Friday, 31 July 2015

My life at Southampton

Four years ago, when I first accepted my offer from the University of Southampton, I never thought I’d end up so attached to the city and the campus. Neither did I think I’d become an ambassador for the University; giving Open Day tours to prospective students and their parents, and writing for the student blog! However, here I am today, writing my final Life at Southampton blog post and wishing I could experience the last four years all again.

I thought the best way to finish my two years of blogging would be a quick trip down memory lane, hopefully giving you an idea of why I have come to love the University so much. I came up with the idea of picking one highlight to put down for each of my four years here, which proved harder than I thought, but I think I’ve nailed it!

My Highlight of First Year: Living in halls 


It’s hard to describe the experience of living in halls to someone who hasn’t done it themselves, but within a few days of arriving you soon develop a love for it. There is a great sense of community and diversity, as you begin to mingle with a variety of different people. The great thing about living together with other students is that no matter who you are, there will be always be someone who is similar to you and any worries about making friends are quickly banished.

On my first day at University I arrived at the Glen Eyre halls complex and was led to the New Terrace block. After the first day I was already attached to my room and halls, and it didn’t take long for me to join in with the traditional ‘my hall is better than yours’ debate! The people were lovely, the rooms were excellent and the ducks that used to hang out outside our block were very friendly! I have many great memories from halls, but perhaps my favourite is the invention of a sport we called Corridor Cricket – played responsibly of course!

My first day at University – the beginning of an exciting journey! 

My Highlight of Second Year: Starting a band 


When I think of second year, I think of the summer holiday in which I spent a lot of time in Southampton. I was originally here to work as a University tour guide during the Open Days, but it quickly became an opportunity to finally form a band! We turned the living room in my student house into a practice space and took any chance we could to crank up the volume. As fellow musicians will tell you, there’s nothing more exciting than creating and playing music together!

The Open Days themselves were also enjoyable. I was a little nervous beforehand, but I had no need to be as everyone I showed around were eager to listen and were genuinely interested in what I had to say. It was also very rewarding, especially when parents came up to you afterwards to say thank you! I hope I had the same effect that my tour guide had on me five years ago, as I can still remember him!

 I think this is how all living rooms should look! 

My Highlight of Third Year: The Grad Ball 


Whilst my girlfriend will want me to write that “meeting her” was my highlight, I feel I should go for a more University related topic here! I think the day that stands out most from third year was the Graduation Ball, partly because I was lucky enough to win a free ticket to the event, but mainly because it was an amazing night out!
The Grad Ball was a chance to say goodbye to all the students from my year that were graduating, but it was also an opportunity to dress up smart and enjoy ourselves, with exam and coursework pressures well behind us. The night was Hollywood themed and with three different dance floors it was easy to dance all night. I remember it was starting to get light again when the event finished – morning had come! It was my favourite event of my university life!

Did I mention the Grad Ball had rides!? 

My Highlight of Fourth Year: ArtSoc 


My fourth and final year has been filled with many great things, including the process of completing my Master’s project, graduating and securing a graduate job, but the obvious highlight for me was joining ArtSoc, the University’s Art Society.

It took me three years to discover the perfect society for me, trying out a whole array of different things, but finally this year I joined ArtSoc and I loved every minute of it! One of the reasons I felt so at home is that it didn’t matter how good at art you were; it was all about having fun and learning some new skills. I experienced life drawing, oil painting and Modroc sculpting for the first time, all whilst making a whole new friendship group. I think out of all the things from University, I will miss ArtSoc the most!

Finger painting proved to be harder than it sounds! Nevertheless it was still great fun! 

There’s one thing that all of my highlights have in common: they have all involved new friendships. I think when people talk about the ‘University Experience’ that’s what they mean. The qualifications you work towards are, of course, of great importance, but what makes university different from anything else is the friendships that you forge and the memories that you create together.

Thank you Southampton for the last four years and thank you for reading all about my life at Southampton.


The end of a journey

Crikey, it’s arrived!

