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nex blog:fighting_for_peace
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Fighting for Peace

The latter half of my time as an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow was spent in a cloud of stress. It is perhaps only after the fact that I can now see just how bad it was. I can't claim to know much about the actualities of anything other than my own experience, but before I went to University I believed that one of two things would happen there. Either people spent all day sitting around and discussing ideas (the product of which was wonderful and perceptive papers that were written in a few hours) or that people spent all day and night partying. A small part of me believed that perhaps there were some people that did a little of both of these extremes.

The reason, of course, for this bizarre concept of University life was from the media. A friend of mine, Rach, recently posted some thoughts on the academic system and some of its faults. I believe she was largely worried that it did not teach people what they needed in their actual lives. It got me thinking that I actually had the opposite experience. Life had me believing that University would be something that it is not. Or, at the very least, that it was not that way for me. Films about wild times at college with seemingly never ending parties and fornication always struck me as somewhat unlikely. But I did believe that it probably had some semblance of truth to it. I guess I thought that University could potentially be the 'wildest' time of my life. That perhaps I would 'find myself' at University. Or simply that I would… experiment. Not necessarily with drugs or sex, but with ideas and what life meant to me. I had some wild dreams and aspirations that I might great something at University that could change the world. I imagined myself as realising some truth of the Universe that I would win renown for.

The largest reason for me believing both the extremes was from American films which dealt with the subject. I have no idea what it is really like going to University/College in America, but the media seems to portray life as much easier than it was for me. I simply did not have time to go to parties all the time or to sit around discussing whatever dodgy idea I'd had that day. I had to work during all the time that was available to me just to stay at University. I was always worried that I would not make the cut. In my third year, I recall my department giving us guidelines as to how long we should spend on University related work. By their reckoning, we should have had about 10 hours to ourselves a week (which didn't include things like eating and sleeping you understand). And, to be fair, ten hours is probably enough time to go to at least a couple of parties a week. Sadly, of course, that was only the recommended guidelines. Actually managing to get all one's work done in that amount of time was simply impossible.

In reality, I ended up having to forgo a lot of my sleep and many of my meals simply in order to get by. And I'm not talking about doing really well here. I'm talking about simply preventing myself from failing.

You might be thinking at this point that perhaps I simply wasn't up to the course. Perhaps I had to work so hard because I'm really a bit of a simpleton and should never have been allowed to attend University. Well, it might be true. All I can say in my defence is that I was not the only one. And, in truth, many people worked much harder than I did. There were also many who did not work as hard as me. They did not last till the end.

When I arrived on my first day at University, there were almost 700 people in my lecture theatre, all students of my Computing Science course. When I graduated at the end of fourth year, there were only around 60 of us. Less than one in ten people managed to pass my course. It was extremely competitive. In secondary school I never would have considered not giving someone help with their work, or even allowing them to copy mine if they had not had time to finish it. I was a decent guy and felt that as long as people worked hard they ought to get a little hand every now and then. But at University I would often try and wiggle my way out of helping people. Ultimately I knew that helping them was only hindering myself. It's not a nice position to be in for someone like me.

Throughout the intense nature of my course, I developed more and more stress. Food became something I had only when it was convenient for me to do so. All that really meant was that I ate when not eating affected my productivity. I slept only long enough to stop myself failing asleep. Showers became much more rare than they should have been. Cutting my hair and shaving were often luxuries that I simply could not afford. On the few occasions were I did manage to squeeze in a shower and I saw the huge mounds of hair fall from my scalp, I realised just how stressed I really was. That always struck me as odd. I was so stressed from work that I did not have time to realise how stressed I was. If the people in those films were having such a good time, they were either all geniuses, or they simply did not have it as tough as we did.

It wasn't just my course either, no one I knew at my University had the lifestyle portrayed in the media. Perhaps I just knew a crowd that only had harder courses. Two of my friends did a year of their course in America as part of student exchange programs. They both came back saying the same thing: How much fun they had. They told me the stories of their time and what they did. It was not that far from the films I had seen. However, they both agreed on something else: They had not learned anything. At least, nothing to do with their course.

In both cases, they had already been taught beyond the level of the courses they had taken in America. I am sad to say that based on only these two cases, I have held a resentment for American degree owners ever since (unless they were from the absolute highest of academic institutions). I realise now that many people in many countries have a similar University experience to myself. Although, I must admit, only one has ever sounded quite as hard and punishing as mine.

The thing that got me through it all was the friends that I made. Even though we all knew that ultimately we were competing for places, we were still very supportive of each other. Few people in the year looked on the situation as anything other than a group effort. Not that we necessarily told each other how to do things. But we would drop hints and give pointers. And above all, everyone gave each other encouragement.

In particular for me were the two closest friends that I made, Joe and Rach. Truly, none of us were competing. If one of us knew how to do something, soon enough we would all know. Everything was a group effort with us. I am very grateful for those friendships that I made and I could not imagine myself getting through University without them. You can always tell your greatest friends by knowing which ones will stand by you when you need help the most. Joe, Rach and myself became friends because we needed help the most. They will always remain very dear to me, even if we lose touch or forget to see each other. I will always remember what they did for me.

