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Four wonderful years at Exeter University

Sometimes I worry that my best days are already behind me. A ridiculous notion, I know. I’m only twenty-six. Many of life’s big milestones are still ahead of me. As far as my career is concerned, it’s still very early days. And yet, it is an unshakeable feeling that has plagued my conscience ever since I left university four years ago.

People have mixed feelings about their uni days. My boyfriend regards his as a complete waste of time and wishes he had never gone. Some view them as a means to and end, a necessary step on the path to a successful career. Some see them as a rite of passage, a chance to experience the perks of adulthood with none of the stress. For others, they are a time of immense strain, with the pressures of essays and exams proving too much. For me, they were without doubt the happiest and most liberating days of my life.

I had always known I wanted to go to university. I’d known it for so long I don’t recall ever actually making the decision. The hours of studying, the effort I put into each and every lesson, the revision, the flashcards, the pressure I put myself under-it was all done with the sole purpose of getting into university, and a good university at that. I have never been one for settling, for being happy with mediocre grades when I was clearly capable of achieving the highest. I knew I was good enough to get into a top university, and so I made absolutely sure it happened.

If you had asked me then why I was so set on going to university, I would have said, “To get a really good job.” This seemed like the logical thing to say, and made the adults in my life nod approvingly. It was also complete rubbish. The truth is that for me, university was the pinnacle of education, a degree the highest accolade I could achieve. It was nothing to do with jobs or money, and everything to do with personal fulfilment. I wanted to explore a subject I loved in an environment which afforded me the control and independence I had been craving my whole life. I wanted to devote myself to learning and be surrounded by people who had chosen to do the same.

Deciding on an institution was easy. The moment I picked up Exeter’s prospectus, my mind was made up. With their high-ranking status, proven track record and outstanding reputation, they were exactly the kind of institution I was looking for. The city itself looked beautiful, as did the campus, and its proximity to the Devon coast was yet another perk. Academically, Exeter boasted an impressive range of subjects, including ab initio Russian. The opportunity to learn a new language from scratch was one that interested me greatly. I had previously been toying with the idea of doing Spanish or Italian, but was advised by one of my A-level French teachers to choose a language which would really make me stand out. Mandarin and Japanese didn’t really appeal to me, but when I discovered that Exeter was offering Russian, it seemed like the perfect compromise.

It was decided. I would do a Combined Honours degree in French and Russian at Exeter University. My other choices were purely academic as far as I was concerned. My heart was set on Exeter, and I put everything into achieving the grades necessary to secure my place. All the hard work paid off on results day when I got straight A’s, and a month later I made the hundred and eighty-mile journey down the M5 to Devon.

I have never fallen in love with a place the way I did with that little corner of the West Country. Exeter is stunningly beautiful, with its backdrop of rolling hills, impressive architecture and picturesque quayside. It is the perfect blend of the historic and the modern, large enough to feel lively and vibrant, but small enough to feel peaceful and laid-back. The town centre boasts every shop, restaurant and café going, as well as quaint pubs, bustling nightclubs and trendy cocktail bars. The cathedral and surrounding green are symbolic of Exeter, and the beach is just a short train ride away. Even the weather is nicer, the climate being noticeably milder down there on the south coast than back home in the Midlands.

Not only did I love Exeter as a place, I also loved studying there. I got to explore French, a language I adored, in greater detail than ever before. I studied the grammar, the literature, the culture and the history, often going beyond the work set by our tutors in my bid to get the best grade possible. Russian proved to be a fascinating language, and I was able to pick it up relatively easily. At home, I spent hours poring over grammar books and riffling through dictionaries, watching French films and listening to songs in both languages. I was fully immersed in my studies, to the point where I did very little else.

This devotion to my studies was one of the reasons I had hardly any social life during my first year. It didn’t help that I’m naturally quite shy, or that my boyfriend at the time made me feel guilty on the rare occasions when I did venture out without him. As a result I felt little compulsion to socialise, turned down the vast majority of invitations, and ended my first year having only really made one friend beside my flatmates.

