Saturday, 7 July 2012

You are high school to me. All of the boyfriends and mean girls and tests and teachers and our CRAZY mothers – we went through it together. We raised each other.

Some people get tattoos, I get stuffed animals.
Hello there. I have the feeling this is one of the harder posts I will have to write in here (yes, even worse than that one about mysterious bug bites). You see, in 2 weeks' time I will a) have graduated from UEA and b) be having my visa interview for Ole Miss. This means I need to start acknowledging the fact that I am not going back to UEA. Which I really do not want to do. I'm going to write about my UEA journey for me, and for you. For you if you were a part of it, as a friend or a tutor or a bunny bouncing around the grounds. For you if you are starting UEA this year, half-way through your degree, or thinking of applying (go apply for American Studies at UEA right now). I would do it all again if I could.

UEA has been an enormous part of my life for the past 4 years of course, but actually it's been even longer than that; I first went to an open day in 2006. So far, I had been somewhat bemused by the process of applying to university. I had checked out a couple of places, vaguely thinking that I wanted to do something literature based but not really sure what that would mean. UEA appealed to me at first because of its reputation for creative writing, and I have always wanted to be an author. However, I ended up at an American Studies talk. It felt like a more adventurous choice, and that was what I wanted.

As a side note, I am actually glad that I didn't end up doing a creative writing course. I know that for many people, it is a wonderful experience and helps them to become better writers. But it is not the only route. At UEA, I was part of the Creative Writing Society, I wrote a lot in my spare time, and I took a couple of classes (one at UEA, one at UNC) without it being my degree title. When I moved back in with my parents recently, I went through my old stuff, including sketch books. I had forgotten how much I had loved art, had even once wanted to be an illustrator as well as author. Don't laugh, but GCSE Art burned me out. Being graded according to a syllabus just wasn't for me, especially as I don't have a lot of range. I liked art history, adored drawing, could be persuaded into painting, but hated sculpture with a passion. I was a lot happier when I was left to play around by myself. I know that if I ever wish to be published I may have to approach my writing differently, but for this period of my life it was the right decision to keep it as a beloved hobby.

Anyway, back to this American Studies talk. The speaker was Professor Christopher Bigsby, who would later be my teacher for Early 20th Century Novels in America. (I probably took it to talk about Faulkner more, and because it was in the Arthur Miller room. Two words, people: leather armchairs.) I couldn't tell you everything that was said in that meeting five and half years ago. I can tell you that I walked out of it, across campus with my parents, and said, "I am going here and I am doing American & English Literature." I have never been so sure of a decision in my life. I had a few obstacles, namely my difficult relationship with exams. I had to do a number of retakes in order to get the grades I needed. But I was absolutely determined, and after a gap year of travel and work I moved to Norwich to begin my new life.

My first year was all about pranks and ridiculousness in Suffolk Terrace (the "Naked Flat" had quite a reputation), worrying about my essays and making lots of new friends. UEA quickly became my home, and my friends were my family. My second year was a blur between running Creative Writing Society, going to the LCR a lot, working at Starbucks, applying for my year abroad and pushing myself as hard as ever with my essays and exams. I'm still never quite sure how I managed it all. My third year was my year abroad in North Carolina, and I crashed. I suppose it had been a long time coming. I was lonely, scared, mosquito-bitten and often depressed. Painful as it was, the result of that year was lasting friendship, love, travel and self-belief. My fourth year was a time to heal. When I first returned to the UK, I still suffered from insomnia, found it difficult to talk to anyone, and was struggling to leave the past in the past. I felt better than I had done, but I was still lost. Or so I thought. After gaining weight abroad, I got into better shape than I ever have been. I wrote a few short stories that I'm proud of. My dissertation was marked as a First, and it led to my interview with BAAS and now my Master's in Mississippi. A lot happened between my first day in Norwich and the last, but I got my happy ending for sure.

As my description probably implies, my social life was an important part of my time at UEA. I was lucky enough to be placed in a first year flat which, for the most part, stuck together. I still count several of those flatmates as close friends. In fact, many of the friends I made at UEA I actually met the first week that I started, in my seminars or societies. I also struck gold with my part time job at Starbucks. Many people despise their part time jobs, but I didn't. It was a gift for me to have somewhere else to be other than campus or home (especially when our heating broke), to meet people who were not at UEA, and to have days where I was a barista, not a student. Then there was the Creative Writing Society. It was such a privilege to be a part of it, especially as Secretary. I don't think I have ever laughed more than I did at those workshops, even when I was the one running them and should probably have been a little more focused. I actually took a few of my workshop plans to my BAAS interview because I felt they showed a side to me that essays alone could not. Of course, the final two years of university were definitely not as social as the first two, after I left then came back. It was very hard to adjust. But I'm glad that I had to. As much as I value my friendships, I'm glad that I'm setting off to graduate school with the confidence to do things alone. I write stories without anyone to workshop them, I go for runs by myself, and I'm much better at listening to my own heart.

I'm going to go ahead and state the blatantly obvious: university is hard. I don't know anyone who sailed right through 3 years or more without making mistakes. I don't know anyone who didn't suffer from circumstances outside of their control. It's why I am so glad to have done it all at two amazing universities. Without the truly incredible faculties at both UEA and UNC, I would not have got through my degree. I would have run right back to St Albans and stayed there the rest of my life. On top of every other pressure at uni, the last things you want are to feel like your course is boring and that there's no one there to help. I never, ever felt like that. I enjoyed every module I took at UEA, from the American Body to American Music to Tales of the Jazz Age. I always felt like I had support academically, and even emotionally. I needed a lot of encouragement, and I got it. At my interview for the BAAS award, they asked me to describe times in which I had been the recipient of good teaching. I had so many examples to choose from that I had to pause and think. I sincerely hope that the experience I had at UEA will make me a good teaching assistant at Ole Miss.

So, now that I have moped my way to the 8th paragraph, I hope everyone can see that I did quite like UEA. I remember the first time I visited campus, when I was still in sixth form and spent all of my time daydreaming (I've outgrown that nasty habit, obviously). I wondered what I would be like by the end of four years there. I am happy to say that, imaginative as I was, I have far surpassed my own expectations. My life is bigger and brighter than I ever believed it could be. So thank you, UEA, and keep doing what you're doing. I'll miss you every day.

Fresh and cute as first years - September 2008.

So mature that we irritated the bar staff trying to take this picture about 8 times - June 2012.