Contrary to the insisting force of public perception, my university career has been anything but an easy stroll in the park. Yes, varsity hasn’t been easy (*waits for the dramatic uproar of gasps*). I have been doing this varsity for four years and it only now that I have found the audacity and bravery to admit this.
While people may mean well in most cases, unchecked perceptions and expectations of an individual’s potential can easily lead to silencing and paralysing that individual, especially in the academic context.
As a tribute to my academic career as it has been and as it stands, here is a list of general survival tips written purely from my experience at the University currently known as “Rhodes”. I have prepared this list of annotated tips in hopes that these will get through to somebody in need of being seen and experience validated in this context.
1) Prioritise your purpose: Education.
This may sound counter-logical at best, and plain backward at worst, but you are at university to receive an education. It is easy to find yourself indulging in people and activities that could very well dissuade you from taking full advantage of your education. With this being said, it is absolutely pivotal to remember that each and every one of your peers has a set of unique experiences that has informed their choice to come to university. While it may be true that most of us are simply trying to attain degrees so that we may graduate and move on with adulthood, this very narrative is not without nuance(s). While some are at university to grow and flex their intellectual muscles, others see this as a rare or/and final chance to better their own lives and the lives of those that depend on them. This reality already holds enough water to explain some of the material and non-material inequalities that our society endures. Remain focused. Do all that is necessary and possible to excel academically (great marks are trendy, trust me). Let education be the foundation of your overall tertiary experience.
2) TW | Unpopular Opinion: Sometimes, books aren’t enough.
No, I’m not contradicting the first point I just made. And no, I’m not saying that you can never have enough books- because, I mean, you really can never have enough books.
What I am saying is that you being book smart is not enough. Before I feel the full wrath of the #AntiIntellectual Twitter brigade, let me elaborate my point. Books are important. And a commitment to developing ways to cope efficiently with academic-related activity is even better. However, I can bet you R5.00 (that I obviously don’t have because student life and high data prices are the devil’s creation) that the world will expect a little more from you than an excellent academic transcript. Use your time at university to explore different spaces and meaningful build relationships in the process. Attend guest lectures, book launches and seminars; have more meaningful interactions with your tutors and lecturers (especially if you intend on pursuing post-grad); read beyond your prescribed texts; join a society or do a sport or participate in community service; you can even be audacious and start something of your own! These are all experiences that contribute to your currency as a person outside of the academic context. It’s good for your social résumé, but it’s also good for your personal esteem too.
3) STAY IN YOUR FINANCIAL LANE!
Look, I am definitely not going to be the one to tell you what you do with your money. I am not the minister of financial morality. I also understand that we live financially different lives and so our spending habits vary. However, I cannot stress the importance of being financially responsible for yourself and displaying the same kind of consideration towards others. Not everybody’s R10.00 stretches equally. Peer pressure at a university level threatens one’s financial stability in more ways than we realise or would like to admit. From fancy dinners, to snacks for ‘netflix and chill’, to the purchase and consumption of alcohol (no matter how unbelievably reasonable the drink specials may sound). The perceived affordability of student life (especially in Grahamstown), coupled with the pressure to have an (hyper)active social life, easily puts one under financial strain. I have to emphasise that you do not have to feel ashamed of yourself if you are not on the same level as those you may think are financially better off than you are. Rather spend your energy finding healthy and sustainable ways to reckon and respect your financial condition.
4) “Be weary of the ways of the world” (Knowles, S. 2016).
Not everybody experiences university in the same way. Sure, I have had cute moments in this space, but it has taken quite a while and effort to acknowledge that I have had rather shitty experiences in this space too. I have often been silenced and judged for not having “the time of my life” in ways that people often romanticise university experience to be. This is especially true about the University currently known as “Rhodes”. Regardless of your own personal condition, as students of the University currently known as “Rhodes” we are already predisposed debilitating living conditions that compromise the quality of our physical, moral and ontological lives. This isn’t fake news. These aren’t alternative facts. If you walk up to any student on this campus and casually mention “Grahamstown” and “demons” in the same sentence, there is a 90% chance that you will be understood entirely and thoroughly. Trust. Student protests, a romanticised drinking culture, divisive politics within the ranks of academia, an untransformed curriculum, peer pressure, intersectional oppression, the poor water quality and Grahamstown being a colonial wound that continues to ache are just a few of the endless obstacles one is likely to confront. There will be times where you will feel anxious, scared, isolated, depressed, triggered and go through bouts of profound sadness. There will be times where you will not be able to wake up in the morning. You might even develop psychological illnesses or exacerbate hidden/known conditions you already have. You will be weary. It is important that you acknowledge who you are/what you become in this space and the conditions that attribute to making you who you are. It is even more important that you do all in your power to search for/attain/receive/accept help. While taking care of yourself matters, your degree matters with you. How you make it out matters far more than the struggle itself.
Ps: I recommend Solange’s A Seat at the Table as a necessary part of your playlist that helps you go through the motions. It’s a powerful, poignant and healing body of musical work. (Give me a shout out when you see me on campus).
5) You get to decide.
You have choices. The ability to make choices implies two things: an access to a particular freedom of decision-making, and, a conscious investment in exercising that freedom to make a choice. Therefore, choice is about responsibility more than anything. And taking responsibility for your life is one of the best forms of self-care you could administer to yourself. If you’re being coaxed into participating in activities or hanging out with people that make you feel less that you are, you can honour the responsibility you have to yourself and choose to dissociate from those conditions. If you’re averaging 50% but feel and know within yourself that you are capable of much more, you can decide to honour that responsibility you have to yourself and take advantages of opportunities to do better academically. If you wish to change degrees or feel that you can no longer cope at university (for whatever reason), it is up to you to make the right decision for yourself and take responsibility for the life you inherit as a result of your choice. As much as university is about balancing various aspects of your current life, it is also about being resourceful and strategic about how your current decisions impact the life you might live in the near or distant future.
6) Find your ‘day-ones’ and ‘forevers’
Companionship during your university career is important, no matter how much of a self-declared loner you are. Relationships are deeply contextual and it is true that one may gravitate towards different people for different reasons. Your varsity days is the time in which you go through some of the most poignant changes in your life. It is a time of drastic growth. The point I’m making is not that you will grow into people only to grow out of them (although, that is likely to happen too). What I am saying is that it is a beautiful thing to have a person or a group of people who will be able to see you through it all. While life during this period of your life remains relatively unpredictable, the deep bonds your form with people will anchor you during the times that matter. I owe my sanity and academic success to the bonds I have formed with people here. Be true enough and vulnerable enough to allow/attract the best people suited for you. If you have trouble accessing people, allow yourself to be found. Over and over again. And at someone divine point, you will realise that you have a person or people that are likely to remain with you much beyond your varsity days. Your day-ones. Your forevers.
I’d like to think that I have done this list some form of justice.
I hope this reaches someone somewhere that needs these words the most.