Brief University Update: St. Andrews

Today, my tour of Scottish universities, having previously covered Glasgow and Edinburgh, was rounded off with a look at the University of St. Andrews.  Having fallen in love with Edinburgh and its university, I almost felt like a fraud being shown around St. Andrews, and then having a personal discussion with a representative from the university over aspects of studying there.  St. Andrews has a reputation of snobbery, of privilege – Prince William, for instance – and of existing in a state of Splendid Isolation, so I was curious how far these perceptions would be challenged by reality, and whether I could be tempted away from Edinburgh.

On the whole, the visit failed in its intentions.  Upon first arriving at the town of St. Andrews, despite the picturesque scenery of green fields and massive rivers – which are mostly alien to me – it became clear that this is not somewhere I would thrive in.  The streets, quiet and plain (possibly due to students, a third of the town’s population, being on Easter break) are eerily similar to those you might find in the town of Lerwick in Shetland, where I live – the sort of streets I would really like a change from.  By no means is St. Andrews dislikeable town with its coastal and historic beauty, but having just arrived from Edinburgh it really does lack in areas such as research opportunities, literary and political activity, the diversity you could only find in a city, etc.  And I would imagine the view of endless golf courses might become tiring and claustrophobic after four years.

The university itself seems alright, though the tour had a large focus on its frankly bizarre traditions, which includes parading across the pier in red cloaks, being adopted into student ‘families’, and having massive shaving foam fights in the centre of the university.  These crazy traditions may be endearing to some, but I personally would probably sit in my dormitory and read until it’s over.  St. Andrews seems to exemplify your typical rural but vibrant town, your ancient settlement with queer traditions.  I suspect me real reason of disliking it is the large similarities it holds with Shetland; the break is simply not clean enough between the quiet life of my childhood and the life of what I hope will become a prolific future.

This trip has been highly interested.  Glasgow proved better than expected and St. Andrews worse but Edinburgh, as expected, looks set to be my second home for the next four years.

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Brief University Post: Edinburgh (and the Scottish Parliament!)

Yesterday, my university trip continued with the visitation of the University of Edinburgh. I have long considered Edinburgh to be my favourite UK city (alongside Brighton, which gets ‘honourary mention’).  I feel instantly at home whenever I step along the cobbles and gaze at the skyline dotted with spires, unlike the sense of foreboding and oppressiveness I feel in most cities.  So I dearly hoped the university would thrill me in a similar way.

And, on the most part, it did.  It isn’t quite as visually pretty as the other Scottish universities I have visited, like Glasgow, Stirling or Heriot-Watt, though it has its charms.  I can imagine George Square becoming a splendour of reds, yellows and oranges in the Autumn, and there’s something lovely about Bristo Square (pictured to the left).

Several particular features of the university excited me.  From a literary perspective, there’s such a charged atmosphere: the Literature Society has regular activities, including meetings with a range of figures, from Owen Jones to J. K. Rowling.  Edinburgh was UNESCO’s first ‘City of Literature’, and there’s a wide variety of festivals in which to engage in both reading and writing.  The city contains the National Library of Scotland, and a pretty hefty lending library.  The university library’s pretty nice, too.  These activites make Edinburgh seem an especially good destination for someone not at all interested in the drinking scene.

I was also fascinated by a talk for the History degree (I’ve applied for a joint English Literature and History degree at Edinburgh).  We were treated to an example lecture on the economic history of the UK, which turned out to be far more fascinating than it sounded.  Edinburgh is a city with a rich history, dating its large-scale growth far back before the Industrial Revolution – unlike Glasgow.  Along one street you’ll see Gothic style buildings, along another they’re almost Medieval, and then you’ll come across a classical display of pillars and gold.

There is also a lively political atmosphere in Edinburgh, which appeals to me highly.  Walk along any street, particularly near the university itself, and you’re likely to see a variety of posters advertising protests: to scrap the Trident nuclear missiles, to oppose the ‘Israeli Apartheid’, to oppose the totalitarian regime of North Korea, etc.  We even stumbled upon a petition-signing event protesting against the ‘Bedroom Tax’, organised by the Scottish Socialist Party, though it was wrapping up just as we arrived and so we unfortunately never had chance to put our names down.  There’s a variety of fundraising movements we witnessed, ranging from collections for children’s hospitals to firefighters marching for the National Union of Firefighters (or something along those lines).  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the the 2011 Occupy Movement in Scotland survived longest in Edinburgh.  Having grown up in a small island where the height of political activity is spars over whether or not to build a cinema, bridge, wind turbines, and so on, this was an amazing environment to find myself in.

