Having spent almost four years in higher education, there can be no denying that I have learnt a lot. Amongst other things, I have been taught the Foucauldian perspective on power and knowledge, the limitations of democracy, the metaphysical possibility of zombies (fun fact: they are metaphysically possible) and that everything, or virtually everything, is problematic in some way.
Yet, to cater to the cliché, the most important things that I have learnt at university are not what I have been taught. I don’t mean to undermine my education at all: the countless lectures and seminars that I have attended have left an indelible imprint on me, of which I am obviously extremely grateful. However, there is no doubt in my mind that when I reflect on my days at university in the years to come, it will not be the string of notes that I took or the wise words from academics that I absorbed that will be the main body of what I remember. After all, I sit writing this blog a mere few days before my final exam – that says something in itself.
Much has been written on this topic already. Countless articles will tell you of the importance of finding out how to pay bills, realising the difficulties of living with friends or even developing a deeper appreciation of your home life. These accounts are all true and, without my time at university, I doubt I would have been able to manage my life as well as I am currently able to. However, I would like to employ a slightly different approach. I want to discuss not only what I have not been taught, but the lessons that I have come to understand in the hardest ways. Without getting too intimate, this is a very personal account of my journey and whilst discovering these things has certainly not been easy, they have had a permanent impact on me.
1) Appreciate similarity, respect difference
When you think of the word ‘difference’, what comes to mind?
This is a question that I recently contemplated given the varying and contradictory images that can be illustrated by the word. Difference can, very basically, be described as a point or way in which something or someone is not the same. It indicates some sort of change, an alteration. However, when you think of difference, is this positive or negative?
My first instinct, being the idealist that I am, was that ‘difference’ can be synonymised with ‘making a difference.’ This resonates with the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, who told us to “Be the change you wish to see in the world” or John F. Kennedy, who said “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Yet, difference is more than about making a change. It is also about the existence of change. As a master’s student at the Gender Institute, I have become familiar with the term ‘intersectionalities’, a word I am sure many of you would have heard before too. Appreciating intersectionalities involves appreciating that differences can result to differing experiences and that these distinctions should be respected as best as possible. Race, class, sexuality, religion – in a university context you will undoubtedly meet individuals who do not share such common ground with you but it is essential to respect this regardless in order to ensure that the world remain a place of stability and harmony.
This certainly has not always been an easy task for me. If someone’s fundamental beliefs are antithetical to my own, trying to accept their view is not necessarily possible. On most accounts, though, I have tried to respect our differences and understand that agreement on everything is not strictly necessary. However, similarity is something that I found equally difficult to grapple with.
The term homophily refers to our tendency to associate with those who are similar to us. To me, this makes sense given that similar interests give friends something to talk about and common ground can bring comfort and validation. As a British Indian who has lived in Nigeria, Malaysia and England, when I went to university, I believed that I would have a lot of common ground with a lot of people. I was not wrong. I could relate to both local students and international students in some ways, whether it was discussing the television shows that we enjoyed as children, our favourite restaurants half way across the world or mutual friends that we shared. Naively, I assumed that this similarity would only churn positive results but I was proved very wrong. I soon became exposed to the judgement that existed amongst a significant amount of my peers and I was stuck in the middle. ‘Your other friends – they’re so stingy.’ ‘Your other friends – they’re so snobby.’ I was hearing these things from all ends, and this was not only frustrating, it was heartbreaking to see condemnation as so pervasive.
This is not to say that I have not been guilty of such judgement. You would be hard pressed to find an individual who has not criticised someone who is not like them. Yet, I was forced to come to terms with how I felt about the situation. It may seem somewhat obvious a lesson to learn but I have consistently found that whilst people know to appreciate similarity and to respect difference, it is not practised as well as it is preached.
2) Context is often everything
My undergraduate experience was at a campus university, not far from London but incomparable to the LSE in so many ways. Everything was much closer: it did not take long to travel to see a friend, it was inevitable that you would run into multiple people you knew in the library on any given day and you were unlikely to be introduced to someone who did not already know someone that you did too. During my time at the LSE, I have met a fair few people but this has generally been limited to the people on my course. Having previously lived in London, I already had friends that I was able to spend my time with. Whilst the tube and buses facilitate movement, distance is often still a concern. Perhaps this is also where postgraduate and undergraduate life differ. Space is a problem, but difficulties arise with available time too. Whilst I was doing my undergraduate degree, I was still able to maintain a relatively healthy social life. Postgraduate life tells another story at times.
I came to realise that context often defined a situation and the part of my life that I have felt this most is in friendship. I consider myself lucky given that I am still very close to my school friends, as I have often witnessed others around me lose touch with theirs. Perhaps what was keeping them together was proximity, perhaps it was something else altogether, but that the change of situation and environment had such a detrimental impact is indicative of the effect of context. A similar phenomenon has occurred for me with the difference between my undergraduate and postgraduate experiences. I have already lost touch with many and, though this saddens me profusely, it is something I will just have to accept. As my mother always reminds me, we have different types of friends in life: friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for a lifetime. Unfortunately, not all can fall in the latter category.