In spite of this I was wonderfully, blissfully happy. I relished my newfound freedom, and while I was still bound by a schedule, at least it was a schedule I had elected to follow. Living away from home meant everything seemed like an adventure, and only having myself to think about was fantastically liberating. I didn’t mind that I didn’t go out much, that I hadn’t bonded with the people on my course, that I was missing out entirely on the social side of university. I had my studies and my relationship, and back then that was enough.

Things changed the summer after my first year when a group of us went to Estonia. As our year abroad would be spent in Russia, it was decided that it would be beneficial to visit a country with a similar culture and feel first, to give us a taste of what it might be like. The others were understandably surprised when I said I wanted to go, as I had shown absolutely no interest in talking to or interacting with them up until that point. I had no problem with any of them; they all seemed like perfectly lovely people. It was all me. Having spent the whole of first year either holed up in my room studying or off visiting my then-boyfriend, I had neglected to form any kind of relationship with my fellow linguists. In the meantime they had bonded and become friends, which made the prospect of trying to slot myself in among them all the more daunting. However, I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to visit Estonia. So I went, and it turned out to be the one of the best decisions I ever made.

As much to my amazement as everyone else’s, I slotted right in. Exploring a new city in a country none of us had ever visited naturally gave us plenty to talk about, and the alcohol we consumed certainly helped me overcome my shyness. I discovered that I could talk to them with surprising ease about a whole range of topics. They in turn discovered that I had a personality as well as a sense of humour. I went from being the silent one who always dashed off after class without saying a word to staying up late into the night discussing literature and ethics and relationships. Of course, it stands to reason that I should have a lot in common with a group of people who had chosen the same course and university as me, but being naturally introverted, a change of surroundings and a myriad of cocktails were needed in order for me to kick-start those interactions. I can now categorically say that it was there in Tallinn that the seeds of some of the most significant friendships of my life were sewn. We stayed in touch over the rest of the summer, and when we returned to Exeter at the start of second year, I was a very different person.

During the Estonia trip I had discovered not only that I was capable of interacting with my classmates, but that I actively enjoyed doing so. They in turn seemed to genuinely enjoy my company. These newfound friends rallied around me when, at the end of September, the relationship I had been so sure of came to a rather messy and dramatic end. It never occurred to me at the time that my social awakening and the breakdown of that particular relationship were linked, but it is perfectly clear to me now that they were. Had I still been stuck in my self-inflicted bubble of solitude, I’m not sure how I would have coped. My second year may have got off to a rocky start, but now I had the support network to help me through it.

The transformation that began with the Estonia trip continued in the wake of the split. Having spent my first year avoiding social interaction, I now decided to accept every invitation I received. My calendar quickly filled up as a result. I attended friends’ birthday celebrations, went out for dinner, to house parties and the beach: all things I’d previously missed out on. My list of friends grew considerably, and I was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which I was able to forge new relationships. My previous awkwardness vanished, and I became more socially adept than I ever thought I could be.

This increase in confidence brought about other changes. After years of wearing tracksuits and other sporty clothes on the basis that I didn’t have the figure for anything else, I decided to branch out. Using the money I would have spent on train journeys to visit my now ex-boyfriend, I kitted myself out with a whole new wardrobe. Slinky black dresses, high heels, short skirts: all the things I was convinced I could never pull off. As it happened, I looked amazing in all of it. That was the year I discovered my love of dresses, and I have been in possession of an impressively large collection ever since.

I also discovered my love of cocktails that year. Alcohol was something I had never really indulged in, owing to my ex-boyfriend’s nonsensical belief that I would “meet someone and do something” if I went out drinking. Prior to my second year, I had often claimed to not see the appeal of alcohol, when in truth I had never really tried it. I’d had the occasional glass of wine at parties, the odd Smirnoff Ice, but I’d never been drunk-not even on my eighteenth birthday. So when, at the age of nineteen, I found myself newly single, I decided to make up for lost time.

