Saturday 27 June 2020

Things I Wish I'd Known Before Starting an English Degree

Don't let the title of this post fool you. I love my degree, and I certainly know that I made the right decision to do English at Birmingham, but if I could go back and give past me some tips for starting out, then I definitely would.

I may as well start at the beginning. I remember being sat in my first ever 9 am lecture on a Monday morning off the back of a night out the Sunday before (and still planning to go out again that Monday night, as freshers continued into the first week of term!), having not read the text. Up until that point, I hadn't properly registered that I should have. Naturally, the lecturer was speaking to us in great detail about it, making references to lines I had never read and characters I had never met. I also had my first seminar later that afternoon in which we were actively discussing the text, so you can imagine that that was even worse. This is probably something that goes for all degrees, rather than being specifically English, but yes, you are just thrown straight into working. There is no 'introduction to the text and then as a group we will read a chapter a week up until we finish the book at Christmas'. NOPE. You are expected to be up to speed from the start, particularly as you may cover something in week 1 and not return to it until exam season or when writing an essay several more weeks into term.

It seems fairly obvious, but there is loads of reading on an English degree; way more than at English A-Level. Of course I knew that going into my degree, but it wasn't necessarily something that I took seriously until I found myself actually doing the reading. During sixth form, I covered 3 poems, 3 novels, 2 plays, and my coursework texts across 2 years. In year 1 of university, I was reading roughly 2 texts a week and 1 a fortnight, as well as secondary materials and essays. In year 2, I read 3-4 a week, and secondary reading doubled. So I wish I had known that as an upcoming English undergrad, you need to use your summer to exercise your reading habits and abilities. You can't go from reading nothing to then reading 2+ texts in a week, still managing to absorb all of what you are reading and keep on top of your seminar preparation, research, commitments to societies and sport, etc.

Purely to save disappointment, I wish I had known that there is actually less freedom with choosing your modules than you may initially think - and this won't just be with English or just be at Birmingham. Often when you attend university open days, you are handed a leaflet offering a huge variety of exciting modules. Great!, you think, and immediately start mentally listing your top 10 from this list of 50. BUT, the reality is that you may only be able to pick 4 modules from the list (or maybe not any in your first year), and that actually, you can't do all 4 of your choices anyway, because they all come from the same category from which you are only allowed to pick 1. It's like picking your GCSE options; you may have had to choose a subject from each box in order to have a well rounded combination, though it may not have been your ideal combination. 
   There has to be some structure to ensure you are getting a thorough degree, which I completely understand now. However, this isn't always understood when you are a prospective student, eyes gleaming with the thought of being able to tailor your degree exactly how you want to. You can't just trundle through three years at university doing whatever you want; you will do modules you don't necessarily love, and you will also end up studying topics you thought you would hate, but come to appreciate.  

None of these things make you a 'bad student' for not realising or not picking up quick enough; I really don't think there are many university students who couldn't say the same, whatever degree they are doing. The first couple of weeks of your first year of university are a huge learning curve for every fresher. It doesn't take long for you to be whipped into line, so it's really not to worry if your first week ends up being a bit more overwhelming than you had anticipated. 

Saturday 20 June 2020

How to Make the Most of Deferring a Year Due to Coronavirus

Thousands of students all over the UK may be faced with the dilemma of either choosing to continue straight into university education after their A-Levels, or to defer a year and wait the pandemic out so that they can have the full university experience. 

As much as parents or teachers who have already been to university (and have made the most of their experience!!) may tell you that university is just about getting a degree, it is also about so much more than that. Many people will still choose to go to university this September, and that is brilliant, but it is also absolutely fine if you know that it is not the right choice for you. University is expensive, and you want to get the most out of your experience. Missing freshers week, not visiting the places your new city has to offer, completing your entire first year online, and only making friends with people via your course group chat only to then hate them when you meet them a year later in real life does not come under The Best University Experience.

