Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Freshers Fear: Part 2

University is one of the biggest steps in life, which makes it hard for everyone, but perhaps even more so for those with mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. Here are a few tips to help make the transition into university as easy and beneficial as possible!

1) Register with your university's mental health services. This can be a serious help. I registered with mine when I registered as a student in the summer before university, and it made me feel so much more comfortable to know that I already had people who knew my problems and could help me. Together we worked out a system for exams - in Year 13 exams were a real problem for me, and I didn't want to take that chance again, as it really affected my academic ability. I was allowed to do exams in a room by myself with extra time and rest breaks should I need them. This massively improved my confidence for my exams, as I knew that I would be in a relaxed and comfortable environment.

2) Tell someone about your problems. If you have at least one friend who knows that you are struggling, this can take the weight off your shoulders. I made sure to tell my flatmates when I moved in, as I suspected that my anxiety would be at its worst in the proceeding days. They then knew the signs of when something was wrong, and when I might need support. As well as this, from talking about it, I have met other people with similar problems who understand how hard it can be, and we have worked through the hard times together.

3)  Don't hide away. You might feel safest holed up in your bedroom, but resist the temptation to do this all of the time, otherwise it will become a habit that is very hard to break. Even if it is just a quiet night in with a friend or two, it's great to socialise, and you will feel so much better for it! It's horrible to feel like you're missing out on things because your anxiety or depression is holding you back. Perhaps start in situations that are in your comfort zone, and then work on pushing yourself beyond this.

4) Don't push yourself too hard. Don't feel like you have to experience everything, just take it one step at a time. Small victories are the key. Accomplishing a goal can feel so good, but then can sometimes give you the confidence to agree to something that you are actually not comfortable with. You don't have to push yourself all the time - it's still ok to have a night on your own, watching your favourite film.

5) Don't give up. Setbacks can ruin your confidence and get you down. But give yourself a few days to recover, then pick yourself up and try again. You will not regret it. There may be times when you want to go home and never come back to university. Yet, with patience and determination, you will get through it. If you want it enough, you can do it.

Be strong. I believe in you!

Freshers Fear: Part 1

For many, the time for university is fast approaching. I remember exactly how I felt at this time last year as I was preparing to make the big move 150 miles across the country; excited but also terrified. So for those who are wondering what to expect, I have some words of wisdom for you, from an old second year, to a fresh-faced first year.

1) Everyone is nervous. Honestly. Why wouldn't you be, moving away from everything you've ever known to a new life of uncertainties. You're essentially thrown in the deep end. But you are not alone  - this shared fear will allow you to bond with your new flatmates and friends. Besides, you'll get lost in the excitement before you know it.

2) Set down the rules right from the beginning. You have probably heard a lot of students moaning about how their flatmates steal their milk, but it is a real problem. Of course, if someone takes a bit of your milk on a one-off occasion, it's not really an issue. But when you have your flatmates taking food that you have spent your money on, it does get very tiresome. If you have any alcohol or food that you don't want to be eaten, hide it in your room. (This is obviously within reason - unfortunately I could not hide my ice cream in my room, and could therefore not save it from the hands of my greedy flatmate - twice). Also, this doesn't just apply to food. Living with other students means sharing, so make sure that you let people know if you have issues with them using your cooking stuff. In a perfect world, they would ask you first and then wash it up afterwards. Yet, we are not in a perfect world. There is nothing more annoying than coming home from lectures to make dinner, only to find the pan you wanted is in the sink covered in mould.

3) Even if you don't like drinking or clubbing, go to pre-drinks if it is convenient. When I first moved to university, I struggled with anxiety and avoided alcohol until I was settled. Yet, a flat in my block held a pre-drinks party during the first or second night in freshers week, where I was able to meet my neighbours and become great friends with them. Having had conversations with other blocks, I have found that none were as close as we were, often going out together in groups from the block, or even just popping downstairs for a chat. By going to pre-drinks over the year, I have met some of my best friends, whom otherwise I would not have had the fortune to meet. If you prefer the sober life, the chances are not everyone at pre-drinks will be drinking alcohol.

