Between Two Worlds. A challenging student life and a demanding degree: could we bring those two universes together?
‘Reality? What is that?
Is it an idea or just a convention?
It’s how we define that particular threat,
which pushes our dreams right into detention.
Is my love for you part of the real?, I ask.
I do not know, but I can say
every single person wears a mask;
we use it in this reality, if not, we have to pay…’
This is an excerpt from a longer poem I wrote before starting University. It reflects my perspective about life at that ‘pre-sociological’ moment. This view started to change slightly on 17th September 2012 when I began my degree in Sociology with a specialism in Media Studies at Sussex University.
As I was studying something new for me, one of the first things of which I gradually became aware during the first lectures and seminars was that so many taken-for-granted ideas, beliefs and customs are, in fact, socially constructed. I had more or less realized this before, but when I started studying Sociology I really thought it through. If we think about the dominant factors that effectively run our society as discourses for example, family, marriage, religion, power, education, sexuality, assumptions of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ – the list goes on), and pause to think how our own beliefs relate to those concepts, we shall start noticing where the ‘socially constructed factor’ intervenes, posing insistent questions to ‘normality’ of all kinds…
Having received this revelation or wake-up call to sociology, I am happy to say that I had a very enjoyable first year. With a little (and sometimes a lot) help from my lovely friends on campus and from my gorgeous boyfriend whom I had met at University, I managed to escape the stress of studying in a foreign country, getting used to the academic language, and the many other challenges of university life. I succeeded in striking a healthy balance between late-night parties and the hours spent in the library: an equilibrium that somehow materialised into good (and sometimes very good!) grades throughout the year. ‘Healthy balance’ is not just one secret: it is the most important secret of becoming a successful Sociology undergraduate. All you need is passion, good time-management skills and, more often than not, a creative spirit.
Passion is a key word. I think you have to be passionate about what you do in order to be satisfied and to feel good in your field of activity – and in this respect studying sociology is no different from any other pursuit. But involvement is equally important, especially when the time comes to choose a career which will effectively influence your entire life. During my first year of studying sociology, one of the biggest challenges was choosing which topics to write about, which books and articles to read for my essays, and which presentation topics to address. Compared to my previous experience of secondary education, university gave me more freedom which I enjoyed and that’s what has shaped my passion for Sociology. The best thing about university is feeling free to focus on what genuinely interests me (though, obviously, I do not completely ignore topics I do not like). My long first-year trip through many themes, perspectives and ideas in Sociology has helped me develop an idea as to what to do, and on what to focus, during the next couple of years.
Once the first year has accomplished its mission – to make you discover your areas of interest – what comes next?
Well, it is not enough to simply be captivated by your studies. You have to deal with managing your time, which becomes increasingly more important in later years of study. Even when you are tempted to read all the books that interest you, go to many parties and do sports, you must simultaneously meet deadlines and attend seminars and lectures. What helped me was the simplest thing possible: keeping lists. Each weekend I would plan the following week in as much detail as I could, arranging ‘to do’s according to priority. I had lists and lists: daily lists, shopping lists, weekly lists… Here is an example of a weekly list:
1. Finish the readings for the essay
2. Get plane tickets for vacation
3. Don’t forget to text Doriana for her birthday
4. Don’t miss the beach party of Thursday
…the list could go on and on. This simple approach allows you to have an overview of the immediate future. You can imagine what activities need to take place during the coming week and be sure not to miss anything (though of course you have the freedom to amend the list if needed). And let’s not forget that satisfying feeling when you’ve finished your assignments and you delete, cut, put a X or a V in front of every ‘thing to do’, or just throw the list in the bin. After that, because you have completed the long and stressful list, you deserve to go out and relax with your friends.
Lists and planning are not all. In order to be academically successful, you must also be creative. This was my main problem during the first year. At first, I was confused about how to be creative in something that did not appear creative, such as an academic essay. I came to University with what I thought was a very good understanding of the word ‘creative’: my hobbies are poetry, painting, drawing and fashion design. But my first assignments gave me a new challenge: what does the criterion of ‘originality’ in the mark mean, if the essay is supposed to be a serious and rigorous piece of written work? So here is another thing that I learned (and still continue learning) during the first year of studying Sociology: originality is not only about my ‘outré art’, it can also exist between the lines of a well-structured academic essay.
A lot more could be written about my first year experience in studying Sociology and Media Studies, but I hope that these few reflections about my experiences, what I have learned so far, what worked and what didn’t, would be useful to you. If I had to sum up the main ingredients of a successful start at university, I would say that you need, above all, passion, time management and creativity. But how does all this answer the question posed in the title of this short essay? In my experience, the two apparently different worlds, the life of a fresher and their busy timetable, can work very well together, as long as you keep a good balance and enjoy what you are doing.
During the university induction, one of the speakers advised us to ‘work hard, be good and have fun’. At the time, a quiet inner voice, the voice inside my head, objected: ‘Sure, sure, this is another welcoming cliché.’ Now, a year later, I speak with my consciousness alert:
‘Well, that man was right, completely right.’
Alexandra Bulat is a second year Sociology and Media Studies student at the University of Sussex.