On being a London Fresher – why first year, Sameed Shariq, has fallen in love with life at University
London excites me. It reeks of promise, of memories to be made and experiences to be found. Unlike so many places this city is not satisfied by simply acting as the stage for stories to be written. It moulds them. It seeps into the very fabric of their construction. And how could it not? Its personality is as pervasive as it is varied; it offers such a plethora of set pieces that the characters it houses can’t help but have their destinies charted (at least in part) by them. Having come from a small English village with a population of 3000 I often myself with a wide toothed grin as I’m struck by the richness of life that fills my new surroundings. It isn’t so much that the wonder of London is new to me – I would come for days out on the odd occasion that my friends and I felt our local chicken shop and bungalow-sized cinema didn’t offer adequate entertainment – it was the fact that it was now my home that filled me with glee. Most would clench their teeth at the prospect of having to do a 6 year course but for me the above average length of my intended stay was a matter of pride, helping to legitimise my new citizenship as a Londoner. No longer a haphazard bi-monthly affair, my relationship with London had finally become something real and true. For me, the implications of this cannot be overstated.
We all live in our own bubbles shaped by our personal biases and experiences. This bubble is what determines the way we perceive the world, how much of it we can truly access and how much is left an indistinct mirage outside our existence. The content of this bubble is determined by our exposure to the world surrounding us. Thanks to the internet, the exposure that a teen from a small country village can get is considerable. But this kind of exposure is second-hand, and it is therefore of limited value. We might be able to take a glimpse into another person’s world but it is a fragile arrangement, the price being a constant back of the mind anxiety that makes our eyeballs twitch to the corners of our screens to take note of what is inarguably the most crucial determinant of our mental health today – our battery percentage. To live in London for me meant to be free of this pitiful existence. Similar to the internet, London is too vast to be known. Multifaceted to the extent that to even know of all the facets would be a near impossible feat. But unlike what can be gained from a wi-fi connection alone, London’s incomprehensibly diverse array of humanity and their creations – paintings, architecture, cuisines, museums, theatre, and God knows what else – are all accessible in a single geographical district and ready for you to interact in ways far more meaningful than a digital platform can offer. It is a melting pot of ideas and attitudes, of cultures and peoples from all sorts of beginnings. Real life ceased to be suffocating for me as I settled into university life. The bubble of my existence grew explosively and continues to daily. And let me tell you, I’m enjoying the extra space.
Of course, to expand the mind it must be enriched with different experiences. Newfound opportunities are incredible things that offer to do exactly that. They allow us to break free of the routines we have accustomed ourselves to. To halt the passage of the predetermined and throw us into a new arena of possibility. To be a London fresher is to have such opportunities open to you 24/7. In having my own living expenses taken care of and an array of safety nets spread beneath me due to my student status, I am afforded the freedoms and independence of a fully autonomous adult without many of the responsibilities that should come with it. Granted, there will certainly be terms to this temporary idyllic existence that shall make themselves known (with a jolting suddenness, I am assured) but in my current state of blissful inexperience, I refuse to dwell on them for too long.
When discussing the world of opportunities opening up to me, I’d be remiss not to mention my experience of Fresher’s Fayre where opportunities aren’t just open but indeed throwing themselves at you. Joining societies in an environment where everyone is ready and willing to accommodate your curiosity and inexperience is the perfect excuse to engage with the alien. It allows you to meet and engage with personalities fleshed out in places you had no idea existed. To play sports so obscure that at first you doubt their existence only to find a rich history and a passionate fan base awaiting discovery. Cultures, communities, skills, ideologies – all ready for you to explore, fall in love with and use to redefine your understanding of who you are. It’s a truly magical time and it’s important we recognise it as such.
It would be easy to revert back to our old ways. To exclusively invest time in clubs or societies that are an equivalent to one from our past, giving the rest no more than a cursory glance or a half-hearted try. And that’s understandable. Familiarity can breed comfort after all, and this is something we’re desperate for especially in the first few weeks of being thrust into a new environment. I personally made a beeline to the stalls for debating and cricket (my two talking points of choice when it came to my interview) but as it stands two months on, I have yet to attend a single one of their sessions. Not necessarily because my interest in these activities has faded but since it has flourished so greatly in others (most recently dancing where being told I “wasn’t the worst” they’ve seen was enough encouragement for me to sign up for a Bollywood performance at Imperial’s Diwali ball). To find a new passion is to unlock a hidden chapter of your life. Might as well see what there is in store.
All this said, I do recognise that it is a tumultuous time for people my age. Routines are being upended, people we’ve known our whole life are becoming strangers. It can be scary. But I say we should embrace this state of flux. Use it to inspire us into experimenting with who we want to be and having the courage to exercise our freedom to reinvent ourselves. And to do this we need to be ready to let go of what feels comfortable and expose ourselves to everything London and University life have to offer. Exposure enables complexity, and though this does bring with it confusion – perhaps most pressingly of identity and belonging – it should not be extolled for the comfort of the well known, the tried and tested. That would involve purging our curiosity, our capacity to explore the world and ourselves; the very essence of what gives us our humanity.