4) Don't go overboard in freshers week. I know there is the eagerness to go out and meet new people, but this doesn't mean you have to go out clubbing every night. Besides, there are plenty of other ways to meet people, for example societies, lectures, seminars etc. So much happens in a year at university, that you might not even remain friends with those people you met on those initial drunken nights out in bars.

5) Try new things. This is what university is all about. You have a new home and a new lifestyle - why not have some new interests or hobbies to go with it? Push yourself beyond your limits, and you might discover something that you love.

6) Go beyond the university. Explore the city. Quite often, campus universities are out of the city. Personally, I only went into the city a couple of times in first year, leaving all of the exploring until after exams. I honestly wish I had done this sooner, and taken advantage of the places that were nearby - remember, that you will be likely to move into a house in a different area for second year.

7) Remember that you are at university to study. Too many people get caught up in the student stereotype of clubbing and drinking all the time, because first year doesn't count towards the final grade, and only 40% or thereabouts is needed to pass. However, first year is the perfect chance to perfect your work and writing style, and get used to the referencing guides before you get proper marks - make all the mistakes in first year so that by the time second year starts, you already have a pretty good idea how to write a stonking great essay.

8) Make the most of the university services. I made sure that I was known to the mental health services before I arrived in September, just so I had that comfort blanket there should I need the support. You'd be surprised what services your university will offer - make sure to have a look before you go. Don't be ashamed of using academic writing services or asking for help from lecturers - it will allow you to get the most out of your university experience. Don't let that mountain of student debt be for nothing.

9) Don't forget those people back at home. Make sure to check in with your parents every now and then, and keep in touch with your friends from school. University can be a good test to show who your real friends are - it is perfectly normal to not have much contact with friends from home during term time, but once you're back home for the holidays, the friends who really care about you will stand out, eager to your next meet up.

And finally, a slightly sillier one...

10) Invest in slippers - trust me, you never know what is on the floor. (Also just as a side note, NEVER go barefoot into the bathroom, especially if you are sharing a bathroom, and there are boys involved).

Happy moving! Good luck!

P.S. Freshers Flu is NOT a myth.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Me, Myself and My Anxiety

Imagine your biggest fear. The feeling of your heart racing, hot flushes as you start to sweat. You try to think clearly but the panic takes over. You don't know what to do. Your body tells you to get as far away as possible, yet somehow you find it hard to move.

So what is your biggest fear? Heights? Spiders? Clowns? Of course, you would only feel scared when confronted with this terrifying situation. But what if you have multiple fears? What if your biggest fear is leaving the house? Typically, leaving the house is a very ordinary occurrence, with minimal risk or danger involved. All you have to do is get up and walk out of the door.

Try telling your body that. The thought of going outside has you rooted to the spot, wanting to hide away in a dark corner and never come out. Your mind goes one step further. 'Why stop at being scared of the outside world?' it says. 'Why not also be scared of seeing your friends? Why not also be scared of eating?'

Anyone suffering from this kind of anxiety must not have any kind of life, right?


I'm sure everyone's heard all about the mental torture that comes with mental illness, or perhaps you've even experienced it. Yet, does anyone stop to look at the positives that can come from such a unpredictable disorder?

There is no way that I would be the person I am today without my anxiety. Many feel that they have lost themselves to their illness, wishing for the return of that younger version without a care in the world. Personally, I disagree. I would never trade my current self for that shy girl who hid her nose in books.

There's nothing like a great view to make you smile
My anxiety has given me understanding and compassion. Not only can I relate to those who suffer from similar problems, but I can help them through it, and always be a supporting shoulder to lean on if they need it. It has made me appreciate the finer things in life, like a quiet evening in with friends, or something as simple as sitting peacefully on the grass by the lake. Once you remember how beautiful life can be, you will want to do everything to keep it that way, for yourself and others around you too.

My anxiety has made me cross personal boundaries that I probably never would have crossed when having good mental health. Despite having never been one for going out in the evenings, there was no chance that I was going to miss out on the uni experience - it may have taken me a month or two, but I practically dragged myself out to club. And guess what? I loved every minute of it! (I have definitely been clubbing a lot more than I ever thought I would).