Four academic years, 104 blog posts (now 105!), far too many coursework assignments (as well as extra-curricular work!), 25 Performing Arts theatrical shows, 3 spells on society committees, huge numbers of meetings and presentations and group work sessions and assignment late-nighters, tens of chicken and bacon baguettes from the Students’ Union shop, loads of nights out, tours, trips, library sessions and examinations aplenty, and days and days and days to write about in Southampton…

However you want to measure and quantify it, I’m here right now, writing my last blog post ever on the train from Southampton Central Station back up to my Northern base for what seems like the final time. Well, until I find an excuse to visit, anyhow!

Like the graduation ceremony I wrote about last time around, this never really was going to happen in my head. I’ve thought about how I’d feel writing this post many times over, but I’ve never come anywhere near settling on what to actually write about when the time came. In truth, it’s probably because I never really believed that I’d reach it; maybe everyone else would finish the best years of their life, graduate, and head off into the real world…but for me, I always felt like the Southampton I came to know and love wouldn’t leave. Suffice to say that any plan I had for this post is well and truly out of the window!

Many people have been and gone from Southampton since I arrived, so for it to finally be my time is an incredibly surreal mix of emotions. I’ve plenty of sadness in saying farewell to a place which has given me so much, yet simultaneously I’ve huge fondness in remembering all the incredible stories, experiences and friendships I can muster, most of which I’ve tried to capture through my posts on the blog to show you just how much Southampton can offer – I’m sure I’ll read them back in years to come and lose myself to nostalgia!

And I still feel like I have so much to say, because there really is so much that can be said about life at the University of Southampton. The great thing is that I’ve never stopped learning since arriving at the University four years ago, in all aspects of life, and in turn it’s given me a lot to reflect on as I move forwards into the terrifying prospect of ‘the real world”!

On an academic front, that learning has been in terms of my incredibly inspiring, interesting and cultivating courses and modules. In attaining an MEng in Software Engineering (it still feels weird to say that!) I’ve enjoyed exploring loads of different fields like Artificial Intelligence (very, very cool!), robotics, management, discrete mathematics, programming, finance, Human-Computer Interaction (my favourite area!), biometrics, computer vision and so much more.

In doing so, I’ve never felt like I’ve been stuck doing just one thing, instead enjoying the variety and creativity it offers. If you struggle with the Maths side of things, for example, you’ll be able to enjoy designing an application instead the very next week, before you get the chance to specialise in third and fourth year – it never stands still!

But in terms of personal aspects, this is where the heart of the student experience lies for me. Over the course of four years, I’ve honestly discovered so much about myself, what I can (and can’t – well, not yet, anyway!) do, and who I am.

Before landing at University on that very first day back in September 2011, I’d never properly cooked for myself, done laundry, grocery shopped, financed, registered at a health service.... any number of life skills which you need to get by when the parents aren’t around! Moreover, I’d absolutely no idea how to set about seemingly reinventing my life from scratch, having nobody I knew from the North alongside me, and being extremely shy to boot – so much so that I pretended to wake up late in the afternoon on my second day here, just to put off seeing my new flatmates again (sorry, guys, if you’re reading this)!

Yet on the course of this journey of self-discovery that the University experience has taken me on, I think that’s the most important thing I’ve learnt: nobody gets it right first time, and we’re all liable to make mistakes every now and then – we just learn from them and improve!

By throwing yourself into more and more activities, student groups, academic clubs and the like, you open yourself up to these chances to self-improve, in turn picking up loads of new skills along the way and learning about yourself and the world around you in an entirely pressure-free environment.
You can improve yourself and learn from the people around you just by asking questions, enjoying yourself, and responding to any challenges which arise with optimism.

The Students’ Union is a great place to try stuff out – and in doing so, learn from mistakes, and improve!

Friendships really can be built just from going up to someone and saying “Hello” – and you’ll never know where saying “yes” to the opportunities which follow can take you!

There was something very final about wandering around campus this morning before my train departed. I know I’ll be back – I’ve way too many strong ties to even contemplate staying away, and I’m sure I’ll want to see one or two more of the Performing Arts shows before too long at the very least! But in many ways, it felt like the end of a long, yet too short, all-encompassing path from Day One to Present. I can barely begin to describe how much this University has done for me as a person, but I emerge from it a more confident, articulate and determined individual, ready to pursue whatever challenge comes along next – rather than pretend to be asleep!