And, finally, we come to the point of this rambling. The relationship I had with Rach was one of more traditional support. We commiserated with each other and told each other that we would be fine and other great little talks that you walk away from feeling better. The support that Joe and I gave each other was often much less direct. We still had those similar support mechanisms in place, but Joe and I relieved most of our stress by debating with each other. About anything really, it did not matter. I often felt that the resolution of the debates were less important than having them. It did not matter who won, I often thought it did not matter whether or not our points were true. The point is that we walked away feeling much better.

I have heard of people doing the same thing with sports. And in fact, simply from hitting people. But I wonder if that is part of our nature. Perhaps we need that tempered competitiveness every now and then to stop ourselves exploding. In any case, I'm not sure I would have made it through University without those stupid arguments about nothing. Joe and I never fell out with each other of course. We were never attacking each other. Just talking about the stupidest things in a level of detail that would make most people scream.

But, for what its worth, I impart these words to you now: However you chose to live your life, there are some things worth fighting for. Don't let fear or stress stop you fighting for them. If they are worth fighting for at all, then they are worth fighting for to the bitter end.

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'”

- John Greenleaf Whittier


Rachel, 2007/07/20 21:15:

Very thought-provoking… and stirring of those newly-settled memories at the bottom of quite a picturesquely peculiar pond!

It was indeed a gruesome final two years… but like you mention, it made our friendships all the stronger for the challenges we tackled and learned from together. (And I do love you, too ;-) as I'm sure you know.)

“I had some wild dreams and aspirations…”. I'm almost ashamed to admit “me too”, but now that is more years ago than I care to remember. Think I gave them up before uni though in my final school years when I realised I didn't want my life to go that way anyway, even if there was a chance it could. It would just cost too much. Thinking back on it now, I realise I was right-er than I guessed! Even just getting a 'normal' degree came very close to “costing too much”.

Yes, I think I would agree that some things are worth fighting for. But, I do think its a good idea to pick your battles wisely. I think I can honestly say I went into the final two years of my degree with my eyes wide open: I'd just witnessed one of my best friends graduate from it at the end of our second year, and so had a picture of the agony about as clear as anyone possibly could, without experiencing it for themselves.

I would say there is no shame in deliberately choosing to give up a fight, if it only becomes apparent in the heat of the battle the true cost of the fight. It is then up to you to make up your mind if the reward will merit the cost or not. But once you choose to fight, and are willing to pay the cost, then I would wish every success!

And so, horrid as the years were… I decided when I entered them, you reminded me during them, and I continue to affirm now I've finished them, I don't regret it. It *was* a big cost - and in some ways I've yet to fully understand, I think I may still have remnants of the cost left to pay - but what I gained out of those years outweighed the cost: close friendships, better understanding of my own limits (and respecting those limits), degree-label for cv purposes (as just a small side-effect!), flexibility to make my own choices and take the consequences, weigh out responsibilities - to ourselves, to our colleagues, to our friends, to our lecturers and university, to our outside interests and commitments.

Maybe in a strange way, it actually has fulfilled some of your preconceived expectations more than you realise: you found out stuff about yourself (maybe not what you expected to find out, but you found out the honest truth, not your dream-self), you had many and varied discussions (Joe helped you out here ;-) ), you did get to some parties/open mic nights/etc. And you were one of the most creatively experimental people I knew (except, maybe, Kenny who made the personal choice to sacrifice his degree to fulfil his own genius). No-one else came to me with challenges to code up some new challenging algorithm in the small hours of the morning! And you even turned up with the results yourself… time and time again!

“All I can say in my defence is that I was not the only one.” - I think it would be fair to say, pretty much everyone was in that boat. Dunno that I met anyone at all who could float through… closest I met was a genius Russian communist guy from halls, but even he struggled to float through first year physics. To do yourself a service, in the years I knew you, you definitely made good use of the educationalresources and environment in a way that I would say fulfilled its true purpose.

Funnily enough, on the competitive front… although as you rightly point out, it was competitive, it never really felt all that competitive to me. I guess partly 'cos you didn't know other peoples grades the way you used to in school. I was much more overwhelmed by the feeling of “why aren't these guys trying very hard, if they've made the effort to do this course in the first place”. And based on that observation, I kindof took the attitude the 'competition' would take care of itself… I just needed to make sure that *I* did my best. Even if that meant taking a totally different attitude to what I noticed other people “getting away with”. It wasn't so much about beating the competition, but the quality of learning I achieved during those years. Maybe I was still trying to hold onto my idealistic notions after all - but I thought that was a battle worth fighting with myself!

Ps: …and I used to try *so hard* not to scream :-P

Bonus question:: “only one has ever sounded quite as hard and punishing as mine” - I would be interested to find out which one ;-)

Nexami Engeo, 2007/07/20 22:13:

Lovely reply Rach, cheers. I suppose I did perhaps come closer to the impressions than perhaps I thought.

As for your bonus question, the other course was Computing Science at the University of Edinburgh. In fairness, the course at M.I.T. sounds quite close as well.

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