My anxiety has taught me how to get by on my own. Although it is my body that lets me down, I know that I will always bounce back. Personally, I find it hard to rely on people, so I have worked out my own coping mechanisms, that are sure to get me back on my feet ASAP. It has helped me understand my own mind, so that I can put these measures in place as soon as I feel the anxiety coming on. As much as I want to fight my anxiety and live without any worries, some times are harder than others, and self-care needs to come first.

My second home
My anxiety has made me realise that I can have anything that I want if I try hard enough. That barrier holding me back just makes me all the more determined to break through, making every success feel a thousand times better. After a morning of anxiety, managing a walk to the shops feels like I've won a medal. This was nothing compared to the accomplishment of leaving home to go to university. The next step is to graduate, and get a career that I love (once I've worked out what that is!).

My anxiety has made me want to push myself to continue doing what I enjoy. After a summer of being dependent on my mother, needing her to walk me to school to make it in for my exams, to move away to university seemed like the extreme opposite. In reality, it was the first major step to surviving on my own, and rediscovering all of the things that my anxiety stopped me from doing, like eating out and socialising.

My anxiety has taught me to make things happen for myself. Without the determination that I have developed from this disorder, I would never have applied for volunteering in my local theatre, or have been so persistent in my summer job search. I wouldn't have gone out and met the best friends I could hope for, and made great memories together.

My anxiety has taught me to hold onto the good things. I finally had the fortune to meet a guy who cared about me as much as I cared about him, and there was no way I was going to let him go. There were so many points where I could have given up, and let him walk out of my life, but the idea of our future together encourages me to fight back my demons and try my best for him.

My anxiety has made me who I am. And I wouldn't change myself for the world.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Teach or Beach?

I know this is a very outdated post so I shall keep it brief. This is inspired by the case where a father refused to pay a fine for taking his daughter on holiday during term time - there is a rule stipulating that parents must seek the permission of the school before taking their children on holiday if it is in the school term. The man then proceeded to take the case to court, where he won. However, I do not agree with this.

First of all, this creates a new problem - if he got away with it, what's stopping everyone else from doing it? Yes, it's cheaper to go on holiday when children are supposed to be in school, but surely this could change if the numbers of those going away at these cheaper times increased. If all families followed this example, then it would be extremely hard for schools to remain consistent, especially if a student is away one week, and then another the next and so on.

Most importantly, however, this seems to diminish the value of education, not to mention showing disrespect for those individuals who make this possible. I don't think many students realise just how privileged they are to have access to this level of education on a daily basis, and to take it for granted in this way is almost in insulting to those to whom such learning is unavailable. Children need to understand the value of hard work, and make the most of the resources that are open to them while they can. Otherwise, they could waste the best years of their life.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

To Essay or Not To Essay

Is an essay really the best way to assess a student's knowledge?

Methods of examination are a continuous debate amongst student and academics; one only has to look at how much the education system has changed over the last decade to see this. Courses are constantly being tailored and adapted, though sometimes the reasoning for this is questionable. Changes can be good in ensuring that students can get the most out of their learning, seeming as they only have a restricted time span to do so. However, a lot of alterations are made to increase the difficulty of examinations, perhaps as a result of the rising number of students in this country.

The essay is one of the most common assessment methods, typically used in two ways; an essay written in a student's own time, or an essay that is written in exam conditions within a specific time limit. I have done my fair share of both types in my time at school and university, so much so that whilst writing this, I've already thought of how I would construct this debate in essay form. Be warned, this is what taking a Joint Honours degree in two essay-based subjects does to you (it's great, I promise). Anyway, let's start with the first of these types.

Personally, I really enjoy writing essays as they allow me to explore my thoughts and create a unique interpretation. Before university, I don't think I ever really understood the process behind an essay, which probably had something to do with my lack of planning (I apologise to my former English teachers, I just couldn't do it). Now, I spend more time gathering research and constructing my ideas than I do actually writing the main body of the essay. I love the intimacy with the text, and the depth of ideas that you can get from engaging with a piece (yes, I'm a nerd).

