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Photo: Markus Spiske (flickr); License: CC BY 2.0

Everyone leaves university with a different perspective. We spend years and years behind its academic walls trying to prepare ourselves for the 'real world'. But what have we actually learnt during that time and what do we wish that we had learnt there? E&M’s editorial board look back at their respective university educations and shares their stories, and a little advice.

 

Sam - Diaphragm

The standout things I have learned from university are astoundingly basic, and most of the skills can be best listed using phrases which begin ‘how to survive when’. Here are a few examples:

  • How to survive when you haven’t slept in 40 hours and need to finish an essay. (Answer: Enough caffeine to screw up your system for a week.)
  • How to survive when you’re lost and drunk. (Answer: Stumble slowly in roughly the right direction and you’ll get there in the end.)
  • How to deal with estate agents without losing your mind. (Answer: Don’t take any shit.)
  • Most of all though: How to seem as though you’ve got it together. (Answer: Smile, be sociable, and work damn hard when the time comes.)

The lessons I should have learned are no doubt much more numerous: I should be a better cook, a better host of dinner parties and indeed a better person, to name just three areas for improvement.

The obvious final point is this: you never quite have the freedom to meet people, to grow into yourself, and to make silly mistakes as you do when you are at university.

For a few reasons, I decided to go back after a year in the 'real world' last September, I’m working hon the cooking.


Isabell - Legs/Sixth Sense

Looking back at my first semester at my university brings to mind how much I have changed, personally and professionally. When I entered the university and was about to start my academic life I was in awe of the institution and its people. After almost 6 years at universities in Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands, I realised that the academic education has its flaws and, although I would never want to change my experiences and I value my education, there is much to criticise.But having a student life was first and foremost happy and easy going once you understood all the administrative and bureaucratic stuff, which brings me to the first thing I learnt from the experience: Dealing with often seemingly meaningless administrative regulations not only teaches you how to do them but also where to get information, which information is correct and how important it is to talk to fellow students. Believing the answer given by a student desk employee is not always the best way to go, instead it is a combination of researching and talking to other students that often best solves an issue.

This also brings me to what I think is the most valuable feature of my academic education: Some might think it is simply the content of my subjects, but instead I have found it is learning how to effectively research, deal with deadlines, and approach problems critically.

What I wish I had learnt from my university education is how to successfully enter the job market and also how to be proud of what I have gained. Many employers look critically at studies, especially when it comes to the humanities, but instead of being defensive I would have liked to have the university tell us more the value of our studies and how we can use it in the market.

A bridge from academia to professional life is missing. For me as a person who soon has to enter the job market, it feels scary and I doubt myself and my skills.


Nicoletta - Baby/Legs

Having completed a language degree, what my gut compels me to say is that the main thing I learnt at university was, in fact, a language. Whilst I cannot say I am yet completely proficient in the languages I embarked to learn - my university experience certainly provided me with a plethora of life lessons still valuable to me today. Having attended both German and British universities I can safely say that university is both terrifying and exhilarating and here is what I learnt:

  • Exams are the most terrifying experience I hope to ever undergo.
  • Expressing my reactions to something I’ve read in a vaguely intelligent manner in an essay format is practically impossible.
  • Having a social life whilst still obtaining stellar grades is hard, when temptation is so very rife.
  • FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is a very real phenomenon - being stuck in the library deciphering Kafka whilst receiving snapchats and messages from inebriated friends is a painful experience.
  • Actually doing the secondary reading before a lecture makes you feel invincible.
  • Attempting to join into the debate in class also can have this effect - unless your ideas are demolished by your professor (no pressure).

What I certainly wish I’d learnt is how wonderful it is to spend 4+ years being intellectually stimulated and spending hours in the library or lab being creative and discovering new things - very few 9-5 jobs will offer you that. Most importantly of all what I wish I’d learnt is what the hell I wanted to do with my life in the post-university vacuum.

 

Victoria - Baby/Brain

Technically, I probably shouldn’t be contributing to this piece – I mean, I’m still at university and it’s partly because I am in fact not ready for 'the real world' (and, you know, also because I love what I study). But I like to think that I have learnt at least a couple of things in my undergraduate degree, so here we go:

  • That my opinion mattered: There are a lot of things I like to blame on the French educational system; one of them is the lack of promotion for self-development at school. I came to university having mastered the art of self-censorship. If some of my peers might have benefitted from it in certain seminars (you know it’s true, there is always this one person who has to say something, anything, no matter how dull), university teaching pushed me to challenge what I read or heard, and form critical opinions on certain topics that I might never have questioned before. And it progressively sunk in that what I thought had value in being shared and discussed.
  • To adapt: Moving to a new country for university meant learning how to deal with all the administrative tasks that came with it. The following years taught me how to find a flat, deal with a crazy landlord (in German!), and mostly adapt quickly: to new places, new situations, different people and customs. When I moved to a new city for my Master’s in October, it really just felt like a routine exercise by then.

 

There are also a few things that I wish I had learnt:

  • A new method for studying that does not involve tons of regular coke and caffeine the night before a deadline. I still have a good six months to go before I finish my Master’s though, so I’m hoping this might do.
  • Being ready for a job interview, public speaking, and rowing – or maybe salsa dancing. But really, I have only myself to blame for those. So my main advice to future and current students (and to myself as well), as cheesy and obvious as it sounds, is to take advantage of everything that’s on offer.
  • What to do next. (I’m open to suggestions here.)


Fernando - Heart/Brain

For the right reasons, I ended up choosing the wrong course. International Relations was the obvious plan to be pursued for someone with a fascination for geopolitics, I thought. In many ways, I was right. However, throughout my undergrad, I realised that the best bits of it were completely overlooked: the real driving force and conspiracies behind the engine that runs international politics were not taught in the classrooms.  International Relations as an academic subject has proved to be a tool that, in my modest opinion, explains how to see the tip of the iceberg only. Furthermore, I.R. makes its students believe that diplomats and states are the most sacred and important rocks of a chessboard.  

On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that having read the I.R. literature and earning a diploma has given me some sort of “pass” with which I can enter a club whose members listen to each other’s opinions - or at least pretend to. This is especially valid if you are able to quote Clausewitz or Thucydides somewhere in your speech!

 

Teaser photo: Luc Legay (flickr); License: CC BY-SA 2.0

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