This brings me on to the more exciting aspect of the trip.  I fancied a quick glance at the Scottish Parliament, located in Edinburgh, so we took a walk down the ‘Royal Mile’ and ventured in.  After a security check, we took a cautious walk into the public gallery of the debating chamber.  To our extreme fortune, it turned out that a session of the First Minister’s Questions were about to start.  My geek-credentials were proven with the fact that this excited me more than anything has in a long time.  One by one, high-profile figures in Scottish politics began to file in.  Johann Lamont (Scottish Labour leader), Nicola Sturgeon (Deputy First Minister), Ruth Davidson (Scottish Conservative Leader), and, finally, Alex Salmond (First Minister, and the Scottish National Party leader).  We watched him spar with figures such as Lamont and Davidson, and also debate with my own MSP, Tavish Scott.  I noticed Patrick Harvie, one of the few Scottish Green Party MSPs, in the chamber but unfortunately he never spoke.  It was strange, being so close to objects and people of intense interest to me.  I suppose, as I never personally interacted with any of it, the experience was not a lot different from watching the proceedings on TV, except the former never leaves me buzzing in excitement for the rest of the day.

Overall, I truly love Edinburgh.  I liked Glasgow more than I expected, but it would take a lot for me not to choose here as my place of study for four years.  From what I’ve seen of St. Andrews thus far, I don’t think my opinion will be changing.

Brief University Post: Glasgow

I might be quiet on the blog this week, because I’m spending a week touring the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St. Andrews to help me in the final decision of choosing a place.

Today we went to look at the University of Glasgow.  This was my first proper look at the city of Glasgow, let alone the university.  Glasgow suffers from a reputation of experiencing high crime, high poverty and low standards of living.  Although we only passed through the town center and the university, and didn’t go near some of the more deprived areas I believe to exist in the east end, I saw nothing to back up this reputation.  Glasgow is a beautiful, simply laid out (so square-shaped!), vibrant city which I enjoyed visiting.  We only breezed through, but I’d certainly like to make another visit one day.  Or, who knows, possibly even live there.

The university itself was wonderful.  Such an academic, lively hub.  The architecture is awe-inspiring, with grand staircases climbing the walls, entire halls of pillars and exquisite ‘quadrangle’ courtyards.  Every inch is steeped in deep history.  I was enthused by talks I received on the English Literature course, and on the Arts faculty in general.  However, I wasn’t largely impressed with the university library.  Oh well.

I’m in Edinburgh now.  Tomorrow I shall visit the University of Edinburgh, and on Friday it’s St. Andrews.  Still completely undecided… I guess I shouldn’t complain at the choice!

My Varied Week

Warning: this post goes into detail about the ups and downs of my past week.  May involve mild feelings.  If you’re of the irritating belief that we should all be living ice people with stiff lips then you may find this vaguely offensive, though there’s nothing too obscene.

One word: Prelims.  If you know what this means I expect you to be recoiling in horror right now and if you don’t, well, you are envied by many.  Basically, preliminary examinations which act as a kind of practice run before the final exams.  They do count for getting into courses which start before you get results for the final exams, and can also be used in appeals, but I’m in the fortunate position of relying on neither since I already have the grades I need.

So, why was it so Hellish?  Simply, all four of my exams were scheduled between four days of one another.  I am, of course, grateful that I have the opportunity to sit any exams – but did it have to be so stressful?  I’ve spent most of the last month either doing research for my history dissertation (“How great an effect did the pressures of foreign countries have on Apartheid policies between 1960 and 1984?”) and NABs (other horrific ‘unit passes’, which you need to pass in order to sit the final exam).  So basically, I had no time to revise for the exams.

Then I caught a cold.  And snow swept across the island.  It’s as if the world has been conspiring to make me perform as badly as possible in the Prelims!  It’s fair to say this past week wasn’t an enjoyable experience – particularly the three hour Advanced Higher history exam… I still shudder at the thought.  But, somehow, I managed to get to all four of my exams and actually seemed to do alright.  Not had any of the results yet – not that they’re very important at this stage – but I performed as well as I could have hoped.

The most varied day of all was Wednesday, the Hellish history exam.  I genuinely felt in a state of mild shock afterwards, consumed by numbness, unable to get my head out of Apartheid South Africa (not the nicest of places).  A couple of people described me as ‘shell-shocked’, amusingly.  I guess the length of the exam, the longest I’ve ever sat, took it out of me.  I hear exams at university typically last three hours… *another shudder*.  Interestingly, St. Andrews chose that day to let me know they’d offered me an unconditional place to study English.

I HAVE A PLACE AT ST. ANDREWS!!  How did that happen?  That’s so amazing!  I’m so lucky!

