Words by Simon Edwards, alumni writer
University life is a complex blend of communal growth and self-discovery and rigorous academic study and work that often leaves us isolated at our desks, working late hours trying to produce work that reflects our intellectual abilities. In many ways these two broad strata of university life seem distant from one another – go to the pub with your friends, or stay in the library a few more hours getting work done? The eternal question of personal success over communal pleasure is often presented as baked into the core of the university experience. Students who can prioritise themselves, we are told, are the ones who succeed, and those who spend too much time around others are the ones that squander opportunities. This is a popular way of understanding university life; I would like to offer an alternative.
The isolated nature of university work makes it feel like a very solitary endeavour. Even group projects like presentations can feel less like a co-operative exercise and more like an impediment to individual success, depending on how invested your group is in the work. University in the UK – and globally – often emphasises the importance of a cutthroat, self-focused approach to learning, with a huge variety of league tables, prizes for best graduating student, grade boundaries and even quality of degree. While perhaps there’s nothing wrong with distinguishing between a first, a 2:1, a 2:2 and so on, it nonetheless introduces hierarchy, and the sense that some students are simply better than their peers, from the institution they attend down to the marks they achieve in class.
In reality, it’s not a simple question of individual superiority, but of the strength of the community you operate in. Being in a supportive working and learning community empowers students to achieve higher, work harder and enjoy their university experience beyond the statistics of ‘quality’ that dominate discourse around university life. Even the best students at university do not operate in vacuums, but are instead guided by the advice of their peers and academic mentors, their friends and family, and processes of communal support. High achievers might find that idea hard to stomach, especially if their sense of pride and self-worth is tied into their academic successes (as mine was). Emphasising the role of community in your achievements is not about humbling you or discounting your efforts – quite the opposite, it reflects that your results are the outcome of not just extensive individual work, but also the capacity to seek the support and guidance you needed from others.
Guidance of this nature does not have to be purely academic – the much-maligned trip to the pub instead of working on an essay might give you the break you need to find the energy to get a great essay over the line. Flogging yourself to death in the library overnight might seem like the way to achieve, but finding solace in the company of others, discussing your progress and getting encouragement from them is just as good.
Life in the 2020s is often isolating. We are encouraged to be selfish, driven by our own desires, and ignore the society and communities around us, neither offering support to them nor receiving it in return. University is not just a place of academic learning – it’s where you begin to learn how to live as an adult. Start that process right by relishing in the company and support of your peers; no-one is an island, we all need others, and together we achieve our dreams.
Photo credit: Consorzio University