Hi, I’m Francis. The coming academic year will be my third at University College London where I study History. I am an EU student, though one of the lucky ones to have started university with Home Fees status. My time at university so far has been thoroughly enjoyable: both in the academic and social sense. I have gained a number of transferable skills—qualitative and quantitative research & analysis, leadership, teamwork, and—crucially I think—communication. Uni has also been a fantastic place to meet interesting, like-minded people and make great friendships and acquaintances. The university supported me throughout the two years, particularly during lockdowns when additional support was put in place. Having come from a mid-sized city, moving away from home taught me independence, gave me a sense of pride in doing things on my own, but also made me appreciate the familial connections so much more.
What’s it like living in a big city?
Perhaps it is a common characteristic of all big English cities, but for the entirety of my first year London did not feel like a large city at all! Because of its division into distinct boroughs (more visible in the city centre than on the outskirts) and into varied neighbourhoods that usually contain everything you need for residential life, you often feel as though you live in a quiet, pleasant town. Thanks to this, London is not an overwhelming place to live in, but it grants you all the benefits of a large city. I particularly enjoy the amazing amount of green spaces—wherever I lived in London, I was always within 10-15min walking distance from a large park. Another benefit is the astounding cultural diversity of London—it makes the city so vibrant and interesting—and on a very basic level, it allows you to try the tastiest dishes from all around the world. Fantastic art galleries and museums, most free of charge, are an amazing benefit for students of all subjects, but perhaps humanities in particular. I know that for many a switch from a small town to London may be a bit of a shock, but it is so worth it to adjust and grow to love this city. During the recent pandemic, I was staying alone in my flat in London; despite this, there were many opportunities to go out or to socialise virtually: as I mentioned, I could always have a walk in the nearby park – Kensington Gardens, or have zoom drinks and other virtual social events organised by the university or my societies.
What was my course like?
The thing that sets apart British universities from other academic institutions and secondary education is the amount of independence and responsibility put upon the students, particularly in humanities. During my first year I only had about 10h of lectures and tutorials per week, with most of my studying taking place at home or in one of the numerous libraries UCL students have access to. Contrarily to A-Levels, or IB Diploma, history students at UCL spend most of their time reading period texts and academic articles written by leading historians. I don’t think I had to use a textbook once in my time with History Department. That is not to say we are just left to fend for ourselves, of course! Our own research is always carefully guided and discussed with our lecturers and tutors with whom we can always schedule meetings in person (in first year) and via zoom (in second year because of covid). Every lecturer and tutor ensures that we are adequately prepared and guided to write our essays and exams, and they are always happy to give us additional or more specialised reading material to aid in our writing and learning. Every year we get to choose a couple of modules in addition to one or two compulsory ones. The range of topics, time-frames, and approaches is astounding: for example, this year I studied both Roman Democracy in the Late Republican period and history of Czechoslovakia. Most people have a unique set of modules that corresponds well with their interests and plans for future careers.
What was my accommodation like?
In first year, much like most of UCL students, I lived in uni-managed halls, about 10-minutes’ walk from the campus in the picturesque and safe Bloomsbury. My building was an imposing, old, 19th century former boarding house, though it was very nicely converted into a modern arrangement on the inside, without losing the beautiful, outside character. I had my own private, fully-furnished room with a large window and wash-basin. I shared my bathroom and kitchen with a couple of other students, but because our schedules were so different, we never had any issues with the availability of the various facilities in the flat. The kitchen was a fantastic place to socialise and make friends, and even despite my flat had no such tradition, I know that many others cooked and ate their meals together. The halls had their own, dedicated study space with printers accessible with our uni cards. There was a nice patio where students congregated when weather allowed, though the nearby pubs and campus common spaces were more popular. In my second year I ended up renting a small studio Kensington—which only goes to show that London can offer fantastic bargains if you look hard enough. I very much enjoy having a private place that is properly mine—I like to cook, so a private kitchenette is a massive benefit. I know that many like to rent a larger property together, but because of the pandemic and my general attitude to sharing space, I chose to have my own place. Commute was not an issue, of course—because everything took place online—but I do recommend that you check the tube and bus routes to uni before choosing a place! The key, I think, is to look early, look hard, and speak with established, respectable agencies—be it large or small, local ones, to ensure you are safe and sound.
