Friday, 24 April 2015

Into the woods

So in this season of finals – and not just the exams! – it has finally come to this: one final appearance in a fully-fledged Annex Theatre-based, University of Southampton, Students’ Union society, show. And what a production to go out on: a large-scale project bringing to the University the classic Stephen Sondheim musical-turned-Disney-film, Into the Woods!

 Although I’ve probably attempted to do so in previous blog posts, I can’t begin to describe just how much the Performing Arts has changed my life since I discovered it as a trembling fresher in first year. My first set of auditions for a show is a stand-out memory for me, as, being extremely shy, I can remember being aghast at having only just met some people for the first time – and then having to pretend to be married to them!

 Back then just being on stage seemed a terrifying prospect, and I wasn’t sure why I subjected myself to it. Four academic years and twenty-five shows later, and the (admittedly still extremely nerve-racking but electrifying) buzz, coupled with nerves and adrenaline galore, is still there - but I’ve learnt to enjoy it along the way!

Of all the shows, it’s definitely the best costume I’ve had to wear!

It’s not just the time on stage, though, or indeed even time off stage – it’s the experience, the journey (if I’m going to be theatrical!) that you go through as both an individual in your role, and a collective with your fellow students within casts, teams or committees, that makes being part of the Performing Arts (or any student group) so special.

I’ve picked up an incredible number of skills from societies, be it public speaking (including dealing with nerves!), project management and co-ordination (of pretty large teams over several months), budgeting, scheduling, touring, designing, teamwork exercises, application writing, communication, and most of all, learning how to relax and trust your instincts. All of these complement the excellent academic groundings that I’ve picked up through my course in Computer Science and Software Engineering.

A far cry from that trembling first audition, definitely!

Along the way, I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting the most inspirational set of people I think I ever will. There’s some innate quality within the casts, crews and production teams I’ve got to know over the past four years that makes them so radiant, enthusiastic, full of quite breathtakingly brilliant ideas, and just great fun to be in the company of . Or maybe it’s just the number of times we’ve acted weirdly with each other in rehearsal rooms (which we always explain with “theatre!”)!

Over the course of the four years, I’ve seen plenty of these people come and go, and formed some fantastic friendships which I know will ensure we’ll keep in touch. Being part of such a strong community, as is the case with being part of SUSU, the Students' Union, in general, has been an honour, and has allowed me to achieve things which I couldn’t have imagined ever having the confidence or ambition to even dream of at first, let alone implement.

I couldn’t have imagined singing publicly at the start of University, let alone wearing eyeliner!

Being part of a show is truly a team effort in all senses, and as a result never fails to be a privilege – even if it does take time away from studying every now and again (although doing both is very doable)! It’s this sense of community which has made me feel so at home during my time here, at ease and enjoying myself at the University, and for anyone coming in September, it’s very, very easy to get into – all you have to do is turn up to a meeting and say hello, and things will go from there!

If the stage isn’t your thing, this experience is replicated in all forms of student group, be it media (the SUSU has its own entertainment magazine, newspaper, and radio and television stations), sports (… far too many to list!), RAG (Raising & Giving), academic clubs, lifestyle groups, and many more. Going along for the first time is probably the most nerve-racking experience of all at University, when you know nobody and everything is new – but if you do take that step, I can promise you that you won’t regret it!

As for Into the Woods, it’s really been one of the best experiences of my life – as every show seems to have been! Spending time with such a brilliantly talented cast and crew over the last few weeks, playing Ultimate Frisbee on the sunny University campus during our breaks, and having movie nights and meals together to give us a break from revision for impending exams (the next priority!). It’s summed up what life in the Performing Arts has been for me: better than I could ever have foreseen, thanks to the people around me.

Oh, and as I’m playing a Prince, I guess getting to dress up as royalty and over-dramatically prance around has been fun, too!

It’s going to be a strange feeling stepping off stage come Saturday evening in light of everything, but I know I couldn’t have asked for (or indeed fit in!) more. I’ll only be able to thank SUSU Performing Arts for making my life at the University of Southampton an extraordinary experience – or a journey 'Into the Woods', if you will!


Monday, 20 April 2015

Beach breaks and exploring the south coast

For the past week we’ve been very lucky with the weather, with several long, sunny and warm days. Nice weather has the power to put you in a good mood and give you lots of energy! I’m always more motivated during the warmer months compared to during winter. It’s easier to concentrate for longer and breaks are more fun, especially if you can do something outside. The power of the sun…It’s not just energy for plants, we need it too!