I drank a lot of alcohol that year. A lot. And I liked it. A lot. I liked the way it made me relax, the way it made me more assertive when it came to voicing my opinions and getting what I wanted, the way it helped me let go of the shyness and the inhibitions and just go for it. In short, it transformed me into the version of myself that usually only exists when I’m alone. It was immensely liberating. I could study by day, and by night I could morph into the bubbly, outgoing girl I’d secretly always wanted to be.

I had a fling that year. To those who knew me as the shy, quiet, bookish one, this was highly surprising. It was not something I had previously thought I would ever do. I had sat with my best friend, Jodie, not two months prior to it happening, and categorically declared that I “could never have casual sex.” She replied very matter-of-factly, “I think you could and I think you will.” She was not the slightest bit surprised when I rang her and told her what had happened, and when I really thought about it, neither was I.

Yes, there had been a time when I thought I would always be with my ex, because it was my first long-term relationship and I was an idealist teenager with no real life experience. There had also been a time when I subscribed to my Nan’s somewhat puritanical view that “women should only ever sleep with one man,” although in my case this was born out of hopeless romanticism rather than any qualms about morality. Any hopes of this being true for me immediately vanished when I found myself single again at the age of just nineteen.

I didn’t set out to have a fling. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the alcohol, I doubt it would ever have happened. I doubt I would have had the confidence to dirty-dance with him in a club when my favourite song came on. I doubt I would have had the nerve to tactically remind him of said dance at a masquerade ball a month later, and wind up kissing him as a result. I doubt I would have been forward enough to suggest he stay the night when he walked me home after a pub-crawl for a friend’s birthday. We were seeing each other for just over a month. No time at all really, and yet it was one of the boldest, most liberating things I have ever done.

I learned a great deal from that experience. I learned that physical attraction is essential if I am going to truly enjoy sex, that you do not have to be in love with someone to feel a sense of fulfilment and companionship, and that wanting and having sex outside the parameters of a committed relationship is perfectly natural and does not automatically equate to moral bankruptcy. It altered my world-view, sweeping aside everything I had previously thought about my own limitations, and instilling in me an openness that my pre-breakup self simply was not capable of.

My next serious relationship came right at the end of second year. He was in my Russian class and had gone to Estonia with us, but as he’d been taken for all the time that I’d known him, the idea had simply never occurred to me. I suppose I had clocked him in the sense that when a friend asked me which of the boys from our Russian class I found most attractive, I said him without the slightest hesitation. She suggested I might get my chance as his relationship was on the rocks, to which I replied, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Sure enough, we ended up together.

We started spending time together towards the end of his relationship with his then-girlfriend. A split was on the cards, and he needed someone to talk to. It was entirely innocent, at least to begin with. We would spend hours just sitting and talking, and the more we talked, the more we discovered we had in common. I suppose the foundations were being laid even then, but it was only after he and his girlfriend had split that we allowed ourselves to acknowledge that were attracted to each other.

Even then I was hesitant. It was all happening extremely fast. He had been single for less than a month, and I felt that going straight into a new relationship would not be according proper respect to his ex-girlfriend and the time they had spent together. I was friends with her too, and therefore very wary of hurting her. I had visited her after the split, before my feelings for him had started to take hold. I had sat with her in her kitchen and listened as she talked about what had gone wrong between them. Now I felt like a traitor.

Even so, in the weeks that followed, it became clear that we would end up an item. We saw each other every day, meeting up at the earliest opportunity and staying up well into the small hours, working our way through copious amounts of wine and dutifully resisting the pull we knew we both felt. Eventually we concluded that there was little point delaying the inevitable. We had our first kiss on my last night in Exeter, and I went down to visit him in Windsor a couple of weeks later. It was during this trip that we finally agreed we were officially a couple.

That first summer was pure bliss: a heady, intoxicating whirlwind so exhilarating that my previous relationship paled in comparison. To me, he was as close to perfect as it was possible to get: intelligent, articulate and open-minded, as well as incredibly good-looking. It wasn’t long before I was completely enamoured. My love for him eclipsed anything I had ever felt before. It was a fairy-tale ending to what was undoubtedly the happiest, most carefree and exciting year of my life, and I could not believe my luck.