Finally, I’d like to say a huge thank you. Moving so far away from home was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, and being shy, nervous and worried, I wasn’t confident at the time in my ability to make that transition. What I couldn’t have anticipated was just how vivacious, welcoming and friendly the community at the University of Southampton would be.

From early Freshers’ socials to the leavers’ events just gone by, I’ve always felt fully enveloped in a city that I’ve come to know as a second home, and the people who have been here over these four years have come to define Southampton for me as a place of real learning, opportunity and, most importantly, fun.

At the risk of this sounding like an Oscar acceptance speech, I’d like to say thank you so much to everyone I’ve met along the way, particularly my incredible girlfriend, all those who helped me along, worked with me or taught on my course, those innumerable brilliant people in SUSU Theatre Group, Showstoppers, Performing Arts and SUSU media (you know who you are!), all who have read and contributed to the blog (and edited it!), and all of those who have given me the honour of their faith in the form of some truly remarkable and life-changing opportunities.

Thanks to my parents for making the journey down South lugging my things so many times – it never seems to get shorter!

 From first year… 

 … to last, my housemates have defined my Southampton experience!
Credit: SUSU Photographic Society

And thank you, unreservedly, to my two sets of housemates over my time here. Despite hailing from a broad variety of backgrounds and harbouring such different interests initially, and despite my initial shyness, I don’t think I can express my gratitude enough for making Southampton my home and making me a better person with it. I can’t wait to see you all again, as soon as I possibly can!
… so, that’s it!

This has been Robin Johnson on Life at Southampton – signing off!


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

My last day at university: graduation

“Gale… Gillespie… Gray.” It was my turn to walk across the stage, to shake hands with the Vice-Chancellor of the University and to spend every ounce of brain power focusing on not tripping up or dropping the mortarboard that rested underneath my arm. Thankfully I did neither and I could enjoy the applause, especially the manic clapping emanating from where my family sat, saving the moment in my memory forever – I had graduated!

Despite the fact my exams had finished at the end of May and that I knew the outcome of my degree by the end of June, somehow it didn’t all seem real until I was in the Nuffield Theatre, waiting for my turn to cross the stage. Once I was at the other side I felt two things: the first was a sudden release of all my nervousness and the second was a surge of pride that I am now James Gray, Master of Physics!

I’m now officially James Gray MPhys (Hons.) 

However, Graduation is about more than just the ceremony. It’s a day to celebrate with family and friends and to realise how much work and effort you have put in over the course of your degree. It’s also a day where you can finally believe you’re at Hogwarts – the robes make you feel like a wizard!

Many thanks to my family for getting me to where I am today! 

After the ceremony had ended with a pride-inducing speech from the Vice-Chancellor, all of the newly-graduated physicists went to have a group photo. If it wasn’t already hot enough in a suit and robes before, then it certainly was when we all lined up like sardines on the tiered stage! Several serious shots were taken, before we all had to throw our mortarboards out in front of us for a final photo. The lecturers, who were lined-up on the bottom row, were hit with most of the hats!

Where’s James? The physics class of 2015! 

It was then time to head over to the reception tent which, after a busy morning of collecting robes and getting official photos taken, was my first chance to take a breather and allow the experience to sink in. Our reception was held in Garden Court, which quickly filled with happy families and smartly dressed students.

Apart from the free champagne, the reception is also enjoyable because you bump into a whole variety of friends and staff, sharing congratulations and for once the conversations don’t involve work!

I was glad I had the opportunity to thank my academic tutor for the past four years at the reception. He has been a great help throughout my time at the University of Southampton, from assisting me with problem sheets in weekly tutorials in first year, to helping me to get the ball rolling on my upcoming medical physics career in my final years.

I broke the world record for mortarboard throwing… probably. 

After the champagne had been drunk and the many photos had been taken (most trying to achieve the perfect hat-throwing picture), it was time to leave Southampton for the last time. Just writing that sentence makes me feel sad, as everywhere I picture on campus and around the city brings back a torrent of happy memories.

I will truly miss you Southampton. Thank you for everything!


Tuesday, 21 July 2015

What a way to finish!

I’ve written before to say how, as the youngest of four siblings, there are some moments and occasions in life that you witness your older brothers and sisters going through, but never really imagine that one day, it’ll be your turn.