Anyway, in light of this gorgeous whether one of my housemates and I decided to take a spontaneous break from our work and go on a trip to the beach! As I’ve mentioned before it’s really easy to go places by train (or coach) to and from Southampton, so we found ourselves in Portsmouth by the waterfront in no time! For those who don’t know, Portsmouth is another city located on the South Coast of England. I’ve heard many friends talk about their visits there and now I finally had a chance to go and explore for myself.

We arrived in the afternoon seeing as it was a rather spontaneous decision (if we had planned ahead of time we probably would have tried to arrive earlier so we could have spent the whole day there). Since it was around lunchtime when we arrived, we first spent some time in Gunwharf Quays checking out some of the many shops and grabbing lunch while enjoying a view of the harbour. We didn’t spend too long inside since we didn’t want to waste the daylight and lovely weather.

After eating we headed to Southsea Beach. I haven’t been to many pebble beaches before so I was really excited and probably a little overly impressed though I still think it was really cool! (Perhaps not quite as comfortable… lying down on the pebbles isn’t as enjoyable as lying on sand but it’s still very beautiful!). We stayed at the beach for a bit and walked around near the water just enjoying some fresh air and sun before we took a walk around Southsea Castle which you can look around for free. Lastly we walked to Clarence Pier which is an area with lots of rides and games.

 It was fun to be spontaneous and to go explore somewhere new. If we had planned ahead we might have had more time there, but we didn’t want to get back to Southampton too late as both of us still had work left on our dissertations. The day passed really quickly but we got to do and see a lot, including a lot of walking! It was nice to stretch my legs a little after being glued to the chair in front of my desk for so long.

Exploring Portsmouth. 

As James mentioned in his last blog post there’s only about six weeks left at the University of Southampton until summer break begins! However I’m not sure if summer break will be the right phrase any more seeing as I will become a graduate this year. Anyway, yesterday was the last day of my Easter break and now it’s back to lectures, deadlines, Green Action and all the other events going on around campus that make University life so busy but eventful!

I hope everyone had a lovely Easter!


Thursday, 16 April 2015

Being a twin

Last week when my sister, Kat, said “This will be last time you go back to Southampton”, it suddenly dawned on me that I only had six weeks of proper university life left. It often takes someone else to put things into perspective and she certainly did!

Of course, Kat has already been through the exact emotions I’m feeling right now. She also chose to come to the University of Southampton, graduating last summer on a swelteringly hot day, which made Highfield Campus’s many green spaces the perfect place to celebrate her achievements. It was such a lovely day and having just booked a place at this year’s graduation myself, I will be hoping for equally good weather!

A lovely summer day for my sister’s graduation. 

When I tell people my sister graduated the year before I will, people automatically assume that she is the older sibling. However, I am actually the older sibling, beating her by ten minutes. Yes, ten whole minutes!

This meant we came to Southampton in the same year (on the same day in fact) and have been able to be a part of each other’s student lives. We both attended the same Freshers' Welcome Party and Ball in 2011 and, were it not for my sister having to start her graduate job immediately after finishing term, we were both going to go to last year’s amazing Graduation Ball.

The beginning of our lives at University! 

I’ve found that people are always fascinated when they find out I’m a twin. Their first question is always “Are you identical?” which I respond to by letting them know that we’re different genders! Rather worryingly, I’ve had people who knew who both of us were and still asked if we were identical!

People then tend to ask about twin-telepathy and whether we can somehow communicate silently between ourselves or whether we know what the other one is thinking. Whilst that would have some amazing advantages (including a very cheap phone bill), sadly we do not have this ability…or at least we don’t know how to unlock it yet!

Twin-telepathy? No. Twin love? Yes! 

However, we do often say things at the same time, which I think is a result of having identical upbringings and hence similar thought processes. Although, saying that, we did vastly different subjects at university, as Kat read History, which is a world away from the equations and derivations of Physics that I study.

 Despite our different academic passions, we do both share similar motivations and aspirations. Last week when I went to visit her, it was because she was helping to prepare me for my upcoming interview. Having a head start on me in the world of work and also receiving training on how to interview people meant she was the perfect source of information to make sure I was fully prepared. We did several exercises to help me improve how I structure and communicate my interview answers and I walked away feeling very confident indeed!

