One final year student reflects on what it means to attend UCL.
UCL is often touted as a byword for progressive values, a globalist enclave where free-thinkers of all stripes converge to bump together their brainy heads and take their first toddle into adulthood. There is the usual objective rationale that draws students to UCL; its enviable perch atop university rankings, and the employability bar none. But there is also its intrinsic emotional appeal, what it means to attend UCL, and what it says about you.
As the third oldest university in England, save for Oxford and Cambridge, yet the first to admit all – regardless of race, gender, creed or political belief – attending UCL seems to be an indicative of anti-elitism in itself. Yet, however many times something may be cited as a calling-card for liberal values, that does not automatically entail its abidance. The lumbering bureaucratic machinery of any university can only do so much, even with a flurry of directives and policies, to direct the culture of its thousands-strong student body. Although to live by the core tenets that underlie liberalism absolutely (in a nutshell: integrity, fairness, and tolerance) would take an almost religious effort, like does after all attract like. Those who find UCL’s forward-thinking values appealing, or at least wish to be associated with them, seek a spot for themselves within its cloisters.
Though it will undoubtedly prove to be disconnected from your actual university experience, an alluring prospect that draws many students to UCL is the institution’s link to great names. UCL holds pride of place as the alleged alma mater of Gandhi, as well as by its proximity to Bloomsbury’s famed literary circle, and all under the fatherly watch of Jeremy Bentham’s beady gaze. They are famous names as unspoiled as they can be, after being dragged through the muck of time and stood beside the squeaky-clean public images of the present.
The most practical of all my own impractical reasonings was the lure of living in London. To study here seems to instill the fear in the uninitiated – none of my family have visited the main campus, as though unable to prepare themselves for what they might find, or for fear of being scoffed at by tough city-swinging intellectuals. Before I began university, I was given the heads up by my English teacher that UCL was ‘cold’; it was a suggestion I blithely brushed aside with the correct assumption that it is best to keep one’s head down and dole out few smiles on the streets of London unless you wish to get accosted. Of course, now I can understand her perspective, because at a massive inner-city university one never happens across the same fate twice in a day, or even a week if you’re lucky. At its finest, you’re spared the petty micro-dramas of an insular campus, and on the flip side, you must prepare to cling to the friendships you make lest you lose sight of them across the sprawling vastness of London.
While averse to letting this article lace off into some sort of dewy-eyed UCL love letter from a final year student, the aesthetic look and feel of the campus is one of its best features and a contradiction in terms, which is happily one of the very best subjects to write about. UCL manages to dodge an air of exclusivity whilst also pulling off the pristine grandeur of the portico, because it makes no attempt to shut out and claw itself back from neighbouring modern London.The prim squares and tree-lined groves of Bloomsbury are crisscrossed by hulking great big thoroughfares always heaving with traffic and time-dependent tides of backpack-lugging students. The university’s dignified townhouses encase warrens of stripped back and functional corridors, and one of the prettiest Waterstones in London comes face to face with blocky concrete and glass-cased monstrosities.
Oddly enough, these jumbled patches of newfangled architecture seem to be mirrored by the fashion sense of the student body, with UCL-goers leaning towards a more casual, gritty style. By contrast, along the opulent stucco and balustrades of the Strand, its ancient rival King’s College is all blazers and satchels. If, indeed, my long and treacherous history degree has taught me anything, it’s that every institution tends to breed its own sense of conformity, and UCL is no exception. The summer before I started my first year at university, my 19-year-old brain ran riot with the expectancy of being thrown together with a dizzying mish-mash of colourful personalities. I imagined that among them would be a fair share of eccentrics, insufferable geniuses and neurotics, finally freed from the hidebound school curriculum and childhood cliques to ‘find themselves’ at last. But I was instead surprised by the similarities as opposed to the differences that the students, particularly in my first year, seemed to cling onto for comfort.
Matters could not have been helped when, in our first lecture as history freshers, it was announced that being a UCL student would require a painful ego-adjustment; at secondary school we may well have been used to being top of our class, but now we were all just small fish in equal competition. It was far from a reassuring tone to strike before hundreds of nervous teenagers huddled together in a room.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the rule of the day, as in any other environment where a bunch of disparate personalities are shoved together and told to play nice, was to blend and settle in or stand out and be noticed. Just keep up the stultifying conversations about how many nights out you had this week and how many dirt cheap shots were nabbed, then everyone will accept you – that seemed to be the ruling internal mantra. Being seen to have fun was of great importance, because no one wanted to seem at all disappointed in the glossy student experience they had been sold; as if to do anything other than have the time of your life would be a deep admission of personal failing. Naturally, we all masked being young and unsure by acting apathetic and cocksure, and in hindsight, it’s perversely amusing that we were all pretending to be normal when we all happened to be insanely interesting.
Perhaps expecting any given place or group of people to embody an ideal or share a common strain of reasoning is a fool’s errand, and all the UCL student body have in common is good grades, a smattering of ambition, and the will to brave at least three years of steep London rent. But if you do call yourself a student at UCL, one thing is beyond all doubt: if you can get to grips with university in London, sans distractions, you can make it anywhere. You’re far from coddled, and by refusing to get waylaid amongst the streets paved with gold amidst the millions losing their footing and themselves along the way, it bespeaks resilience, and the courage not to be stunted by one’s own comparative insignificance as a small fish in a big pond. Rather than offering up some syrupy advice to just ‘be yourself’, the closing point to take away from my personal experience is rather to keep evolving. Nothing lasts forever, not a three year nor seven year degree, so make like the shifting sands of time and let the inevitable transformations commence.
This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine.