When I didn’t get either of my preferences for student accommodation, I decided not to worry about it. So long as I had a place to sleep near campus, I didn’t care what that place looked like. My thinking was that if I spent energy trying to micromanage my living situation to make it as comfortable as possible, that would already be giving in to an anxious mindset. Whenever I worried about what my life in halls would be like, I told myself that trying to control the uncontrollable was a fool’s game. I told myself that whatever my living arrangement looked like, I would deal with it. In general, I’m trying to be more comfortable with the unknown. I think if I can learn to embrace uncertainty, I’ll be happier.
It’s an ongoing process. I’m trying to get into the habit of not imagining too hard what the future will look like. I know from past experience that my imagination has no fucking idea what it’s on about. Usually, it can only conceive of extremes- things going either unrealistically perfect or comically terrible. But real life is rarely so polarized. I always come back to the example of my student exchange at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in the United States; it’s far and away the best decision I ever made, but it wasn’t an unmitigated success. I still had moments of weakness, doubt, and sadness. Everything that happened there- both good and bad- was completely unexpected. So with that in mind, I prepared for my time in halls at Kingston University by expecting the unexpected. I had a strong conviction that the desire to control comes from an anxious mindset, and I wanted to foster a confident mindset.
Confidence to me involves being loose, flexible, spontaneous. But true confidence- healthy confidence- involves striking a balance between that kind of openness and being authentic to oneself. I thought about how I feel whenever I say “yes” or “no” to something, whether it’s communicated verbally or simply implicit in my actions. Sometimes yes can feel empowering, and sometimes it can feel disenfranchising. It’s the same with no. For example, saying “yes” feels like an act of courage when you’re confronting yourself, but it feels like an act of weakness when you’re confronting others. And vice versa: no reinforces our worst self-images in the context of confronting an opportunity to test our fears but it makes us feel powerful when used to set boundaries with others. Self-possession is important to our mental health- but so is having friends, and sometimes it can feel like those two are at odds. I knew before I moved into halls that being able to balance the two would be the key to my success.
The first surprise I got when I moved in was finding out just how many postgrad students I was living with. I fully expected to be living with rowdy, wide-eyed freshmen yearning for adventure and reveling in their newfound independence. There were two reasons for this: firstly, I figured most postgrads probably opted for private housing, and secondly, the two halls I’d been denied were described as the halls designated for postgrads. Therefore, I had to be in the halls for freshmen, right?
I started my undergraduate degree in 2011. And now in 2021, exactly ten years later, I was moving back into student accommodation alongside 18-year-olds to go through “Fresher’s Week” once again. It seemed surreal to think of it that way. It made me wonder what had really happened of significance in those ten years. A big part of me still doesn’t feel like an adult. And yet I can sense 30 waiting for me next year like a trapdoor spider.
Just like ten years ago, nothing was as I expected it to be. Upon arrival at my halls of residence, I was struck by how many postgrads there were. The place I’m staying is divided into approximately 60 buildings, known as blocks. Everyone in my block is a Master’s student. Most of the people I’ve met here are Master’s students. And the undergrads I have met- while not strangers to partying- are all mature, sensitive, accepting, and intelligent. I don’t feel different from them in any big way, and when we’re all out together I don’t see everyone in terms of whether they are undergrad or postgrad.
There’s also a lot of international students. Like, a helluva lot. I guess that’s not too surprising given that I’m in London now, a city with a huge international appeal, but it’s still striking how much cross-cultural exchange I’ve engaged in since coming here. I feel like the university is a microcosm of the city of London as a whole, a cosmopolitan space that, like many international cities, feels somehow distinct from the rest of its country. London feels like it’s part of something bigger than the U.K., which is why I wanted to come here. In many ways, my experience at KU so far feels like a halfway point between my time at Winchester and my time as a foreign exchange student at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in the U.S.A. In Winchester, I felt like I was in a place like any other in this country. In Eau Claire, I was a stranger in a strange land, culturally-distinct from everyone around me. London is the midpoint. I’m not a stranger among natives and I’m not a native among natives; I’m part of a diverse melting pot, in which the city is equally alluring and strange to all of us. I love it. This is the kind of space I want to live in- a place where I feel connected to a thousand other places all the time.
