Number 33 – University Nostalgia
Recently, I’ve been feeling a huge amount of nostalgia for my university years. I don’t know if anyone else has been finding this? So, I thought I’d ask myself why that might be. What was it about that time of my life that makes me look back so fondly? And what is it about the current global situation that has prompted this burst of rose-tinted reverie?
Essentially, I think the reasons fall into three main categories: structure, purpose, peers.
Your university years are inherently structured. You have a timetable of lectures and seminars, and deadlines for essays and exams. Even societies work to a timetable and meet on a particular day and time each week. This structure gives you a certain degree of comfort and security. But, unlike school, it is not overbearing. It is a structure that allows plenty of space for you to slot in your own activities (at least, when you do a humanities degree, anyway!). There’s room for coffees and drinks with friends, for going out, for gaming – whatever additional activity you choose to go alongside your studies. There’s also lots of space for self-directed study – it’s up to you when you go to the library, but you still know you need to do it.
So, university provides a structure that is both comforting and freeing. It gives you just enough fixed points to build your own life around.
People go to university for all sorts of reasons but getting a degree at the end of it is definitely one of them. This simple purpose of getting a piece of paper at the end of your period of study binds all students together. It is a clear, unwavering purpose.
More than this, it is a purpose that rewards the process over the outcome. Your achievement is less the actual certificate to say you passed and more the gradual accumulation of knowledge and skills along the way. You are awarded your degree on the basis of having built up layer upon layer of learning over a period of several years. This means that it is not all about the final grade, it is about the lecturer that inspired you or who finally unlocked the key to essay structure, it is about being able to answer questions on University Challenge years later because you studied that topic in second year, it is about enhancing and expanding your horizons. In short, it is the best kind of purpose you can have.
University is the only time in your life that I can think of where you are surrounded by your peers all the time. You live with them, work with them and socialise with them (let’s be honest, you probably even sleep with some of them too!). I think it is the sense of community that this creates that I am missing the most during these Covid times.
At university, you are surrounded by fellow students who are, in principle anyway, your equals. Every student in that lecture theatre with you is at the same level. You are not answerable to any of them and they are not answerable to you. You can have community at work but there is more of a hierarchy. There’s a literal hierarchy of managers, bosses and board members; there’s also a related but different hierarchy of age, experience and skills. Although there are many mature students, on the whole, when you are at university, you are surrounded by people of roughly the same age and life experience. Again, I’m struggling to think of many other times this happens during your life.
All three of these categories relate to challenges we face at the moment. Our structures have been completely thrown. Everyone is having to form new routines and we don’t know from one week to the next what we will be allowed to do or feel safe doing. Our sense of purpose is a challenge at the best of times but right now if, like me, your purpose is intrinsically linked to bringing people physically together, it is pretty impossible to believe in. Finally, our peers simply feel so far away from us at the moment. Our communities have been broken and what interactions we have are either virtual or socially distanced.
So, in short, it is no wonder I’m feeling inextricably drawn to this period of my life at the moment. I am, however, determined to stay positive and I am genuinely looking back with fondness and gratitude rather than envy. I feel very lucky to have had the experience of university that I had. It was a wonderful period of my life that has massively contributed to the person I am today. Right now, I can just be thankful for that experience and look forward to days ahead with more structure, more purpose and more time with my peers.