Yet, this doesn't stop me from recognising the classic faults. Normally if there is no time limit on an essay, there will be a word limit. Otherwise, it's just too easy. I spend an inordinate amount of time editing my essays, often going 800 words or so over my word limit in my first draft. It is almost impossible to be able to judge whether you have expanded your points enough whilst staying within the word count specified. I have found from my course at university that these amounts can vary from 500, 1000, 2500, and 3000. I know, 500 words is ridiculous - what are you even supposed to say? So, does the word count actually defeat the point? In order to judge this, you have to look at what an essay is supposed to prove, and in most cases examiners will look for clarity and coherence. A word count can be very useful for this, as it teaches you how to condense your ideas in a way that makes them presentable and easy to understand to others. However, it can be a cap on your creativity. I have had to remove ideas from my essays purely because I don't have room to explore them sufficiently enough for credit. Though, this again is a lesson in choosing which of your ideas are worth mentioning. If there were no word count, then you would end up with a 10 page list of your points, which I can guarantee the examiner will stop reading halfway through. So, my verdict is that this type of essay does have its uses. In my personal opinion, I think it is much more fulfilling when a student has to tackle this challenge single-handedly, such as at university or in the IB, as I know that other courses such as A levels offer far too much help and influence. If an essay is a way to prove your knowledge and creative flow, it is only an effective method of assessment when coming from the student alone.

Five out of six of my exams this summer are timed essays. This type of essay tends to be more undesired by students, as a whole subject is essentially condensed into a 2 hour paper. It can be a good way of testing your ability on the spot in terms of what you have learned throughout the year, as well as giving you a chance to show off if you have ventured beyond the textbooks (yes, there is always more information to find). Yet the pressure and immediacy of the situation can make it incredibly hard to think straight, and I can't count the amount of times I've got halfway through my exam and thought of a good point, only to have to randomly chuck it in somewhere (this is partly my fault for not planning - but often there's hardly enough time for that!). Also, a paper will only question you on a small part of your subject, meaning that you learned and revised everything else for nothing. Once again, this is a limit on your creativity, and the exam situation can cause problems in itself, such as anxiety and panic. Whilst I can see the benefits of using this type of essay to assess students, I don't think it is an accurate representation of their learning.

It is very hard to find a method of examination that is appropriate for everyone and that is efficient in testing knowledge. But, I propose the concept of oral exams. Some assessments, especially at university, are conducted through the use of presentations, yet public speaking is an issue for a lot of people. The oral exam I envision would be more like an interview situation, with a student alone in a room with the assessors, who would then engage in a conversation regarding the topics of learning. This then presents the student with an opportunity to cover a variety of content and prove their knowledge in a more relaxed atmosphere. Social skills can then simultaneously be developed, and students can adjust to this more realistic situation - I'm sure most people are more likely to discuss their knowledge in person in the future, rather than sit at a desk and spew out ideas on a piece of paper. Furthermore, it could combat problems such as poor handwriting and dyslexia that make examinations such as essays unfair to other students. Grammar, punctuation and other forms of presentation often overshadow the knowledge portrayed in an essay, but this is not an issue in spoken conversation.

Of course, no method is perfect, and not everyone would be content with being assessed in this way, especially those who do not like public speaking or suffer from anxiety. However, it would be impossible to find a method that would be ideal for everyone - the same method of assessment can even vary between courses or institutions, for example IB and A level students both submit essays for coursework, but IB students get minimal help compared to A level students.

All I am saying is that I believe institutions such as schools should give their students the chance to get the best out of their learning, whilst also preparing them for later life; oral exams could be the way to do this. It would present students with a fairer chance to showcase their knowledge, and reduce some of the unnecessary pressure that written exams create.

In terms of essays being an effective method of assessment, I am not sure I can come to a definite conclusion. From experience, writing essays has taught me how to look for details that do not appear on the surface, and more importantly, it has encouraged me to extend my boundaries and think outside the box. However, I disagree with the concept of essays within a restricted time limit - it is not fair to base a potentially life changing grade on a paper that shows a tiny portion of the student's potential knowledge.

