Across the Decades: Life in Uni with Alicia Davies and Nicky Van Der Bij
In the second installment of our series of MA student interviews exploring the exhilarating spirit of learning, awakenings and a rich diversity of routes to the Professional Writing MA careers in writing, Alicia Davies and Nicky Van Der Bij share their stories about their time as undergrads.
Nicky did a BA in French and European Studies at UEA in Norwich from 1991 to 1995. She spent her third year as a language assistant in a school in Paris. Alicia did a BA in Philosophy at the Université de Mirail in Toulouse, from 2013-2016. She spent her third year abroad in Montreal, Canada.
Here are Alicia and Nicky in conversation.
Alicia: Nicky, what do you remember about your first week at uni?
Nicky: I remember the anxious excited feeling I had when I arrived with my parents at UEA on my first day. I was wearing a stripy Breton shirt and dungarees. I remember my parents leaving me in my little beige room in halls, closing the door behind them. I remember sitting on the single bed and feeling a sudden loneliness listening to people milling about the corridor outside the door, wishing my parents had just left the door open.
I’m not sure how long it was before I summoned up the courage to open up the door again and venture out, but I eventually did. My diary entry for Wednesday 2 October 1991 says, ‘Here I am, at UEA. Met rest of corridor in the kitchen, four Americans, a German, and 10 or so Brits. Later, after we’d all gone to the campus pub together, we went back to someone’s room.’ I described this girl Jo who had decided to roll a joint, ‘Took her ages, showing off, went on about being a veggie and yet eats chicken. And then said, “You in the dungarees” when she felt like talking to me. Don’t like her much.’ We never did get on.
Alicia: I never had that student dorm experience! I probably would have done had I studied in England, but it’s more common in France to live in rented accommodation from the first year (dorm rooms are 12m2 and extremely pricey). I spent my first year sharing a ground floor, rat-infested flat with a Spanish Erasmus student. It was a bit grim, but we got on well and we organised some memorable parties (successfully scaring the rats away for the first few months at least…). A part of me has always wanted to go back and have the whole halls experience. Then again, I’m really glad to have done my BA in France. University costs there are a blessing. They range from cheap to free, depending on your parent’s income. I think my parents paid something like €240 a year for my studies (including my year in Canada).
Nicky: What do you remember about your first day? What were your first impressions?
Alicia: My only memory of my first day is that I got lost and I bumped into someone who was wearing some very funky jewelry. He looked like somebody who could be studying philosophy, so I went up to him and found out he was, like me, a lost philosophy student. We went looking for our first lecture together. We spent that first lesson zoning out while the tutor droned on about Ethics. He played me a strange sitar song on his phone. We’re still good friends today (in fact, just yesterday he showed me a song played on the kobza, an ancient Ukrainian folk instrument!).
I suppose in those first few days of uni I discovered that a lot of the teaching was quite traditional and perhaps not as quirky as I’d originally hoped. I ended up valuing friendships over my studies. Friendships… and lots of watching Game of Thrones! Watching the final season this year has really brought me back to those early university years, sitting on sofas with friends, discussing dragons and sadistic kings and queens…
Alicia: Is there anything that brings you back? A song, maybe?
Nicky: All the Brit pop anthems take me back to UEA, anything by Blur and Pulp, and particularly Sit Down by James, and the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go – which continues to resonate with my ongoing procrastination. There were two or three live bands a week on campus at UEA , plus a club night. I saw James, Blur, The Farm, Jamiroquai… Rolf Harris (I know!)
University in Context
Nicky: What events – personal, political, world – stood out for you during your BA, and why?
Alicia: I remember there being strikes all the time, and I never particularly understood what they were about. Student strikes, teacher strikes. Once, students blocked access to the university for three weeks before the Christmas break and all lessons were cancelled. The university had become a squat by the time we got back! I remember a homeless man wandering into one of my lectures with a dog, looking for a place to sleep.
Francois Hollande was president at the time, and no one particularly liked him. His nickname was ‘Flanby’ (a trademark French desert, wobbly caramel custard).
I’d say one thing that does stand out are the terrorist attacks, first Charlie Hebdo in 2015 then the 13th November Paris attacks later in the same year. We were all shocked by Charlie Hebdo and I remember attending a march in honour of the victims. I was in Canada at the time of the 13th November attacks and so a long way away from home, but I was really upset when I heard about it and my friends were deeply shaken. France really had a bad year!
Common ground: France
You spent a year in France as part of your degree, didn’t you? Was it as common to do a study year abroad as it is now?