So if you are planning to defer, there are many things you can do over the course of your year to help you stay focused, motivated, and to keep your academic 'muscles' exercised, so that you are ready and raring to go the next September. Here's how to answer: 'What's your plan? You can't just sit around for a year!' 

There are now more courses and webinars online than ever before as a result of covid-19 and the move to online learning and working. You can take advantage of these during your year to begin learning and building upon a lot of skills that might prepare you for university and post-university. These courses may look brilliant on your CV, and are not something you would necessarily have time to do whilst at university, anyway. Future Learn and Inside Sherpa are two examples of platforms hosting a range of online materials and courses. As someone who is interested in marketing after graduation, I have recently discovered the Girls in Marketing community. As well as offering cheap or free webinars, they also feature a courses section on their website, providing a mixture of their own and others' marketing courses. You may not be interested in marketing, but my point is to highlight that if you are able to join communities based around your degree subject and areas of interest, then quite often this can point you in the right direction towards further resources.

Alternatively, you could create your own project or piece of research. I know the capacity for doing this would vary from subject to subject, but thinking myself as an English student, it would probably have been quite easy for me to undertake some work towards finding out more about a period or style of literature I was particularly interested in. It wouldn't have to be anything intense or professional (you're not writing your dissertation yet!), but conducting your own research could be a good way to spend some time if you are deferring for a year, as it will maintain, or initiate, your abilities to understand and interpret information, your awareness of key terms and phrases, your ability to undertake research towards a project or essay, and will demonstrate your commitment to something you are interested in. You could end up loving what you do so much that it influences your choices of modules in later years of university, or even your final dissertation topic. Similarly, if you don't like the idea of committing to a whole project, simply reading as widely as you can in your degree subject or potential career fields will never be time wasted.
   *Your ability to do this would be greatly improved if you have access to academic articles and archives on sites such as JSTOR. My secondary school didn't have access; during my A-Level education, I had access through a teacher's university alumni login. I believe there are loopholes to accessing academic content for free, but if you can, see if you can borrow someone's institutional access.

Tutoring could be a great option for many of the same reasons previously discussed; it would be stimulating, and provide you with a routine and a focus. Some virtual tutoring platforms, such as the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative, do require tutors to have already started their degree, but there are lots of other sites on which A-Level students can tutor GCSE students and lower, such as MyTutor. It is highly likely that there will be an increase in demand for online tutors going forward, one reason being that students are likely to need extra support with their learning in the future, whilst their current physical learning has been disrupted, and another reason simply being that it is not currently possible for physical tutors to operate.
Getting a job may be easier said than done, as unemployment rates are currently high due to many people having lost their jobs as a result of covid-19. But if you are able to or need to, there is no shame in spending your deferred year working as a cashier or stacking shelves in order to earn some money - particularly if you are making a financial contribution to your family whilst spending an extra year at home. Your hard earned money will also be able to go towards your university living when you do begin the next year.

I think that most importantly, though, keep a record of it - whatever you do with your year. When you do graduate with a degree, you'll be entering into a highly competitive world, so I think that if you are choosing to defer for a year due to coronavirus, it's important to have something to show for it. Maybe even start a blog like this or a YouTube channel in order to document your experience, the ups and downs, what your year has taught you; a record of what you have been doing could be very beneficial to you in the future. 'Tell me how you used your time during the coronavirus pandemic', 'Tell me about a time you showed resilience in the face of challenge' could end up being coronavirus related future interview questions. 
   So it may not be the typical gap yarrrrrr in which you find yourself whilst back packing through Asia, but that's not to say you can't do something worthwhile and useful with it.

Saturday 13 June 2020

How To Do Your Uni Bills Yourself

Bills. The one word other than 'dissertation' that strikes fear into every student's heart. Maybe you've clicked on this post because you have yet to sort out the bills for your shared student house for the upcoming university year, and you're unsure where to start. Or maybe you're one of the lucky ones whose landlord sorts it for you, and instead you've come to gloat. 