And I’m probably going to turn it down.  Hah.  I’m not sure yet, and wouldn’t like to say anything for sure.  I guess, having grown up on a remote island, I’d prefer to live somewhere well connected like a city.  And St. Andrews, for all its prestige, has a very negative reputation of royalty and privilege – neither of which I’m a great fan of!  I’ll have to visit, of course.  It’s exciting to tell people I’ve been offered a place, anyway.  Someone told me I would be ‘mad’ to turn it down.  Am I?

So yeah, that was my dramatic week.  How was yours?

Cycling (and cars)

I have just been out for a ride on my bicycle for the first time in a year.  Whizzing through the piercing winds, my hands numb and red afterwards from the cold; it was amazing!

It’s quite frightening how strenuous I found it.  I puffed and panted after mere minutes, my legs seizing up with pain.  I’ll need to take this slow.  My body appears to have rusted as much as my bike.

My eagerness to get back into cycling may stem from my reluctance to start driving.  I have been 17 for four months now, which is the legal age for acquiring a driving license in the UK, yet have felt no desire to begin getting lessons.  My peers have been excitedly talking about beginning lessons, theory tests, practical tests, and for the luckier ones, being gifted actual cars!  I tend to react to these conversations with subdued boredom.

I’m not sure why I have an aversion to cars.  Part of it is certainly due to a rejection of society’s expectations; for ages I would have people asking me: “Oh, you’re 17, have you applied for a provisional licence yet?” “Ah, you’ll be driving soon, then!” “How are the lessons going?”  Eventually most people realised I’m not interested and have given up.  It’s senseless, but the assumption that every 17 year old drives bugs me.

Then there’s the wishy-washy reason: I’ll feel much more ethically sound if I can cycle to places, or use public transport, rather than further polluting the atmosphere by using a car.  I know that my use of one would have a minute, negligible effect on carbon levels, but it would help me, personally, to know that I am continuing to lead an environmentally-balanced lifestyle.

Then there’s the health benefits.  Once I’m passed the pain and wheezing (my asthma has not reacted well) I imagine regular cycling would do my body a lot of good.  The excercise must also have benefits towards my mental health – I feel quite content just now, despite the suffering, and furthermore I feel that this particular blog post is one of the more focused I’ve written for some time.

Riding a bike may not be practical at present, considering I have to travel 20 miles every day just to get to school here in Shetland.  But it will be a different story when I’m at university – whether it be in Edinburgh, Glasgow or St. Andrews.  St. Andrews I know to be particularly encouraging of bike use, and the thought of cycling up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh (if it’s allowed) fills me with great pleasure.

A bright yellow/turquoise striped bike cycling through Edinburgh is the stuff of dreams.

Universities Everywhere!

My life has come to the point where universities have begun to dominate my thoughts.  They have always been there, on the periphery of any brief glance over the parapets into the future, but have gradually crept closer and closer.  So many questions: Which course?  Which university?  Combined degree?  Which accommodation?  Student loans?  What to put into the personal statement?  Should I stop pulling my hair out?

We’ve been told woefully little at school about the process, as we’re expected to do research ourselves.  This is fair enough, but there is no practical way of comparing universities.  Each website says a variation of, “We’re the best!  Look at these pictures of happy smiley people!  We dare you to doubt them!  Ooh, look, incomprehensible figures which prove we’re better than the others!  Etc.”  Visiting the university is an awkward option for those of us who live on an island and are leading shaky lifestyles due to not having the stability of an inhabitable home (it’s a long story).  The university trip organised by my school ignored two of the universities I am considering (St. Andrews and Glasgow) and gave us a twenty minute tour, in the rain, through the third (Edinburgh) before spotting the Travelodge like a desperate mirage in the distance and abandoning all pretence of giving us a meaningful visit.  The league tables hardly help, with a 0.1 difference in scores between each one.

Despite this, I’ve managed to do some narrowing down.  I’m certain that I would like to enter in an English course, perhaps branching out into Politics or History in my first and second year.  The university trip did make me realise that I don’t think I could live in Glasgow, which leaves St. Andrews and Edinburgh.  Recently I’ve realised I might prefer the well-connected isolation of St Andrews, where there would always be a quiet spot to hide away and read a book if necessary, but there are also aspects pulling me towards Edinburgh (Scottish Parliament!  Fudge Kitchen!  Spires in all directions! Weeeee!).  I guess I shouldn’t complain at being spoilt for choice; I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to go to university at all.  But I would have liked even a fraction of more support when making one of the largest and most important decisions of my life.

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(This is my first blog ever (eek!) so I haven’t really refined my style yet.  It may sound fairly self-indulgent and whiny.  I hope not).