University is definitely less overwhelming second time around. Well, so far at least. You can remind me of that when I’m drowning in essays and reading books that I don’t understand.
On Monday I arrived at SOAS with a bit of a temperature and a sore throat. Running late because I’d got my enrollment time wrong. No time to even straighten my hair. Not the ideal start. I got there and found myself in an international crowd of people. Couldn’t hear any English being spoken. Felt a bit dazed and confused. A fever is not great when you’re trying to get to know new people and seem normal. Having met a girl who was from Austria, studied in Switzerland and spent the summer in Lebanon, and a bloke who was English but who’d nomadded round Africa for the past two years, I was feeling tired and boringly British so I sat on a bench away from the loud music, the socialist workers stand and the rugby club table, and ate the free veggie mush handed out by the Hare Krishnas, listening to the Christians strumming their guitars and watching them hand out sweets and invitations.
The advantage of not being a first-time-round fresher is that I felt ok about sitting by myself and then heading home as soon as the meetings were over. None of that horrible obligation to chat to everyone and try to form lifelong friendships with everyone I met. I didn’t even feel too daunted by the welcome speeches that implied that we were going to be the leaders of tomorrow and the catalysts for global change. I let it wash over me, thinking that all I really wanted to do was curl up in bed and get better.
Yesterday things perked up a bit. Firstly my temperature had dropped and I felt human again which made the prospect of new people and new places a lot more appealing. Then I met some old and new friends for lunch. Good connections made and nice to chat to people who in a unique kind of way were coming from and going in the same general direction. I did a tour of the area which was looking nice in the sunshine and worked out what I was doing the rest of the week. I sat near the random Yurt and upgraded my phone. Tick box, another job done. Then went into the faculty welcome meeting.
Hoorah! In the queue I made a friend! She’s doing the same masters as me – first person I’ve met doing my course – and suddenly everything seemed a bit less daunting. In the drinks afterwards, it was nice to have a friend to face the crowds with, to gravitate back to when other conversations trailed off, and to boost each other’s confidence to walk up to another group of people who we recognised as coursemates. I soon found myself in animated conversation about refugee resettlement programmes in Chicago with a girl whose face lit up as she talked about the work she was doing there. And I discovered that I’m not the only 32 year old living at home with my parents. Which, in a context where everyone else seems gloriously international and bohemian, is kind of reassuring.
I realise that a little bit of me still needs that reassurance. I may feel more self-assured than I did when I started university first time round, and more able to say yes to the things that fit and no to the things that don’t. I may not feel scared walking into a room full of strangers like I did when I was 18, and initiating conversation now seems fun rather than daunting. However, I see my lack of self confidence and self esteem trying to push their way in as I look around a room of strangers and feel that everyone is more experienced, more intelligent, more pretty, more interesting, and has more right to be there than little old me. I try to fight that feeling. Not with arrogance or an inflated ego, but with gratitude for the opportunity and attempting to see myself as someone who is as loved and valued as those around me.
My new friend and I left together and swapped numbers which made it feel less like I was being set adrift alone into the quirky SOAS environment. She texted later to say that Monday seemed a lot less scary now. Amen to that.