In addition to this it was lovely to see her again; I’m still not used to her not being around the corner in Southampton! We are meeting up again this week to have early birthday celebrations (I mentioned in a previous blog how my family like to move celebrations), before I go back to Southampton and embark on my final term, before graduating in the summer just as my twin did last year!


Monday, 13 April 2015

The final push

The books are out, the pens are prepped, and the summer heat lingers in the air, making a pleading case to procrastinate and do something else - or at the very least move the work outside! Easter chocolate has been consumed and the weather is entirely transformed, so it must be that unmistakable time of the year again – the summer term is upon us! As ever, this is it: the last term, and so the final push.

Except this time, it really is the final push! Sitting down the other day to carry on some slow but steady progress towards onrushing assignment hand-in deadlines, I realised that, quite terrifyingly, in just under seven weeks’ time my academic career will be all over.

After years upon years of SATs, school exams, GCSEs, A Levels and modules galore, it’s incredibly strange to think that, in the blink of an eye, the days of being a student will soon be over. Although there’s more than enough work to get through during these two months (and I won’t be discounting the potential for further study in the future, of course – who knows, maybe one day I could go for a PhD!), if there’s one thing I’ve learnt while studying here at the University of Southampton, it’s that the weeks pass much quicker than they seemingly ought to!

As James wrote recently, it’s around this point that work really has to be at the forefront of matters for students, given the relative proximity of deadline season. Around this time last year, for example, I can recall many days spent staring at a dissertation, hoping it’d somehow assimilate the huge swathes of journal articles open on my laptop screen on its own and just write itself. A few weeks of challenging report-writing later (as well as a weird sense of enjoyment in terms of the satisfaction of seeing it all come together), it was in – phew!

I’ve no dissertation to contend with this year, but as the Easter holidays fall firmly at the two-thirds junction of the Easter semester, a deadline rush after them is pretty common. This year is certainly no exception, with programming assignments, mock business reports and structured essays all on the agenda, as well as the typical need to start revision for end-of-May exams as early as possible – or else face the prospect of learning a lot of material very quickly indeed!

I’ve always found the Easter break, therefore, to be very well timed, as the length of the spell means you get to enjoy a solid (and often necessary!) rest, still having time to get down to business and crack on with work to relieve as much pressure as possible on your future self. Software Engineering has therefore been the main priority recently for me, although being at home, there have of been plenty of opportunities to meet up with old friends and family as well - justified breaks, of course!

Meanwhile, I’ve also had to start putting preparations into place for the strangely surreal scenario of leaving Southampton in a couple of months. Besides figuring out the logistics of carting back four academic years’ worth of accumulated paraphernalia (I call it memorabilia!), ranging from textbooks to towels, and coats to cupboards, I’ve also been stepping up my efforts to plan for the months ahead, making full use of the brilliant Careers Destinations services offered by both the University and my school, ECS, as well as exploring as many options as I can.

In the midst of all this, I received an email reminding me of one aspect of the coming months I’d entirely forgotten about. After all, when you’re the youngest of four siblings, booking your place at a graduation ceremony (in doing so placing a hire order for your robes!) is one of those activities that you grow up seeing others in your family do, but never really expect for your turn to eventually come around. So it was odd knowing that this time around, all things being well, this ceremony would be my own!

Attending my old housemates’ graduations at the University in 2014 was a great experience – and brilliant motivation for hopefully having my own this year!

Before then, however, I find myself returning to Southampton in the next few days for what truly is the final push. There’s lots to do, but with only seven weeks left of academic study on the agenda and the promise of a great summer Southampton send-off, I’ve everything to gain – so here’s hoping!


Friday, 10 April 2015

Making plans for the summer

While the University’s library was closed over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend I used this as an excuse to take a break from my dissertation and jump on a train to the countryside to visit my Auntie and cousin. It was nice to have a change of scenery for a few days and to catch up with relatives. We also took a relaxing drive to visit the small country villages nearby.

However, before I left to see them I started sorting through the things I have in Southampton and packed two large bags full of stuff I plan to give away or leave behind after I graduate. It’s somewhat scary but incredibly exciting to think about what I want to do after I hand in my dissertation and complete my final exams, when my time at the University of Southampton ends. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, particularly in the last few weeks.

