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Nostalgia for student days: is it really the best time of our lives?

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Each week, I feel my office making me more cynical. I can tell that the jokes I make are getting darker, and my inner voice swears a lot. On Tuesday, the other interns and I are taken to the stockroom. We are assured there is some vital work to be done there, which needs to be completed before we can get onto some meaningful research. The stockroom is a large garage full of books. The task is to record each book individually, onto a spreadsheet. This will take us weeks. Before we start, I overhear our manager – the only person in the room getting paid – thinking out loud:

‘I hate it when people say ‘Thank God it’s Friday’. If you don’t love your job, just quit!’

***

Last weekend, I revisited Cambridge, where I studied for three years. I remember studying there very fondly. It was the first time I felt understood by the people around me. Life there, at least when I first arrived, felt like a relief. It was a relief so powerful that it fostered a love of the university which has never really faded. I certainly had some miserable times, but even if you asked me at my lowest point what I thought of Cambridge, I’d have told you it’s special.

Interestingly, I’m not alone in feeling this way. I offered to do a Zoom survey last year for our Student Union, where we answered questions about our experiences. There were three or four freshers on the call, who had never experienced Cambridge apart from during lockdown. I felt sorry for them because they’d been denied everything that made my first few weeks so amazing. Except that’s not how they saw it: all three of them spoke about how great their time had been so far. They told us how Cambridge is a special place, how they felt like part of ‘something bigger’, even something ‘magical’. It made me wonder if really, I just had a great time because I felt proud to have gotten in; that, or it was the first time I had unlimited access to alcohol.

***

In Cambridge, the nostalgia didn’t hit me where I thought it would. I’d imagined it would be seeing the old stone buildings, or maybe the river Cam itself, along which I had rowed and walked more times than I can count. In reality, the nostalgia hit me hardest when I was buying drinks in Sainsbury’s. Empty shelves lit by neon, a plastic smell, the dark outside, and ignoring it all as I rushed to the drinks aisle; this was a ritual I had performed every week for three years. I also felt a pang at seeing how one of my friends was dressed, in visibly soft trackies and a sweatshirt. It made me think of the cosiness of being a student. I was always tucked away in a jumper in a library, or in bed with a book and a cup of tea. Nostalgia, at least for me, happens when I’m reminded of how I used to live. The place doesn’t matter.

***

The tabloids love to paint students as bums. Here is Rod Liddle in the Spectator: 

If you have a student son or daughter who’s thinking of voting, shove some high-grade skunk under their bedroom door the day before the poll. You can lace the skunk with horse tranquilisers if you wish — do anything, just stop them voting. Pay them not to vote, or organise a rave with bangin’ choons for polling day. 

Put skunk under the door, and students will smoke it: that’s what they do all day, isn’t it? Oh, apart from raving to “bangin’ choons”. Whilst I detest the depiction of students in this article, part of what I miss about being a student is being able to be a slob. Waking up at 2 PM feels bad, but having the freedom to wake up at 2 PM feels wonderful. I was struck, when I visited my friends’ student houses, by how little the mess bothered me; empty bottles and dirty plates seem fitting in student homes. Mess is part of the aesthetic.

But when I was organising things with friends, I noticed that they were always – no matter what – scheduling in work on either side. I could meet them at the library, get a coffee, then walk them back to the library; or they could have some drinks in the evening, but then not lunch the next day, else they’d fall behind. There’s no upper limit to how much you can study. For students, this means all time is technically time they could spend working. Everything else they do becomes an allowance out of work-time. Despite their reputation for laziness, no one’s life revolves more around their work.

***

At ‘pres’, I spoke to someone I had seen around quite a lot as a student, but never properly spoken to. He was doing a master’s. He asked me about life on the outside. I told him honestly that I missed a lot about university, but that all the same, I was doing fine. Then I asked him about his experience staying on at university.

‘Yeah I mean… fourth-year is okay. It’s very different from undergrad, you know… Post-grad’s a lot more work, and there’s more pressure now.’

He spoke with a sense of loss. I asked him about our college, and whether it still felt like a tight-knit community.

‘I think a lot of that sort of disappears as a postgrad. Loads of people have left now, so there are only a few of us here from our year. Obviously, you can still go to the library and walk around college, and we go out sometimes, but it’s got a very different feel to undergrad.’ 

He drew that same distinction, between postgraduate and undergraduate studies. And with that same sense of loss. It became evident to me that he missed being an undergraduate in the same way that I missed being a student. Our feelings paralleled each others. I realised that things change, even if you don’t. You can keep studying, but you can’t make it feel how it did when you first arrived. It’s like how you can reread a book you love, but the twists won’t surprise you anymore. You can’t go to uni for the first time again. 

When I think of it in this way, the nostalgia disappears. Being a student isn’t magical. Student parties aren’t the best parties, students’ work isn’t the easiest, and student housing might actually be the worst kind there is. It was just genuinely novel to us, once. Eventually, he said what we had both been thinking.

‘Some people say being a student is the best time of your life, but…’ He made a doubtful face, inviting me to disagree with them ‘…surely it can’t be.’

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