3) Don’t undermine mental health
A few months ago, I wrote a blog on depression. I discussed the pervasiveness of depression amongst students and how there is no sole reason that is responsible for this. Depression, anxiety and self-harm are among the many mental health issues that occur in a university setting. Mental health might be invisible to some but it exists, it is very real and this is, in my opinion, not acknowledged enough.
I became aware of the gravity of the occurrence of mental health in a number of ways, but how this came about is unimportant in relation to what can be done about it. I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate some of the information I have previously mentioned. Whilst I am certainly not an expert on depression, professional forums do exist where such issues can be discussed within a university context. The misunderstanding and stigma that surround mental health can often act as a deterrent to those who might benefit from help. It is imperative that we ensure the discussion on mental health only continues to grow and in the right direction.
The LSE Student counselling service offers a free and confidential service for LSE students and runs specific workshops on depression. Appointments are available through email or in person and details can be found here.
Students Against Depression is a website which provides advice, information, guidance and resources for those affected. More information is available here.
Alternatively, London Nightline is a confidential listening, support and information service for students in London. The phone service operates from 6pm-8am every day during term time and the number is 020 7631 0101. Further contact can be done through email, instant messaging and Skype calls and details can be found here.
As Oscar Wilde once said, “The optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist sees the hole.”
This is the age-old conundrum of how one looks at the glass: is it half full or half empty? Perspective encapsulates our attitude towards something, perhaps how it makes us feel or think. Awareness that perspective can alter an entire situation is imperative but is often overlooked. Perspective is taught in class continuously. In essays, for example, one is usually expected to survey at least two different sides of an argument. However, sometimes, as I came to realise, we need the help of others to see things in a different way.
A very simple story summarises how exactly university gave me a situation to understand perspective. I did my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. After my first year of university, we were allowed to drop one of the subjects if we wished to. I had a very mathematical background and, since the age of 14, I had decided that I wanted to be Prime Minister. The natural decision for me seemed to be to drop Philosophy and continue with the other two.
However, I had serious doubts over this decision. I simply was not enjoying Economics and I had not anticipated how much I would grow to love Philosophy. I sat in a Philosophy lecture two days before I was meant the make my final decision when, during the class, our professor said as a passing comment that ‘Economists rule the world.’ This swayed me. At this point, it seemed like I had been given a sign so I turned to the friend next to me and announced my decision to carry on with Economics for this reason. She looked at me, confused, and asked the question that would entirely change my perspective and consequent decision: ‘But have you seen the world today?’
As Rory Sutherland said, “When you can’t smoke, if you stand and stare out of the window on your own, you’re an antisocial, friendless idiot. If you stand and stare out of the window on your own with a cigarette, you’re a philosopher.” The way we look at things can change how we feel about ourselves, others and the world around us and the power of changing perspective should never be underestimated as a consequence.
5) Never stop asking questions as you will stop receiving answers
‘Keep asking questions.’ I was told this on the first day of my undergraduate degree, I was told this on the first day of my postgraduate degree and I was told this throughout university. As I am writing about things that I have learnt but not been taught, you might then question why this is on the list, given that I was advised to ask questions continuously. The truth is, although I was told this time and time again, it was only until I figured questioning out for myself that I truly realised how important it was.
At school, in preparation for any kind of assessment, I would read through my textbook, learn significant amounts off by heart and regurgitate it in order to do well. University told a different story and, as a consequence, for the first time in my life I found myself struggling in an academic context. I was at a loss, I didn’t know what to do and I was becoming increasingly frustrated. I decided to change my approach. Instead of trying to figure out the answer, I went to the root of the problem: the question. In order to understand the question, I needed to dig deeper. I asked what it meant, what were its causes, what were its consequences and, like the buried treasure in the depths of the earth, I gained some clarity.
I have felt wildly out of my depth on more than one occasion throughout my university experiences. In fact, it is frequently the case that the more I know, the less I understand. However, although it took me a significant amount of time to realise this, I eventually came to terms with the fact that this did not matter. For me, answers became only as important as the questions that they followed and, even then, were just the icing on the towering cake of knowledge.
Advice has never been my forte: giving or receiving. As John Steinbeck once said, ‘You only want it if it agrees with what you wanted to do anyway.’ However, as I share these lessons with you, I have in mind one overlapping theme that I hope you have been able to learn at some point as well: the importance of listening.
Listening allowed me to realise how I differed from others and to value their lived experiences. Listening made me aware of the common ground I shared with not only those I felt were already like me, but even the most unexpected of people. Listening forced me to come to terms with how change is very real and to understand circumstances. Listening opened my eyes to the impact and magnitude of mental health and taught me the instrumentality of empathy. Listening offered me the opportunity to try and understand things from a different point of view. Listening educated me on how to ask the right questions. I listened others and others listened to me. I listened to myself and I have never understood who I am better than I do now.
For everyone who is graduating this year, I wish you the best of luck. Education has been quite a journey. Whilst I will deeply miss certain elements, I am excited to see what the next stage of my life has to offer. As the late Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.” Never stop learning.