On the train to the countryside. I find travelling on the train alone can be very therapeutic, and a great opportunity to sort through tangled thoughts and clear your head

With my family all in Australia I think it would be nice to reunite in the same country again, as it’s been almost two years since I last saw my dad. Moreover, I haven’t actually been back to Australia in eight years and I can imagine that a lot has changed so it would be like a new adventure to move back, even if just for a few years to study for a Masters or possibly a PhD. Due to the differing term dates in the UK and Australia I will have a few months once I arrive to decide which route I’d like to chose and start making applications. I do know that either way I’d like to go on to further study.

I am preparing for a big move back to the other side of the world and, similar to when I moved to Europe ten years ago, I’ll only be taking a suitcase of clothes and some photos - so I have to start thinking about what I’ll be doing with the rest of my things!

I have really loved living in the UK for the past three years and studying at Southampton has been a major reason for that. There’s still a lot of things in the UK and in Europe that I hope to see someday so it’s very likely that I’ll be back again in the future. While I won’t be able to see everything on my ‘bucket list’ before I leave for the land down under there are a number of countries in Europe that I still want to visit. So, in order to leave without regrets, I’ve also been planning a trip around Europe with one of my housemates after our final exams.

Travelling around Europe can be very easy and cheap especially when you’re living here, so I really don’t want to waste the opportunity. Places we plan to visit include Belgium, Luxembourg, Geneva, Milan, Venice, Prague, Berlin and Amsterdam, all by train which is the cheapest way we’ve found to travel to so many places. It’ll be an exciting backpacking experience and a great way to celebrate finishing university.

Until then I really need to focus on finishing my dissertation which is due in about three weeks and then it will be time to focus on revising for my final exams!

Spring flowers on campus

The weather is getting warmer and the spring season has brought with it lots of gorgeous flowers and longer daylight hours. Summer will soon follow and with summer comes the end of university. So I’d better work hard in this last stretch!


Thursday, 9 April 2015

Easter in the Peak District

As a family we don’t normally do much to celebrate Easter, apart from the giving of chocolate eggs and perhaps the seeing of grandparents. However, this year I was invited on holiday with my girlfriend’s family, who were going to stay in a cottage in the Peak District over the weekend. Naturally I said yes and on Friday morning we crammed all our suitcases into the boot of the car, like a real-life version of Tetris, and headed north.

We stayed in a small village called Ashford in the Water, which neighbours the famous town of Bakewell. It was quite a long drive from Surrey, but the beautiful buildings and scenic landscape on offer was well worth the wait. Before we arrived there, we made a stop in Sudbury to visit the country mansion owned by the National Trust. The drizzle meant we didn’t walk around its gardens, but we did wander around the impressive Hall and take a peak in the Museum of Childhood which is housed in the Servant’s wing. The museum was very well designed and the toys room took me on a nostalgia trip, especially when I saw the Tracy Island set from Thunderbirds which got hours of use from me as a child!

The beautiful exterior of Sudbury Hall

Over the weekend we visited another three stately homes, the most impressive of which was Chatsworth House and its never-ending gardens. Inside, every room had been meticulously restored and decorated, containing some fantastic paintings and artefacts, including an imposing collection of neo-classical sculptures. There was also an intriguing exhibition of modern chairs throughout the house, including ones shaped like spinning tops, seats disguised as paintings and cocoon-like sofas. The grounds were equally as stunning and I spent a good twenty minutes getting lost in a very confusing maze, but I beat my girlfriend to the middle, so that’s all that counts!

The picturesque grounds of Chatsworth House

On the Saturday morning we drove into Bakewell to do a bit of shopping. Apart from the two famous Bakewell Pudding shops, which both claim to be the inventor of the dessert, there were plenty of gift shops to look round and many teddy bears to be hugged!

There was also a craft fayre taking place in the town centre and a troop of brightly-dressed Morris Dancers, making the town feel alive with activity. After shopping around, we walked up the steep hill to have a look around their museum, which detailed the history of the small town inside a very well-preserved old house. One of its best features was a very friendly cat who made itself right at home on my lap!

Morris Dancers complete with dancing unicorn!

Naturally a holiday in the Peak District isn’t complete without taking a hike through the undulating countryside. On Saturday evening we walked along the top of a valley, which had some wonderful views as dusk approached, before descending via a very steep and scary stone staircase to its muddy and rocky bottom. Clambering over some very slippy rocks, we made our way back to where we came from, very exhausted and in need of a hearty dinner. A lot of walking was done on this holiday, so it was good to put our feet up in the evenings and just relax in front of the wood-burning fire!

