Students of Ourselves

Freshers’ Week is just the start of a period of self-discovery

“I hired a detective to investigate myself
It was an act of religious passion.
He’s probably here at this party – watching me.”

As far as university life is concerned, education is often just a by-product of a much larger life experience. Although the primary driver behind the adventure, academia is not always the most significant outcome. A student’s life is about far more than just essays and lab reports; as a logical consequence of moving away from home is the acquisition of life skills, responsibility and perhaps most importantly, definition.

When undergrads scuttle into the dining room on their first evening, they are forced to sit alongside complete strangers and exchange pleasantries and general “chit chat” with equally terrified/befuddled peers. It’s a fairly clinical process and people are quick to pigeonhole new acquaintances into the fairly standard (albeit crass and generalised) categories. Typically, there is the bo-ho chic sort, with a beard and a cardigan, sarcastic hair, and an idiosyncratic vocabulary that contains words like “vibe” perhaps slightly too regularly. Next up we have the preppy rich-girl ingénue whose socialite yet sheltered life results in an outgoing and boisterous personality, with the occasional racial slur. In tandem with her we have the jock, littered with stash, communicating by flexing and seldom seen without balls in his hands. Finally, we have the academic. Timid, yet polite, wears sweatshirts featuring farmyard animals and, in my experience, possess an odd proclivity towards heavy metal music.

What is peculiar about it all though, is that whilst we are all being categorised by our new-found chums, we start to think about how we define ourselves. In these circumstances, personal traits and characteristics can become dynamic in a bid to either fit in with or distinguish ourselves from others. For example, during my years as an undergraduate at Leicester, I was known as “Posh Mike” (although if you chose to play rugby league as I did, anyone born south of Rotherham could probably claim such a moniker). Before I knew it, I was sucked into a world of expectations, buying posh food, drinking posh beer (and wine!) and talking with an accent southern enough to make the Queen sound like Jimmy Savile. Now, it probably goes without saying that being “posh” at Durham will only serve to put me in about 85% of the student population, where “public” schools are somehow actually “private” and it is more common to live on an estate owned by your parents than the council. As soon as I got to Durham, I accepted that I have never actually been “posh” per se, but just well spoken. This was most probably in a subconscious bid to help me attract women. (After all, and rather topically, according to Mr Berlusconi, females are attracted to him because he is “loaded”.)

As a graduate it soon becomes all too easy to define yourself by your life aspirations and your preferred career path, but this is dangerous and can lead to typecasting or generalizations. I’ve found that currently, I seem to be emphasising my state-comprehensive educational past, showing that private education is not necessary to get into a university like Durham. (On a rather ironic side note, the year that my high school sent its first pupil to Oxford was the same Ed Balls threatened it with closure.) Now, call me a traitor, a sell-out or a sycophant if you will, but it soon becomes apparent that “personalities” are not genetically predisposed or in any way set in stone. They have the ability to transform and adapt according to how people see and how we want people to remember us. People frequently change drastically during their first year as an undergraduate, a process that is catalysed by new friends with a neutral perspective who perhaps see you in a way no one previously has. This often occurs subconsciously and some people may never even realise it happens. For others, they may spend a year away studying, to return home to a group of friends whom they suddenly have far less in common with.

Needless to say, this is not something beyond our control and university is unique in ability to give many people a fresh start and live in a way that is more true to themselves. The academic could discover the gym and learn that muscles will get him far more girls than his collection of Soviet calculators, the jock could grow his hair and ditch the protein shakes in favour of roll-up cigarettes and veganism and, in the case of Durham, every single female can become the preppy rich girl. I don’t want to say anything as trite as “it’s a voyage of discovery” but the potential to be transformed or indeed, transform yourself is tremendous. We will be sculpted by others and we will realise new things about ourselves, but this is a natural transition that should be embraced rather than resisted.

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