But I'm here to tell you that sorting out bills is not actually as dreadful as it sounds, and so you should probably just get on with it rather than putting it off. So if your bills are not included in your weekly rent (you should be aware of this, but contact your landlord or letting agency if you are unsure), you have two options.

Option 1. Purchase a bills package in which every member of the household pays a bills package provider (e.g. Glide) a combined payment of your water, WiFi, dual energy, and TV license. You can easily get a free quote; I did one just now on Glide, and based on my house for the upcoming year, I had a quote for £12.26 per person per week. However, be wary and do your research into these different packages. They sound like a stress free, hassle free option, but I have heard about people then being asked for large extra payments due to 'overusage' at the end of the contract.

Option 2. Do the bills yourself, no packages involved. You are a lot more in control of your bills with this option, though of course this requires trust that everyone will pay what they owe each month. This works out at £8-£10 a week, and whilst this is not a lot of difference per week, Option 2 can save you about £100-£200 a year per person when you do the maths. This is the option my house choose for the university year just gone, and it's what we'll be doing for our upcoming final year, too. I will be focusing on only this option for the rest of this post, as it is what I recommend.

So, as discussed, as a university student, the three bills you will be paying monthly are water, WiFi, dual energy (gas and electricity). You will most likely also be paying a TV license, which will be a one off payment at the start of the year when not part of a bills package. Ignore anything to do with council tax, even if you receive letters in the post regarding payment. If you are a house entirely made up of students, you are not eligible to pay council tax. (One non-student, however, will make you eligible).

In my house this year, three of us volunteered to take the three different bills. I took on the energy bill, and so I cannot give as much information regarding water and WiFi, but these two are both cheaper and easier to manage than energy, so there is less to worry about. (Important to note that our water was not on a water meter, and therefore we were just charged a fixed amount each month). So if you are doing your bills yourselves,
  • Choose who will be responsible for each of the three main bills.
  • For each of the bills, get a few different quotes from suppliers to find out how much the bill will be per person per month. (Or just stick with whoever currently supplies the house!)
  • Have all members of the house set up a standing order to each 'bill person' for the amount of money owed each.
  • If you are the 'bill person', you have to remember your own payment towards that bill. Your housemates are not paying the entirety of the bill to you between them.
  • The money will be taken from the 'bill person''s account by the supplier each month.

If you are taking on the energy bill, there are some important things to remember. 
  • If you are switching suppliers, and your house contract starts at the beginning of July like mine, then go, go, go! The switch does not happen over night; my switch to Octopus Energy in my new property, for example, takes about 17 days.
  • Locate where your meters are in the house; our electricity meter was by the front door, but the gas was behind a box in the front downstairs bedroom, and took us a while to find.
  • Take meter readings as soon as possible - on the first day of the tenancy if you can be there. This will save you a lot of hassle. My experience was made far more stressful due to the fact that the previous tenants submitted a massively incorrect gas reading at the end of their tenancy, which could have potentially cost us a lot of money. I was able to submit the early readings I had taken in order to resolve the gas dispute.
  • Following this, take readings monthly, and keep a record of them. Many suppliers will also ask you to submit them.
  • It is likely that your energy bill will stay the same each month, as it is based on an annual average. So you may use more energy than you are charged for over the winter, but this should balance out over the summer.
  • I would recommend everyone paying a bit more in their standing order than the monthly energy bill requires, and placing the surplus money into a spare account. Surplus money can then be used to settle any possible final payments after submitting the last meter readings, or can be divvied up and paid back to everyone. This means you won't have to chase people for money at the end of the tenancy.
  • Octopus Energy supplied my energy in the university year just gone, and we will be using them again for final year. If you are interested in Octopus, feel free to use my referral code when signing up. I've never used it before, but apparently I can 'split £100 with every friend who signs up with this link'. Referral code:

So as you can see, there are a few things to remember when sorting out your bills, particularly the energy bill, but I hope this post will have helped anybody that is unsure as to how the process works. It can seem like quite a daunting task at first, but if you and your housemates can all work together, it should be very straightforward!