Standing in line on Wednesday last week to collect my graduation robes, an hour before the ceremony that would herald the closing stamp on life in education, was definitely one of those very moments – this was it!

It was with a weird sense of finality that I woke up on the morning and realised that, on that day, after four years of work at the University, I’d become “Robin Johnson MEng (Hons.)” or, in simpler terms, a Master of Software Engineering!

With all the incredible opportunities and experiences I’ve been lucky enough to take advantage of over my time here, it somehow felt like the day to depart would never really come, as if the student lifestyle would last forever!

Although my course finished a well over a month and a half ago, it seemed like the very first time that I’d realised this would be the end of my time in academia.

I was fortunate enough to finish with a fantastic graduation ceremony at a brilliant occasion, representative of the time I’ve been lucky enough to spend as a student here. Taking a day off from intensive rehearsals for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, I found myself waking up early to get suited and booted – I figured if ever there’s a day to look your sharpest, it’s your graduation day! – before being joined on campus in the morning by my girlfriend and a few members of my family, who’d braved the vast trek from the North to be there.

I was joined by my long-travelling family!

With my ceremony due to be the last on the day, we were able to enjoy a great lunch at a nearby restaurant, before relaxing around campus for a few hours and enjoying a coffee in the Students’ Union’s Bridge Bar cafĂ©, watching the streamed ceremonies on the Union’s video wall. We drank in the sights of a thriving campus full of smartly-dressed students, parents, friends and relatives while waiting for the various services to open for my ceremony. With refreshment stands (including a Pimm’s tent!), photo booths and happy faces abound, Highfield Campus was a hive of celebratory activity as the achievements were recognised of hundreds of graduands – or “graduates”, now!

Taking advantage of the champagne reception after the ceremony!

Terrified that I would forget something, I made sure to have a checklist of timings well and truly prepared in advance, which proved a welcome relief on the day in combating any lingering nerves. This included exactly when and where to pick up guest tickets to the ceremony for my parents, hire robes to wear, rescue a travelling brother from the bus stop, as well as when to have photos taken which, with so many family members there with cameras, took up a decent time segment in itself – I certainly won’t run out of photos of the day in a hurry!

With cameras aplenty, there were loads of photos taken, of course!

Finally, it was time for the ceremony at the Turner Sims Concert Hall. A celebration during which the efforts of hundreds of students were applauded, I went into it with two goals: firstly, to not let my robes slip while walking on stage (they seemed to have a mind of their own beforehand!), and secondly, not to fall over!

My ceremony was also overseen by the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, whom I was lucky enough to have already met when taking part in his Open Day talks a couple of summers ago. This led to an interesting conversation about my theatrical exploits when walking up to meet him on stage – as well as a much-appreciated personal reference in his closing address (“I know at least one of you has taken a show to the Edinburgh Fringe”)! It was a great, if emotional, occasion, but one which I greatly appreciated being able to share with friends and family.

And so that’s that for my academic career in Southampton! Now a graduate, I’ve but one week left in the city before my commitments here are concluded, but what a week it promises to be.

On an entirely separate front, things have been all systems go in terms of preparation for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year: rehearsing a show within three weeks, organising transport and travel, designing show elements, sourcing items, and basically trying to think through every single aspect of the show’s tour, it’s been a monumental task. But with our Southampton preview performances opening this week, we’re looking forward to seeing the end result – here’s hoping it goes down a treat!

Thank you, University of Southampton, for a truly unforgettable day, one which I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life; what a way to finish!


Wednesday, 8 July 2015

My first day at university

Next Wednesday I will be graduating, meaning that this is now my final week of being a student before I can officially call myself a member of the University's Alumni Community! However, exactly 197 weeks ago I was just beginning my life at Southampton and embarking on my first week as a university student, with some trepidation and an optimistic sense of excitement.

I remember the car journey down. On one hand it was too long. I just wanted to be there and avoid the waiting... but on the other it was too short, as the nervous part of me wanted to put off arriving for as long as I could. My halls were in the Glen Eyre complex and I arrived with my Dad to find it bathed in glorious sunshine. In fact, I remember that the whole of October that year had amazing weather – I began to think that it never rained in Southampton!