A sunny afternoon view of the landscape

It was lovely to take a small break away from the world of University work, where I could de-stress and forget about the deadlines that are on the horizon. Now that I am back I feel motivated and ready to make the final push to finish off my Masters project and begin revision for my last ever set of University exams!

I hope you had a great Easter too.


Thursday, 2 April 2015

Why so far away from home?

It’s probably the most common question I’ve had from friends and family ever since I chose to come to the University of Southampton  four years ago, which somehow simultaneously seems both a short and long time ago! “Why so far away from home?” But, hailing from the North-West and thus a five-hour journey away, it’s a fairly good one as… well, you don’t get much more South than Southampton!

All jokes about moving as far away from my parents as possible aside (although they haven’t let me forget it!), this distance from home has been a defining feature of my University experience as a whole. And, as with everything, it has its advantages and, occasionally, disadvantages, but I’m glad to say it’s a gamble that was well worth taking. I’ve had a fantastic three (and two thirds!) years on the South coast, and am looking forward to a great final term there to boot.

Making the journey back last week to head back up North for some rest and recuperation did invoke a curious feeling. It’s not that I wasn’t excited; I’ve had more home-cooked food here in a week than I managed in the whole of last semester! But when the two lives you’ve led – the Northern life and the Southern life – have so little crossover (I was only one of two from my school year to go to Southampton!), it is an odd sensation to transition between them, well aware that the other one will continue on regardless. With five hours on a train, there’s a lot of time in which to ponder! But, to allay any fears you might have reading this, this curious feeling vanishes the second you see everyone at the station, at your house or in the city again; there’s nothing quite like seeing friends, family and, in my case, cats, again, sharing stories of what’s gone on (although there are different stories suitable for different people)!

In that sense, nothing ever really feels like it’s changed at all, and it’s amazingly easy just to slip back into old routines, friendships and groups and go bowling, see a film or grab a meal together. My school friends’ tradition of regular curry house trips well and truly lives on, and we appreciate it more than ever!

This week, as a break from revision, I’ve gone back to helping to stack hay bales on the farm – with a little help!

In that sense, I’m an extremely lucky individual, in that I have a brilliant set of friends both in the North and in the South of the country and so almost always have someone to call on. It’s not even that the two communities are as distant as I imagined they would be when I arrived so many moons ago – the wonders of webcam chats, texts and, most frequently, social networks, all go a long way to bridge that gap, keeping me ever-connected and chatting with people from all over the country, and making sure we don’t get out of touch. Well, not too often, at least - I do sometimes forget to text my parents back. Sorry Mum!

But the question remains: why Southampton in the first place? For me, I think it’s just because, ever since I visited on an Open Day and follow-up departmental day (which is definitely the best way to get a sense of any University, so I’d hugely recommend attending one here if you’ve a decision to make!), it’s just felt right. The course seemed (and has continued to be) brilliant, the facilities comprehensive, and, best of all, the campus homely.

As somebody who values their home comforts and who hadn’t had any experience of independent living before moving away, this was a critical factor for me. Once I got the sense that I could feel at home in Southampton, surrounded by friendly folk, a beautiful campus and great facilities (the Students’ Union shop remains one of my favourite buildings on campus!), I knew it was the University for me – largely because the well-stocked campus, surrounding area and community would make it nearly impossible to be lonely!

Although, nearly four years later, I still do once in a while find myself missing life at home ever so slightly (and vice versa when I’m back there, and I see there’s stuff happening in Southampton – stop having fun without me, guys!), it’s more than compensated for by the fact that, at both places, I feel like I have an incredibly inspiring, supportive and warm place in which to live every day: a home from home, if you will.

Although I knew from the start that I wouldn’t be able to pop home every other week with my dirty laundry, I’m hugely glad I took on that extra challenge and went for Southampton. If anything, it’s made me throw myself into the real world and learn even more than I probably would have done at a closer university, particularly alongside my flatmates in first year (the perfect time to experiment with stuff, as nobody really knows how to live independently!). Suffice to say we committed more than our fair share of cooking atrocities!

You’ll never know until you’ve seen for yourself how much distance from home, or indeed any other factor, should play a part in your decision, so if you’re considering universities now or for the future, I can’t recommend enough trying the virtual tour on the University of Southampton website or, better still, coming along and seeing the city for yourself! Who knows? Maybe your gut will point you to your home from home!