This Side of the Pond – May 8

By Sarah Pridgeon

They say that your university days will be the best of your life but, looking back at a photograph from my freshman year, I’m not entirely sure that’s true. It was certainly a time for self-awareness and learning, but mostly about the concept of metallic hair paint.

My memories were jogged when a friend of mine took a nostalgic trip to the campus of Exeter University, in the glorious rolling hills of southwest England. Wandering through my old halls of residence, he came across a class portrait with my youthful face beaming out from the center…complete with bright gold hair. I can hardly blame him for taking a somewhat fuzzy picture of it, as I belive he had succumbed to a fit of the giggles.Uni Pic

I’m not sure what, during a black tie event, possessed me to add a feather boa and spray paint every last inch of my hair– the dress I was wearing was rather demure by comparison. I seem to remember that also being the night when I made my debut in five-inch heels and promptly turned an ankle, hobbling along for the rest of the evening in a less than glamorous fashion.

But university, after all, is a time for learning who you really are. Had I not discovered that it’s just as difficult to wash hair paint out of a pillow case as it is mascara, I may never have realized that I am not the kind of person who sprays their hair gold.

There are significant differences between university life in England and its counterpart in the States, but the overall goal is the same. By the time your years of study are complete, it is hoped that you will have some sort of understanding of how the world works and your own place within it.

In England, however, you focus on a single subject. Rather than selecting modules according to your tastes at the time and eventually majoring in one of them, you are required to choose an overall school of study and stick with it for the duration.

For me, that topic was psychology, for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. It may seem like a strange choice for someone who ended up writing newspaper columns, but that’s what happens when you panic your way through the selection process and you’re not entirely sure what “vocational learning” means.

Most courses are designed to cover a wide range of skills and abilities, just as American universities do through choice of classes. Instead of spreading focus among subject matters, however, English degrees use a single topic to introduce such things as researching, writing, performing experiments and critical thinking. In the end, the effect is essentially the same.

We also have a similar system for evaluating schools. The more famous the name, the better the grades you will need to qualify for a seat and the more reputable your eventual qualification.

At the very top, you have the big guns: Oxford and Cambridge. The next tier down is known as the Red Bricks, rather than the Ivy League, and it’s at that level my own alma mater rests. Below these are the various rungs of reputational excellence, right down to the colleges that require little more than a letter written in crayon by way of an application.

The other huge difference that you’ll find at an English university is the constant presence of booze. The legal age for drinking alcohol back home is 18 – just in time for Fresher’s Week.

As you might imagine, English students stumble around campus with blurred eyes and hiccups for their entire first semester, and it doesn’t get much better until graduation day. This is why we are not generally permitted to live outside of campus until our second year.

The educational powers-that-be have quietly and cleverly surmised that first-year students need a little help in taking care of themselves. If you do not provide food and heating to a teenager who has just been introduced to jello shots, it’s a gamble whether they’ll survive to the end of the year.

It also explains why my tutors liked to set early lecture times. Knowing full well that every pub, club and bar in the city is taking advantage of our youthful naivety by scheduling one night of the week specifically for students, they took pleasure in torturing bleary heads by bellowing out facts and figures just when we least wanted to hear them.

After a year in a hall of residence that has its own bar on the ground floor, the lesson begins to sink in: all things in moderation. We are then given permission to reside in rented accommodation out in the city, or to lease an apartment from the university. I opted for the latter, largely because it meant a shorter walk to lectures.

I also decided to live on campus because, perhaps foreshadowing my eventual desire to make a home in rural Wyoming, I chose my university based on the beauty of its surrounds. Unlike the big city schools, Exeter University is nestled within a registered botanical garden and my walk to lectures of a morning was routed through shaded glades and alongside serene lily ponds.

It was gorgeous, but occasionally exhausting. One particular climb from a hall of residence was so challenging – especially when tackled with a hangover – that it became affectionately known as “Cardiac Hill”.

Those were days of sunshine and kinship, with one hand on a text book and the other raising a glass to newfound freedom, but they have long since passed for me. Since moving across the pond, I have only had one opportunity to visit Wyoming’s own university, and it mostly consisted of staring wistfully at the campus through a car window.

Even so, it left a lasting impression. What a beautiful place it is for a young person to embark on the realities of life, I thought, such as ramen noodles and budgeting for books instead of shoes. The buildings may look different and contain fewer kegs of beer, but I recognized the smiles on those students’ faces.

I can’t help but wonder if I would have tottered about on ridiculous heels and dozed my way through morning lectures had I been a Wyoming student, or whether that particular life lesson was exclusive to the Exeter campus. Either way, I think we can all agree that university might not necessarily bring the best days of one’s life, but it certainly shapes the rest of them.