Nicky: Most students of modern languages had the opportunity to either study or work abroad as part of their degree. I felt extremely privileged to get a Paris placement which was down to taking a TEFL option as part of my degree. For assessment purposes, it was easier if those students were located close together. I shared an apartment in the 5th arrondissment, near Le Jardin de Luxembourg. I remember we received generous financial benefits as teachers in France on top of our British student grant. I’d work at the school in the mornings, and then have the rest of the afternoon to wander around the city, visit the galleries and museums (all free for teachers) and people-watch in the cafes. I’d walk everywhere so I knew the city well – I can’t believe I’ve not been back since…
Alicia: That sounds like a wonderful experience…and so French! Was living in France much of a culture shock for you?
Nicky: I don’t remember a culture shock as regards the French. I do remember feeling incredibly intimidated by the Oxbridge students I shared the apartment with – we’d met on the induction week and none of us having found anywhere to live yet, found a place together. I was a country girl from the Fens, aspirational, but with a relatively sheltered upbringing. We all got on well, but I was in awe of their apparent worldliness.
Nicky: How did you end up doing your degree in France?
Alicia: My parents moved to France with my older brother and I when I was 13 and I had traditional French schooling from that age, so it felt logical to carry on my studies in France.
Nicky: How did you cope with learning at degree level in French?
Alicia: Although I struggled to learn French to begin with, constant contact with the language meant that by the time I started the degree, I was already more or less fluent. My biggest worry had been getting my Baccalaureate at 18, and when I found out I’d passed, I felt like I could achieve anything. Of course, reading Aristotle and Descartes in French was a bit tough but I don’t know if it would have been any easier if it had been in English…! Philosophy has a specific vocabulary in any language, and I acquired that vocabulary in French.
Alicia: Why did you choose to study French and European Studies?
Nicky: I was determined that I was going to travel and work in other countries, so I think that could have been my primary motivation. I’m not sure I’d given it that much thought. A diary entry from my first week reads, ‘Went to a French meeting. It was in French – quite a shock.’
From graduate to postgraduate
Alicia: Has your career benefited from having a degree?
Nicky: I don’t think the subject itself has had a bearing on my career, but some of the stuff has been useful in the odd pub quiz! Being a graduate has been important. After taking a couple of years out to travel, I went on to do a postgraduate NCTJ course before becoming a newspaper reporter, which led to work as a features writer and magazine editor. So, there is a kind of thread from my BA to my MA in Professional Writing.
Nicky: How has your BA influenced your MA?
Alicia: I don’t remember much about all the different philosophers and their different philosophies, but I did find that studying philosophy taught me how to ask questions. What is science, what is religion, what is democracy? What is the definition of ‘truth’? Of ‘reality’? Are you sure? I learnt how to analyse, how to ask the right questions, and I’d say those analytical skills have really helped in studying Professional Writing. Perpetual questioning is a good way of finding new and interesting angles when writing fiction and non-fiction alike.
Nicky: What differences have you noticed between your experiences in France and at Falmouth?
Alicia: They’re incomparable! The biggest difference is myself, how I’ve grown and evolved throughout the years. I’m more passionate about my MA subject so I find that my life revolves a lot more around my studies than it did when I was doing my BA. I find that there’s a lot more room for creativity and creative thinking in the British educational system, so I’d say I feel freer to be myself in my studies. I work a lot harder than I did, and the workload is generally a lot higher, but because it’s all creative stuff, I’m happy dedicating a lot of time to it. My BA was about finding myself as a very young adult, and my MA is more about finding myself in my writing. I’m sure there’s a lot more soul-searching to come.
Alicia: How have you found being a student again?
Nicky: I’ve loved it. I love the energy and creativity and uninhibited daring I see here. I still have insecurities about my work, but life experience has given me so much more confidence than I had then, to ask questions and not worry so much about what people think.
Alicia: How different has it been this time round?
Nicky: There was a lot of more drinking and so much more obsessing about boys than I’ve experienced on my MA! Re-reading my diary from then it was obscene how much energy I wasted wondering whether I would see Tom or Chris, or that week’s obsession, that day!
The biggest difference is communication. A ritual, at least once daily, was checking my pigeon-hole for messages (open shelves where your internal and external letters were placed). It was the only way to track people down and make arrangements.
There was a phone in my halls of residence for calling home, but there was always a queue. Long distance relationships were by letter, so usually fizzled out by Christmas in the first year. Mine did anyway!
Also, online library catalogues are life changing! Spending hours trawling through dusty shelves of books was soul destroying if you didn’t find what you were looking for. You can get that information in seconds now, before even getting out of bed. And back then, according to my diary, I never got up before 10am, as I’m sure many readers of this still don’t. Enjoy it while it lasts. With two young children, those days are gone for me….!
And we never called it uni. It was always university. I blame the Aussie soaps like Home and Away for that.
by Alicia Davies and Nicky Van Der Bij