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Making the Most of Lockdown: How to Get Your Motivation Back

Yesterday marked the start of our 11th week of lockdown in the UK. I desperately want to type, 'hang in there, we're on the last leg now!', but the reality is that no one really knows for certain how much longer we have in lockdown, particularly whilst the threat of a potential second wave and second peak looms. An unknown amount of time stretches before us, and the prospect of this is quite demotivating. Whilst some people may have found a new burst of energy in returning to work after a long time of either furlough or working from home, I know that a lot of those who read my blog will be my friends. A large percentage of my readers, therefore, are students like I am - probably without a job to focus on considering the fact that there are a lot more students than virtual internships, and that a lot of student employment comes from the hospitality sector. So in other words, motivation could be in short supply.

Overall, I have managed to stay quite motivated, and exercise is definitely something that helps me. I am not exercising as much now compared to the beginning of lockdown (the novelty of home workouts is starting to wear off), but I do still enjoy the post-workout endorphin rush. I also find going for a run really refreshing, particularly if I manage to get up and go whilst it's still cool and before too many people are out. 
   If you are struggling with lockdown because the days seem so long with nothing to fill them, taking an hour to go for a dog walk will bring you one hour closer to the next day. It can be a lot harder to find motivation to 'do something', such as exercise, reading, taking online courses, self teaching, etc., if there is no immediate pressing requirement for you to do so. I completely empathise with this; it can be very internally frustrating if you want to do something, or know you should be doing something, but sometimes just doing it is easier said than done if you're feeling down in the dumps.

The biggest thing that has increased my motivation and stopped me slipping into a rut is having a routine. I think routine helps me hold on to a bit of normality. My routine has been massively helped by the fact that I spend three days a week volunteering for For The Love Of Scrubs; my days do feel different to each other, rather than each week just feeling like one everlasting Sunday. Volunteering three days also means that for the four days I am at home, I am busier. However, routine can easily come from just doing daily exercise, eating meals at the right times, and getting up at the same time each day. I think routine and a healthy sleeping pattern kind of go hand in hand; I have a health and wellness light that I feel makes a massive difference to my mood, and helps me to get up in the morning so that I don't turn off my alarm. I have become a bit of a morning person in lockdown, and I think having energy first thing in the morning can really set the tone for the rest of the day.

If you find that you struggle when faced with lots to do, then the best thing I can suggest is keeping lists. Lists are the best things for planning your time, and definitely makes tasks feel more manageable if you are able to block them out over a month, over a week, or over a day. I keep one overall to-do list in my phone, and then, because I like to be as organised as possible, I keep a daily planner to-do list, in which I divide my tasks for the upcoming week/fortnight across each day. This really helps me to divide up my time and stay on it, and there is something about checking off your list or deleting things from the list that is really satisfying, so I think it's a good motivator. I honestly cannot live without my lists.

Motivation is definitely an individual thing, but personally, I find that the more tasks and activities I have to keep me busy, the more motivated I am. This definitely won't be for everybody, but I would say that for the past month, I have had something on my to-do list every day - even if that's just to finish my book and hoover my room. Having a rolling to-do list really keeps me focused; I know personally that if I were to take a week off and dedicate it to sleeping in till midday and watching Netflix all day, I would feel very sluggish and would struggle to find any motivation. That's not to say that you shouldn't still spend time relaxing and recharging as well - I really enjoy watching some TV in the evening, reading, or going on a socially distanced picnic. Some social interaction or a chat with your friends definitely can elevate your mood and make you feel a bit more human if you've been feeling a bit lethargic and not your usual self.
   I think when it comes to lockdown and motivation, the biggest thing to remember is just not to be too hard on yourself, and listen to your body. To make the most of lockdown, use the times when you are feeling energetic and uplifted to get things done, but remember not to panic or criticise yourself if you are feeling overwhelmed or demotivated. Often the feeling will pass, but also think about adopting some healthier habits if you are feeling demotivated more than you are motivated. ❤️

Sunday 7 June 2020

Ways to Support Black Lives Matter


Following the recent murder of George Floyd by the US police force and the riots and protests that have been happening across the states and the UK as a result, I wanted to use my own platform to speak up about racism, and the belief that it is only an American problem. As a white person, I cannot comment on nor understand the experiences of black people and the every day racism they endure, but I can educate myself about systemic racism, microagression, and white privilege - and use my voice and my words to educate others and be actively anti-racist, rather than passively not racist. Even if only one person reads this, that is potentially one more signature towards a petition supporting Black Lives Matter. 

I grew up in a very white town, and as far as I can remember, I had no black teachers or classmates throughout school. Of course I had always grown up knowing that racism was wrong, and I don't think I necessarily thought that racism didn't exist - it was more that I didn't think about race that much until secondary school, because my white skin meant that I didn't have to. There is a lot of racist British history that the British curriculum would prefer to keep hidden, and has meant that a lot of people's education in systemic racism is so lacking, or flawed. My year 9 history module, titled The Slave Trade Triangle, certainly was taught as though slavery and the mistreatment of black people was so far in the past that it had no real bearing on today - not to mention the fact that whilst Britain's role in the slave trade was discussed, it was massively downplayed, and deflected on to the US. If I'm being honest, the thing that initially made me the most aware of the fact that racism was still a widely prevalent issue was probably when I encountered novels that dealt with race (To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men) in my English literature lessons. A lot more of my awareness and education has come from studying English literature and history at A-Level, and through my own reading and researching as a result. But I know that I still have not read or learnt enough. 

There are a number of ways in which you can educate yourself further about black culture and history, colonial history, and white privilege. I have recently read Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, which was very accessible and informative, and reveals a lot about Britain's own history of racism. If you're a student at the University of Birmingham like I am, you can access the e-book version of this book for free through FindIt@Bham here. (If you're a student from anywhere else, it is worth seeing if your institution offers e-book versions of texts like these). There is really no excuse to not be learning and educating ourselves on race when there is such a wealth of material online! 
   I also feel it is important to mention that, aware of the recent surge in demand for her book, Reni Eddo-Lodge recently tweeted urging people who are accessing the book online to donate the price of the book (roughly £7) to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, or to sign relevant petitions if financially unable. Posting a black square on Instagram is not enough; it really takes no time at all to sign a petition, and so I would urge everyone to do so if you have not already. I have linked the Justice for George Floyd petition here, and a petition calling for an education of systemic racism to be a compulsory part of the British curriculum here - of which I have signed and donated to both. But that is only two of a huge number of petitions that should be signed in order to contribute towards change; there are lots more you can access through Twitter threads, which only require a quick search and a tap on the link. Other free ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement is through 'stream to donate' videos on YouTube. All of the ad revenue from the video will be donated; all you have to do is stream a roughly hour long video, being sure to not skip any ads. I have linked one such video here, but as I said with the petitions, there are a number of others online that can be easily searched for and accessed.

I know that all of this information is widely available on the internet, particularly on Twitter, but I still felt it hugely important to share ways in which you can very easily support the Black Lives Matter movement towards ending systemic racism. Not that a level of ease should determine whether or not we support the movement, but the point that I am making is that how could you not support? When a petition takes 30 seconds to sign and 30 seconds to verify your email (do not miss this step, otherwise you will not have signed!), time and effort is not an excuse. I personally feel that my own awareness of race and prevalent racism came much later than it should have due to a lack of honest and thorough education in school, and so I am still learning and reading. I have already discussed that I am using lockdown to read widely, but I am committing now to reading a lot more by black and other minority ethnic authors in order to continue to educate myself in support of change. 