The view out of my kitchen window in Glen Eyre. 

I collected my keys from reception and was guided to my room by a Fresher Rep. It is here that my first story of university begins. After being given my keys, I had somehow managed to misread my room number as 334, instead of 343, which led me the neighbouring flat of the one I was supposed to go to. This wouldn’t have caused any confusion if the key hadn’t have worked in the ‘wrong’ door – it seemed that whoever was responsible for the keys had made the exact same mistake I had!

The only way I knew that this wasn’t the correct room, was that I was greeted with someone else’s belongings! Later I found out that the first person I spoke to in my halls - a passing ‘Hi’ in the corridor - was the owner of that room! His name was Ian and he had indeed been given my key originally!

Once I had found the correct room (and more importantly, the correct flat) I began to unpack my suitcases and become familiar with my surroundings. I had kept my door open with a doorstop so I could meet anyone who went past. It wasn’t long before I heard some music coming down the hallway: a Foo Fighters song. I was very happy to be living with a fellow lover of rock music! The music belonged to a guy called Andy, who happened to be a Physicist also. I was relieved that I had already met someone on my course who I got along with – it made me much more confident about the induction activities planned for the week ahead.

Throughout the day I went on to meet all my other flatmates. The three girls had already moved in earlier on in the day and were sitting in the kitchen, getting to know each other. They consisted of two Environmental Scientists, Katie and Hayley, and a Psychologist, Livi, who were all equally welcoming and eager to talk. Our final flatmate, who we had only seen in passing as his parents had taken him out to the city centre, was called Marcus, who, like me, played guitar. It seemed I couldn’t have asked for better flatmates!

In fact we got on so well that Andy, Ian and Marcus became my housemates for the duration of our four years at university!

The four of us (and another future housemate) in our first week at University. 

At last year’s Grad Ball we had finally learnt how to dress smartly! 

The four of us celebrating the end of our finals at Thorpe Park, and the end of four years of living together. 

In the evening we attended the Freshers’ Welcome Party. By this point I was already loving university life and over the course of the next week I got to know a lot more people from my halls, my course and the societies that I joined.

My main worry heading to university was whether or not I could make new friends, but because of the Fresher Reps that help out during the day and the numerous events that take place in the following couple of weeks, making friends had never been so easy.

This is coming from someone who, before University, was very shy indeed!


Thursday, 2 July 2015

The perfect way to finish

Over the past four years I’ve had some incredible days, weeks and months as a student at the University of Southampton, featuring brilliant friendships, incredible celebrations and memorable experiences all-round. As I wrote last time, the past month following the conclusion of my degree programme has been no exception – but I don’t think I could have imagined just how memorable my degree results day would be!

With the final days of June ticking by, our student cards very close to expiring, and with many of our number soon to be heading off to conquer new horizons, a large group of us leavers decided to take advantage of the recent scorching weather and enjoy a sun-soaked day on Bournemouth beach. It seemed the perfect place to have one last hurrah together, as although we’ll all definitely see each other in the future, it probably wouldn’t be as guilt-free as doing so in that post-summer exam period as a student!

What we hadn’t counted on at the time, however, was that the date we’d picked, based purely on the promise of great weather that day, also happened to coincide with the release of all of our results… and therefore, final degree classifications – our last ever academic results days!

But we were determined to make a day of it and enjoy this last road trip. Doing our best to ignore the prospect for as long as possible, we all packed up as much beach equipment – towels, beach balls, cricket sets, and plenty of sun lotion, and drove the short trip to the picture-esque beach, setting up a base camp which was to be our home for the day.

Preparing to celebrate results in style, our road trip reached a beautifully golden Bournemouth beach!

While we all did our best to offset the sense of lingering tension with fish 'n' chips, ice cream and dips in the shockingly cold sea, there was a sense of nervousness hanging in the air. We even tried building a traditional sand castle while waiting, although it wasn’t the strongest ever (we later saw it destroyed by the onrushing tide!) as we had to construct it with our hands – none of us had remembered a spade!