Maybe if we loosen the reigns a little, we'll be surprised by what our students have learned.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Uniform or Uniformity

Throughout my 14 years at school, I was always told that uniform was important. At primary school this didn't bother me in the slightest - probably because I was far too busy running around the playground pretending to be a witch, or playing with my Tamagotchi. But when I got to secondary school, it was full of rules and regulations, not only dictating what we should wear, but how we should wear it.

Now, I'm not saying that uniform is always a bad thing; I mean it solves the daily struggle of choosing what to wear, which at 7 in the morning, is a surprisingly hard decision. And there is a genuine point behind the idea of equality, in regards to gender or even wealth - the last thing you want is to feel intimidated by someone parading round in a fur jacket. Yet what you have to ask is, who does it benefit? It's all great saying 'tuck your shirt in', or 'roll your skirt down', but it's no good if they don't tell us why.

There was always resistance against the idea of uniform at my secondary school. Whenever a student piped up and asked the teacher why it mattered whether they wore a particular colour of hairband (yes this really happened), the only answer they got was that it supposedly created less distraction to themselves and others, which in turn would help their learning. Even more shockingly, another common excuse was that it could encourage people to dress in a more sexual way - an argument that would seem even more surprising coming from an all girls school. It doesn't take a genius to tell this is a load of rubbish. And how do I know, may you ask? One word: university.

If I can go to a lecture and not get distracted by the vibrant colours of my clothing, why is school so different? The answer is simple: it isn't. Uniform has very little benefit from a student point of view (I should know, I've worn a green jumper daily for 12 out of 18 years of my life). It is just another way for the school to try and maintain control over their students. This can be good in moderation, as it can encourage people to stay in line, but I know that in a lot of cases, this prospect has been taken to extremes.

My school was a prime example. When I got to sixth form, we were told that we had to wear suits instead of a uniform. This will already seem strange to a lot of people, as in other areas, schools have no problem with students wearing their own clothes. Some would say I went to a posh school, but this is another part of the debate - would they still think that if we wore our own clothes? It is safe to say that in my secondary school, uniform was manipulated as a device to uphold the reputation of the school. By wearing suits we were presented as respectable members of society who took their education seriously, and this is no bad thing. But when the rules are as ridiculous as only being allowed to wear plain/spotted/striped tops, and not being allowed to take your jacket off when walking around the school unless it was above a certain temperature, it becomes nothing but oppressive. How does being sent home for wearing a patterned jumper help your education?

One of the things I love most about university, is that people have the freedom to be whoever they want, however they want. A large part of this involves appearance. I have seen people with hair of a variety of shades, people with tattoos and piercings - all of which would not have been accepted at my secondary school. To feel comfortable in yourself and who you are is what will encourage you to learn, and to expand your horizons, to feel confident that you can achieve all you want. To stuff somebody into a uniform is in some ways a form of repression, forcing them to cohere to a stereotype that they may not want to part of. This could be particularly hard for someone who may be struggling with their identity, mentally and physically. They are being told they have to be something and be someone, rather than being given the freedom they need to decide for themselves. Coming from an all girls school, I was surprised at how much people changed once they were free from this ideological structure.

You might think that I'm making a big deal out of something so trivial, and that all of these issues go so much further than uniform. But little things can make a huge difference. I take so much joy in seeing how happy everyone is at university, knowing that they can be themselves in terms of appearance without people judging them. Back home, though uniform was an equaliser within a school, this still didn't prevent competition between various establishments, and I know that other students who wore their own clothes thought we were more than a little pretentious, strutting around in our suits. In reality, we were absolutely no different from them; our appearance was used merely to dictate the status of the school, not who we really were.

So what am I really trying to say? Honestly, I'm not really sure what the ideal outcome would be. The complete abolishment of uniform would mean that all schools would lose their social distinction (I know that this would be unthinkable at my school). However, is this really a bad thing? The core of all this is education, wherever you get it and how you get it. What you wear certainly does not improve this, in fact in many cases it does the opposite, with people often trying to rebel against these constraints. People will learn because they want to learn, whether or not they are wearing bright pink hotpants.

Ultimately it comes down to the argument I'm sure we've all heard a thousand times, which people continue to ignore.
It doesn't matter what is on the outisde, it is what's on the inside that counts. And now institutions such as schools need to prove that they have faith in who their students really are.