I’m the only person in my block from the U.K. I have two roommates, one from Mumbai and the other from Tokyo. London seems massive to me, but both of them have grown up in cities that make it look small in comparison. I’ve learned so much from them, and I cherish our long conversations where we share insights from our homes.
On the first weekend I went to a “Move-In Mixer” held on the field next to our halls. The barbecue was kinda lame, but I quickly met a dozen people from various places. An Architecture student from sunny Valencia. A Historic Building Conservation student (and kayak enthusiast) from York. A Digital Media student from Szaflary, a village in the picturesque mountains of Poland. A Finance student from tropical Chennai. A Geography student from right here in Kingston. An Economics student from Weston-Super-Mare, a little place half an hour from my hometown infamous for its sinister characters. And many more from places all around the globe.
Throughout the first few weeks I surprised myself in various ways in the company of this motley crew. As I mentioned earlier, I came here with a commitment to being open. Not just to new experiences, but new connections. One of the mistakes I made at undergrad was making too many negative assumptions; if things didn’t go perfectly straight away then I assumed something was wrong with me, that the other person/people didn’t like me, or that I was fundamentally incompatible with them. I didn’t allow potential relationships the chance to grow. If the slightest thing didn’t go right, I would retreat in fear. Now, ten years later, I think I’ve learned a few things. For example, that each person is the protagonist of their own story, that each person has been shaped by different stimuli, different reference points, different cultural backgrounds, et cetera. That each person perceives the same thing from a unique angle, and that it takes time to see things the way they’re seeing them. That social missteps are more recoverable than you think. That when a person looks at you, they don’t actually see what your insecurities tell you they do.
Suddenly having an active social life after the monotony of lockdown was jarring- but in a good way. The night of the Move-In Mixer, we rambled without direction, collecting newcomers as we went, exchanging social media details, apologizing for our inability to remember names, our number in a constant state of flux as people came and went like a swarm of fireflies. We expanded and contracted and expanded again, commenting on how many foxes roamed the city streets at night and marveling at how people managed to cope before the invention of Google Maps. I distinctly remember my legs aching a lot in that first week. We explored the Surbiton high street and took in the much-hyped Town House building at the Penrhyn Road campus. One night, I met a friend in his kitchen to hang out, and the next thing I knew I was dancing in the middle of a field with about 20 people. A Creative Writing student (and professional DJ) from California blasted techno music from her portable speakers. It was the kind of thing that I probably wouldn’t have said yes to had I known about it in advance. But it just sorta happened spontaneously, and when it did, I was surprised how comfortable I was dancing with strangers whilst completely sober. My friend from York said, “Just cut some shapes,” and everything seemed to make sense. Everyone was comfortable just being goofy and a little silly. People saw us, came over, and the circle kept getting bigger. We took it in turns dancing in the center while others cheered, celebrating the loosening of inhibition. It felt premodern, like we were harkening back to something ancient that happened on these same fields before the Romans showed up on their galleys.
“Yes…YES!” my friend said of the music. “Someone’s been sampling the FUCK out of Henry VIII.”
By the end of the night, I was exhausted. But I felt alive. On another occasion I joined a couple friends to go rock climbing, mostly because I just wanted to socialize, but to my surprise I ended up really enjoying it. I’m afraid of heights, but it was a blast. I played card games on a picnic bench with only the moon for light and I discussed the many merits of The Witcher 3 in a shisha bar that served amazing milkshakes. In the common room I played table football, ate kaju katli for the first time, and bestowed pets on the cat that lives there. His name is Tyrone. I stayed up until 4am playing Ring of Fire in a bedroom way too small for the amount of people in attendance, thinking to myself “This has to be the most quintessentially uni thing I’ve ever done.”
Feeling hungry one night, I ran out to the convenience store at 10:30pm to buy some Pringles before it closed. Somehow, I ended up in an underground nightclub, wearing my chilling-in-my-room-whilst-binging-AoE2-streams clothes as well as my trusty school backpack, and once again dancing sober until my muscles ached. In general, I’m not a fan of clubbing, but I had a strong feeling that week that it would do me some good to venture outside my comfort zone. On the way back we stopped for fried chicken, entertained a respectful debate on veganism with a passing skateboarder, and once again counted the many foxes scurrying about the alleyways.