Less than two months after getting together, we left for Russia. We had both opted to spend the first half of our year abroad in Saint Petersburg, followed by Yaroslavl for the second half. Those eight months were…interesting. They were certainly an adventure, and eventful enough to furnish me with a lifetime’s supply of bizarre anecdotes. Nowadays I look back on them with a sense of immense fondness and nostalgia. Only when it was over did I truly realise how much I had enjoyed my time in Russia, probably because actually being there was incredibly stressful a lot of the time.

The first four months proved particularly trying. Saint Petersburg, while visually stunning, suffered from what I call Big City Syndrome, meaning it was just too big, the inhabitants too aloof, and the overall feel too impersonal for me to feel truly comfortable there. Personally, I was far more at home in the much smaller, older and more provincial Yaroslavl. This wasn’t the case for everyone, and heightened stress levels throughout the year put a real strain on the group dynamic. Friendships that had seemed unshakeable back in Exeter were tested to the limit in Russia, and what had previously been a close-knit group was never quite the same afterwards. While some would mend themselves in time, others were broken beyond repair, and the fault-lines would only deepen as we moved into our final year.

Fourth year was a rather more sedate affair than the others had been. Friday nights would usually find us congregated in someone’s living room with Domino’s pizza and copious amounts of wine. When we did go out clubbing, the difference in energy level between the freshers and us was remarkable. Yet I was still overwhelmingly happy. My relationship had survived the year abroad, which was fortunate as we were now living in the same house, and my friendship base was wider than ever. There was even a new addition to my list of best friends, Natalie. We spent a great many hours together that year, chatting and putting the world to rights over tea or alcohol, depending on the time of day.

As the year wore on, and final exams loomed, I was faced with a decision: stay and do a master’s or leave and find a job. Had money been no object, I’d have stayed in a heartbeat. My love of learning runs so deep that if I could, I would happily devote my whole life to studying. The key word there is if. I did not have the thousands of pounds needed to fund a master’s degree, and nor did my parents. While my Nan could potentially have helped, I simply wasn’t willing to ask her for such a huge sum of money. Then there was the fact that a master’s did not automatically guarantee greater progression in my chosen career. As much as I love studying, I am enough of a realist to know that there was little point in pursuing a master’s if it wasn’t going to open more doors. I would have been doing it purely for the sake of it, and that didn’t seem like a good enough reason. It would have been delaying the inevitable, the inevitable being the fact that one day, reluctantly, I would have to join the world of work.

I have never been work-shy. In fact I am the exact opposite, putting maximum effort into all my undertakings regardless of personal enjoyment. I do, however, object to the idea that the majority of my life should be spent engaged in an activity I would rather not be doing in exchange for bits of paper. Certainly in this country, work seems to take up a disproportionate amount of our time. I have always subscribed to the belief that life should be for living: a feat which is rendered somewhat difficult if I am spending most of my day working, only to return home in the evening too tired to do anything with my remaining hours. The balance seems off to me. That being said, I do have a desire to make a success of my career and of myself in general, hence I decided to leave university and embark upon said career.

While certain aspects of my life flourished after university, others suffered almost immediately. I had landed my ideal job working as a mentor for the education charity City Year. I was based in a lovely school with great staff, wonderful kids and brilliant team-mates. That part of my life surpassed all expectations. The others most certainly did not.

My relationship, which had thrived at university, now went into a slow decline, unable to withstand the divergence in our lifestyles (he had stayed in Exeter to do a master’s in translation). The friends I swore I would keep in contact with dropped off the map one by one, popping up in the occasional Facebook status but nothing more. A handful I still speak to via text or Facebook Messenger, but months can pass between sending a message and receiving a reply, no doubt owing to the fact we are all busy people nowadays.

All of this I found tremendously difficult to deal with. At university I had experienced a sense of belonging and fulfilment eclipsing anything I had ever known. Now all of that was crumbling before my eyes. That part of my life was over, the perks that came with it were gone, and try as I might, I could not hold on to any of it.