Tuesday 2 June 2020

What My Second Year of University has Taught Me

This Saturday, my family and I drove up to Birmingham to my shared student house to completely move me out for the academic year. Despite the fact that I do have some tasks to complete over the summer regarding dissertation research and third year prep, it feels as though my second year is now officially over. For a number of reasons, second year was a slap in the face. Like many other students at the University of Birmingham, I went from living in a leafy-green, safe, and friendly bubble called the Vale Student Village (an accommodation campus located within Edgbaston - a very affluent, attractive area of Birmingham) to living in an ugly tardis-esque house squatting at the end of a very very long road in Selly Oak, which is typically deemed deprived, unsafe, and unattractive. But despite all its ugliness, I do still have a soft spot for Selly, and it's a shame that I won't be seeing it at its best in the summer time.

My first two years of university have been so different, and for that reason, second year has taught me a lot of different things compared to my first year, education aside. Once you reach second year, time speeds up. You are no longer a silly fresher, and instead things have started to get serious. My second year has definitely helped me develop a mentality in which I am now thinking far more seriously about post-graduate life and my career. Overall, the year has also developed a lot of my resilience. For the most part, my first year was one big massive high, but second year has seen far more ups and downs, and a lot more challenges in the way of being responsible for your own learning in the face of UCU strike action and covid-19. 

But aside from the degree part, the most important thing that my second year at university has taught me is how to cook! I lived in catered accommodation last year, and so never had a real opportunity nor a need to cook. I had a card on to which meal money was loaded weekly, and so heating up a tin of soup on a Sunday night after using up all my money for the week was about as adventurous as my 'cooking' got. At the other end of the scale, I have made loads of meals this year; from simple sausage and mash or a vegetable stir fry, to more complex dishes like lasagne, carbonara, and a full Christmas roast at the end of the first term. And I'm pleased to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed it; my best friend and I cook together every night that we can, and this definitely makes it a sociable time to look forward to, rather than a chore. On the subject of food, second year has also taught me that you can absolutely do a one person weekly shop for about £17 or less if you shop sensibly. I used to go to Morrison's fortnightly in my first year (I shop at Aldi now), and could easily spend double that just buying a few basic staples on top of my meal card - yoghurts, fresh fruit, juice, milk, bread, a few snacks, etc.

This year has definitely also required me to step it up in the way of 'adulting'; for those living in student halls like I was in my first year, there is no time spent sorting gas and electricity bills, water supply or a WiFi package. I took charge of setting up the energy supply and bills for my house this year, which ended up being a much more difficult task than it should have been after the previous tenants of our house submitted a wildly incorrect meter reading at the end of their tenancy. Nevertheless, university is as much about the life skills as it is about the degree, so every experience is a worthwhile experience.

On a personal level, second year has solidified a lot of my strong and important friendships. Many people argue that you meet your real friends in second year, having made quantity over quality in first year friendships. I don't think this is necessarily true; a lot of my current tight friendships were close friends in first year too, but as you would expect, these friendships have just strengthened with an extra year. Naturally, this year has still seen some friendships run their course, simply because paths do not cross that often, or perhaps because we are not as alike as initially thought. The first few weeks of your first year of university are very intense, and are not real life compared to the rest of your university experience. It's totally normal to have let go of some people, and in the mean time to have met new friends as well as strengthened meaningful relationships with not-new friends.   

Now I cannot say that I enjoyed this final lesson, but second year has taught me that you can write half an essay in a night - and also that you should be uploading your work to a memory stick more than once a month! I know a lot of people are used to writing a whole essay in one night, but that simply is not me; I like to start early and take it slow. But anyway, not that I had much choice back in January when I was still writing at 3am after the file containing my essay corrupted the night before the essay was due.

Whilst I'm not sure what my third year will be like, as I am sure it will still involve a lot of online learning and social distancing, I hope it is a successful year from which I will learn a lot more. Whatever shape the final year of my degree takes, I'm hoping for an enjoyable and positive experience. I already cannot wait to be back with my friends and living back in Brum <3
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