The hand-built sandcastle

Finally, after a wait which seemed much longer than it actually was, the tension was punctuated by the sound of cheering as results were released and, one by one, we checked our email inboxes…

Personally, I’d gone into the day hoping for a Second Class Upper mark, what we call a 2:1, thinking that anything more would most likely just be out of reach. But because my final few months of being at the University have represented something of a fairytale, and because this was to be the perfect day, I received the surprise of my life when I was recommended to receive First Class Honours at my graduation ceremony – I’m going to be Robin Johnson MEng!

After a quick (inevitable!) phone call to Mum, of course, who, in my shock at the mark, gave me the brilliant advice of “Don’t question it, just be happy with it!”, I found out that all the leavers around me had done brilliantly too, with everyone delighted at their mark. It was one of those moments I don’t think I’ll ever forget, the perfect way to crown four unforgettable years on a beautiful day. The resulting “soon-to-be-graduates” photos were also inevitable!

Some of the class of 2015 after finding out results – we couldn’t have been happier!
(Credit: Ellie Blacklock)

 … although our many, many attempts at a posed-for jumping photo were far less successful!
(Credit: Joe Buckingham)

And with tension relieved, we were able to enjoy a brilliant day, riding roller-coasters, playing ball games, swimming in the sea, jumping waves and just relaxing in the sun. In the end, we didn’t want to leave, but leave we had to, and following several goodbyes, we were on our way home.

… at which my housemates and close friends surprised me with champagne, and we had a movies, video games and snacks night, honestly the perfect way to cap off what proved to be the day of my life! Thank you to everyone for a brilliant one!

All in all, it’s been an incredibly productive, enjoyable and, thankfully, successful year, both in the books and in the extra-curricular life, and I’m happy to say I’ll leave University with the greatest sense of fulfilment I could imagine.
And, with only my graduation ceremony and Edinburgh left, that final day of the year together in Bournemouth really was the perfect way to finish.


Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Student holidays at home and abroad

For final year students, last Thursday was results day and, just like last year, I had conveniently booked a holiday during that week.

I was in Amsterdam for four days with my girlfriend and as I got my first text telling me that our results had been put online, we rushed to find a waffle shop with free Wi-Fi.

It was then, whilst eating my waffle topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream, that I found out I had been awarded a first class honours for my Masters in Physics! I was over the moon and the knowledge made my waffle taste even nicer than it already did!

Amsterdam is a beautiful city, notable for its architecture and canals. 

Naturally that moment became one of my holiday highlights, along with watching the sea lion show at the local zoo, taking a relaxing canal tour through the city and engaging with the interactive exhibits at the Amsterdam Museum. Whilst Amsterdam is known for being a party city, it also has a large amount of culture, including the fascinating van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum, which houses an enormous gallery of 17th Century paintings amongst other collections.

The sea lions were incredible. 

As I mentioned above, this is not my first holiday whilst I’ve been at University; I went to the beautiful Belgian town of Brugge last year and I have also been on two less-cultured holidays to Marmaris and Magaluf. With budget airlines and great deals to be found online (we found a four star hotel room at a very tempting discounted price), going on holiday as a student is cheap and easy, and is fast becoming part of the University experience, especially considering that students have incredibly long summer holidays that run from June to September!

My girlfriend and I enjoying our holiday in Amsterdam together. 

Even if your friends aren’t organised enough to book a summer excursion, there are still chances to travel as many societies hold their own holidays. For ArtSoc (the University’s Art Society) there was an opportunity to go to Florence over the Easter break, but sadly with a looming Masters project deadline, on top of revision and interviews, I was unable to go. Most sports societies tend to organise competitions or tours abroad too, and if the sun isn’t your thing, the University has a Skiing and Snowboarding Society too!

As a student it can sometimes be hard to find funds for holidays, so there are always alternatives closer to home. At some point over the summer, my friends back home in Surrey want to do a small camping trip, where badly barbecued burgers and haphazard tent erecting is more than enough to have a good time! If you’re in Southampton over the summer, why not explore the New Forest with some friends? It couldn’t be closer!

This summer is my last big break before I start work as a medical physicist in September, so I am allowing myself to enjoy it and take all the opportunities that come my way. My holiday to Amsterdam turned out to be a perfect way to celebrate all the hard work I put in to my degree and I’m now looking forward to graduating in three weeks’ time.