What was the student life like?
UCL is among the largest universities in the country, and has a massive international student population, so uni life is an interesting, vibrant, and exhilarating experience. In normal circumstances there are usually tonnes of events to attend every day of the week, all mixing entertainment, socialising, and some form of education. The fantastic thing is, you always meet new people from around the world, and always have someone to chat to or meet up with. The numerous student bars, and frequently-organised pub crawls are an amazing opportunity to make friends, explore London, and have loads of fun. Some, of course, prefer a quieter life of studying, going to galleries and sipping tea or coffee all around London—I think I took the sensible middle road that allowed me to make a great number of friends, but also explore London on my own and ensure I finished the first year with good marks. The second year, naturally because of the pandemic, had much fewer opportunities to socialise safely, but whenever possible and safe, I would meet my friends for a walk or a pint. As I mentioned before, the university ensured a great number of virtual events, and some limited in-person events for those living in halls. Despite the pandemic I continue to feel connected to my university, department, and friends.
Was there time for extra-curricular activities?
The way my course was structured, I had and continue to have a lot of time for myself. Because I can typically choose when I want to study, I can always arrange my time to have a few (or a dozen) hours just to myself. In my first year I was involved in two societies, had time for pubs and parties, with a bit of time left to explore London. In my second year, despite having taken up employment, I still manage to go out, watch my favourite tv series or learn a new language, though I know that people on other courses may need to spend much more time on their study. During the pandemic the societies still run an interesting array of events with fantastic guest speakers, and there are continuous opportunities to do some paid or voluntary work. The university education at UCL is, I think, designed to facilitate a healthy lifestyle, equally divided between study, activities, leisure, and rest.
How did the Covid-19 pandemic impact my experience at University?
Because so much of our work is based in own research, the Covid-19 pandemic has not impacted the quality of my degree too much. I actually welcomed the pre-recorded lectures which I could watch whenever I wanted—it helped me organise my time better. Similarly, we all welcomed the take-home exams format, because it put more emphasis on our ability to reason, use sources, and write well, rather than to recall facts learnt by heart weeks before. UCL also put in place fantastic measures to ensure we always had access to relevant, necessary sources. First, all of the required reading was available online, so that students who could not come to London were not disadvantaged. Second, we were given larger access to Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press publications free of charge. Third, the university started a ‘scan and deliver’ service that allowed us to request that scans be made of books available only in our physical libraries and sent to us via email. During the second lockdown the libraries remained open for pick-up services, with some study spaces being made available after Christmas 2020. Last, marking schemes were adjusted, and requirements for a first and 2:1 dropped by a percent or two. My personal tutor always made sure to check up on me through email, and I had a number of chats with her via zoom. Additionally, the university called every one of us once or twice to ensure that we are doing well, and giving out details how to reach any help should we need it. I am aware that some other degrees were impacted more than mine, but as far as I know, the measures the university put in place were at least adequate. As I indicated here and in previous sections, the uni experience in pandemic was not as bad as some reports would have it, and I actually quite enjoyed it. This year passed amazingly quickly, and I am looking forward what the next one will bring!
What have I gained from my degree?
Apart from the various history-related skills such as research, analysis of sources, and academic writing, UCL taught me how to learn in an effective and interesting way—an essential skill not taught well at many secondary schools. The crucial thing is, I think, that all the skills I learnt are transferable and useful in nearly any workplace; university really does prepare you for adult life, helping you become an independent, adult person. Humanities, and history in particular, give an amazingly wide outlook on life, broadening perspectives, and teaching one to approach everything analytically, but with a sense of understanding and compassion, to communicate well with various audiences, and write solid, academic prose—useful for those hoping for an academic career, but also for ones with other plans for the future.