food they could get hold of! It was such good fun, and also really cool to be able to stroke their antlers which were all furry (they were kind of like felt...). 

Our tour had, sadly, come to an end...but it was only lunchtime and we still had the WHOLE AFTERNOON to explore! After a speedy lunch, we went into the bat cave which was really awesome. I'd never been a huge fan of these areas in zoos I'd been to before, because they're always a bit too smelly and sweaty and the bats never seem to be having a great time. This enclosure was a bit different: it seemed to be a good size for the number of small bats it housed, and it was cool to have a wander round. Next we took a boat ride out on to the lake. This was another of my vivid memories of Longleat. We first saw two huge hippos just peeping out of the water; I'm always amazed by just how big hippos are! We quickly approached the island in the middle of the lake which is home to the second oldest gorilla in the world! He'd decided to come out of his little house (where he has satellite tv!!) and sit in his garden. Though evident that he was pretty old by his silvery coat, it was comforting to know just how well Longleat must look after their animals to have some live such long and happy lives! We moved on to Sea Lion Beach where we spotted a baby sea lion, only a few days old. Some of the boat passengers were able to throw fish into the water, which obviously made all the sea lions come to the surface. I love watching them glide through the water and jump up for the fish! 

The afternoon was drawing in, so we took advantage of our delicious complimentary cream tea (which we'd received as part of the VIP package) and visited Longleat house, on the recommendation of our safari guide. It's absolutely enormous and just as impressive inside as out. I didn't know of Lord Bath before visiting, so it was really entertaining to hear the stories of him and then see the eccentricities paralleled in the house (so many paintings, so many 'wifelets', lol). We finished our time in this section of the park with a ride on the miniature train: for a couple in their twenties, Simon and I seem to have spent a disproportionate amount of time on tiny trains recently, but this was the best one. It took us round the park, the lake and past some reindeer! We, especially Simon, loved how authentic it all was - with a miniature train garage and functioning turntable all in view. 

Just before we left, we took a trip back around the safari area to see the wallabies and lemurs we'd missed earlier in the day. I couldn't believe like, so many other animals, that a couple of the lemurs were rescued pets; whoever thought lemurs were suitable pets for a Northern Irish household, and that it would be absolutely fine to take animals out of Madagascar without them being quarantined, I do not know. Anyway, they're amazing creatures that we could walk around with, and then watch get frisky and fight. 

So that was the long and short of (mostly long, I know, sorry). And it was one of the best days of my life. We couldn't have better weather, a better guide, and a better opportunity to see such a huge array of animals being so well cared for. I was thoroughly impressed with everything in the park. As Simon and I said afterwards, everything was done well, nothing was shabby or tacky, they were investing in their animals as well as their visitors. I would 100% recommend the Silver VIP Tour: though it doesn't come with a small price tag, we felt like we absolutely got our money's worth and everything was catered for and considered to make sure we had a fabulous day. Thank you Simon for the best 21st birthday present EVER, and thank you Longleat for a wonderful day out! 


Thursday, 2 July 2015

Kidulthood: Summer at Home

“As a child I assumed that when I reached adulthood, I would have grown-up thoughts.” - David Sedaris

As children we can't wait to grow up, and as adults we wish we could grow down. Age 7, I sort of missed the point: wanting to grow up into a disco diva (with a very fetching hairstyle) but also to turn back time, 20 years before I was born, to the 70s. I'm in a similar confusing stage now, but one with less lycra. When I moved away from home to go to university, I felt like that made me a real adult: one that had to pay rent, buy my own food, do my own washing, and could go to bed whenever I wanted. Now, after living in London for 2 years, I'm home for the summer and I feel like I've regressed from a 'kind-of-sometimes-when-I-want-to-be-maybe-adult' to kidulthood. And it's kind of great, but also kind of guilt-inducing, confusing and weird. 

There are no bills, rent, and you don't even have to buy your own food

I always feel rich when I go home. I feel like I've got a lot of money to spend on stuff I want rather than stuff I need. Unfortunately this tends to make me poorer than ever because ASOS splurges are much more fun (and expensive) than Tesco splurges: I've always got more room in my wardrobe, but not always in my fridge. I know that when I wake up, there's always going to be milk for my cereal. My mum will probably have planned what we're going to have for dinner days ago, so I don't need to think/plan/worry about it. There are also good snacks. Always. And plenty of them. I can put the heating on if I'm cold without feeling guilty, or feeling like I have to consult my housemates and make sure we are all suitably cold enough to warrant spending money on warmth. There is no price on being at home: I'm not paying £17.67 per night to be there. So kidulthood sounds great, right? It is, until I remember that I am still paying rent and bills to live in a house where I only really spend weekends. I'm now paying rent, bills AND train fares. I feel disconcertingly reckless: the adult in me is only too conscious of all that money 'wasted'. The child in me doesn't care. I'm making the most of fun and friends in London AND in Sussex. 

You don't have to cook, clean, or do your own washing

I'm not a complete slob, promise, but the luxury of having other people to do things for you is fabulous. When my washing can just go in with the rest of the family's, and it makes no odds to make dinner for me as well as everyone else, it's a giant win-win for me. I don't feel too guilty about being lazy (because it doesn't make much difference, right...?) and I also don't really have to do any of the mundane, daily tasks for myself. In fact, I'm probably doing less now than I was as a teenager, when I properly lived at home. But there are chores. Remember chores? I usually bagsy helping with the dinner, because that's an easy one, I don't mind doing it, and I'm probably better at it than the boys. Chores are fine, until you remember that you can't really get out of them - not without feeling like a spoiled brat anyway. It's then that you nostalgically remind yourself of adult life, on your own, when you can do what you like, when you like. You know that you don't need to change your sheets EVERY week, and the lounge probably doesn't NEED to be hoovered. And you can always do something half-heartedly without your mum nagging you. 

All your friends are there, and it's like being at school all over again

Being at uni in London is weird because your friends live all over the place: at home (whether that's in London, Croydon, Buckinghamshire, or god knows wherever else), in some other borough the opposite side of London, or just somewhere that requires a billion tube changes. At home, it's great because they all live within 15 minutes of you. And you have a car - albeit one that share and have to reserve in advance. Suddenly your social life reverts back to picnics in the garden, going to your best friend's house just to watch Come Dine With Me with them, and popping over because you haven't seen their mum in a while. I feel so free, and more sociable and connected than I ever have since I've been at uni, being an adult. As a kid, however, you have people to answer to: will I be home for dinner? Can I be back by 8pm so someone else can use the car? I feel obliged to be home at a 'sensible' hour (I'm a granny anyway, so this doesn't really matter) and to let others know what I'm doing so they don't worry. This epitomises kidulthood: old enough to go off and do what you like, but young, and courteous, enough to let your Mum know what you're up to. 

It's just like a proper 'summer holiday'

Being at home, planning loads of things you're going to do such that you have exciting 'intentions' every day, but then actually only doing about half of them because sometimes you just need to spend a day (or 3 days) watching Love Island, catching up on OITNB or reading a book...by yourself, is every summer holiday in a nutshell for me. Being at home only exacerbates that, because somehow you don't feel as guilty when you waste entire days; maybe that's because you can do it with your brother and then you've at least had some human contact. There are days where the only productive thing you've done is make a ground-breaking, new cereal combination but that is absolutely fine. After a couple of days like this (often consecutive...) I feel bad. I feel like I'm wasting potentially the last summer holiday I'll have, and that I need to do at least one grown up thing every day to make sure I don't completely regress and never achieve adulthood. Ever. This morning was a good one: my breakfast of cheerios, strawberries, fruit & fibre and malteasers (all mixed, obviously) was complemented by some daytime tv, cue Dinner Date. I followed this up with a shower (adult-like, because it was before 10.30), did some arts & crafts, and counteracted this by a quick gloss over the Unilever grad scheme. I feel like I winning at kidulthood. 

Kidulthood is hard for us all, whether we're 17 or 27. It's also a great time, and the last taste of the beauty of childhood. So whether you're a teenager, about to finish school, and battling with the teenager/responsible grown up complex; a student or graduate, home for the summer or moving back in with your parents; or even a middle aged man, divorced, and back at Mum's house for a bit (your time is more limited...) - revel in it. Appreciate being a kid for a little longer, don't dwell too much on adult responsibilities, because I figure there will be plenty of time in real adulthood to do that. Enjoy the weird combination - the confusion settles down after a while, and you just kind of go with it. 

“I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise. - Margaret Atwood 

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