Of course, it was always going to come to an end. But if truth be told, I never wanted it to. My life plan peaked with university; the rest was just a vague, hypothetical blur. I never actually wanted to get to the other side, fearing that life after uni would prove mundane, tedious and disappointing.

My fears were realised during those five awful months at the end of 2013 when I knew my relationship was dying. From September to January I watched, helpless, as we deteriorated. Me, trying every weapon in my arsenal in a desperate bid to save the relationship, while all the time knowing that it was doomed. He had checked out already. There was nothing I could do.

At the time I attributed the breakup to the fact that I was no longer at university, convinced that we would still have been together had I stayed to do a master’s. A fantastically simplistic view of a deeply complex situation. The fact of the matter is the relationship had run its course and a breakup was inevitable. That it happened shortly after I left university was neither mere coincidence nor the direct result of having left. I wanted something to blame, and the strains of post-university life seemed by far the easiest explanation. Of course, this only added an extra layer of pain whenever I thought about what life had been like before. For months I had felt like I was in mourning for my university days, and now I was in mourning for my relationship as well. It took me the best part of five months to recover; the breakup happened in January, and it wasn’t until June that I really started to feel like myself again.

Three and a half years later, I can look back with the cool, logical detachment that hindsight affords, and view the whole affair as a necessary transition into fully-fledged adulthood. By the end of February I had secured a place on a PGCE course, and September saw me moving to Nottingham. While the latter part of that year would also prove tumultuous for entirely different reasons, it would also involve a lot of fun, new friendships, and a partial reclaiming of that youthful energy I had felt in Exeter. I say partial because no teacher-training course was ever going to rival the carefree days of my first university experience, and herein lies the problem.

I cannot help but long for the days when my biggest worry was whether my latest essay was good enough for a First. When meetings with friends could be arranged at the drop of a hat, and said meetings lasted for hours because no one had to be up early the next day. The hilarity of nights out and house parties and afternoons spent at the pub. The camaraderie of being surrounded by people of a similar age with the same passion for languages, history and literature. Never feeling lonely or isolated because company was only a text away or better still, in the very next room.

Now those friends are scattered all over the country, with some dotted around overseas, and I am lucky if I see them once a year. On those rare occasions, the bonds forged at university prove to be as strong as ever, and I know for certain that were my life to go horribly wrong tomorrow, I could count on them to be there for me, as they have been in the past. It is a very special kind of friend who will drop everything to listen to you wailing down the phone for hours on end, and I am lucky enough to possess a whole set. While the intermittent contact can be hard sometimes, knowing that I am still able to count them among the ranks of my closest friends is, in itself, a huge comfort.

I guess at the heart of all this is the fear that I will never again have such a strong network of friends in such close proximity. That I will never again feel like an integral part of a close-knit group. That I will never again feel the wonderful ease that comes from being surrounded by kindred spirits. All of which brings me arcing back to the very beginning of this piece, and the fact that I am only twenty-six. Everything is still relatively new. I have been with my boyfriend for just shy of two years, living together for one. I am only two years into my teaching career, and still very much a learner in that respect. It is only natural that I don’t yet feel settled. Have I already hit my lifetime quota of friends? Of course not. Do I acquire new ones wherever I go? Absolutely. Do I really need to worry? Certainly not, but the fear remains all the same.

There will probably come a day when I can no longer believe that I ever thought my university days were the best of my life. Until then, I am allowed to look back on them with a little sadness every so often. In the meantime, I must endeavour to remember exactly what it was about those days that made them so wonderful, and attempt to recreate those things whenever possible. Putting on a dress and heels in preparation for a night out will usually do the trick, as will wearing my favourite perfume. Certain songs and albums also have the same effect. All small things, and therefore very achievable.

These transitory years were never going to be the most enthralling of my life. Does that mean the best ones are already behind me? Possibly, but in all likelihood, probably not. It is merely a case of being patient, until the next time the components of my life align themselves perfectly. For there will be a next time: there always is.

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.