This week I’ve been lucky enough to see my uni friends several times. I’ve known these girls my entire adult life; from that first terrifying step into the unknown – September 2005, Whiteknights Hall, University of Reading – through marriages, breakups, births and deaths – we’ve experienced all the good and bad that life has thrown at us so far. There are no other friendships like the ones we make at university, and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to create them.
High-quality degree aside, I suppose the best thing about uni was how it broadened my horizons. Coming from Solihull I hadn’t exactly had a sheltered childhood, but my experience had been limited to a certain group of people. To meet so many people from so many different backgrounds was completely thrilling; I heard a South African accent for the first time, met people who’d been to boarding school, someone who lived next door to the Sultan of Brunai, a guy who drove a red BMW (who also happened to be a second year – that was simply beyond grown up and cool), someone from Essex (this was of course pre-TOWIE; I knew nothing!). I was amazed by the confience of these people, by the way they were so comfortable in their own skins. Everybody thought the Midlands was ‘up North’; I was confused.
On that first day, my parents stayed the night in Reading, fearing that I would be homesick, scared, alone (I was, after all, the girl who was sick on the way to her college induction through nerves). But they needn’t have worried; I grew in confidence the second I had made my single bed, set up my VCR and stuck my Greenday poster on the wall. This wasn’t school: emerging as individuals with no back stories or reputations, no preconceived ideas of each other based upon a scroll through Facebook or a quick Google, we all just wanted to be friends. One of the first people I met became one of my best friends; she said she liked my hair (still a stripey mullet at that point) and the rest is history (I didn’t know any girls who wore Nike trainers – how frightfully cool and exciting!).
I was lucky enough to be living in catered halls with a huge dining room (complete with long tables, plastic jugs of orange squash and dinner ladies spooning corrugated carrot slices – amongst other culinary delights – onto your plate) and their own bar – the Junior Common Room, or JCR. The JCR committee were the coolest group of people I could have ever imagined. They were second years, and they were committed to getting you drunk. I can still vividly remember that first week: pub crawls, fancy dress, afternoon naps, a trip to town to buy posters, an introduction to Snakebite. Time seemed to go on forever. Someone’s sister visited for the weekend and it felt like she had joined our friendship group permanently. We still talk about her massive gold handbag!
It wasn’t a grown up existence at all, but with a bank account bounteous with my student loan (which now seems more likely to be cancelled out through death rather than my ever actually managing to pay it back) and an interest-free overdraft begging to be spent, I was afforded a freedom like never before. The freedom to go to Primark and buy a chunky sequinned belt, to order pizza at 1 in the morning, to collect enough hoodies that meant no other type of clothing was ever required before 7pm.
Very little work occurred for the majority of that year – we rolled out of bed 15 minutes before a lecture, threw on a hoodie and came back to bed an hour later. Whilst our fellow science and maths-studying students struggled through 9-5 lectures every day, us English Lit girls moaned when we had to get up for a 10am.
We illegally downloaded music, spent hours binging on TV series like Lost and Scrubs, religiously watched Neighbours once (sometimes twice) a day. We played Super Mario Kart on an old TV in the kitchen, drank cans of Castlemaine XXXX with the boys and Cherry Lambini if we were feeling fancy. We went out most nights (usually for less than £10) and in fancy dress at least once a month – costumes generally created using a pair of 99p coloured tighted from Primark and a piece of shiny fabric.
Our experiences of this time are cemented in our brains forever, only partially captured as a set of badly-framed digital photographs from a time pre-selfie. The poor girl who was sick in the first Shakespeare lecture of the second year sadly still sometimes gets a mention when we reminisce (I’m so sorry; I honestly hope it didn’t scar you forever).
It freaks me out that this experience happened over 10 years ago: how an 18 year old today (who was born in 1998!) will have a completely different experience to mine; there will be no digital cameras, no £5 nights out, no MSN Messenger or sending emails from the library.
When we did get Facebook during second year, never in a million years could I have imagined how social media would explode, how part of my proper grown up job would involve managing accounts on these sites. We just wore what each other wore (denim skirt, vest top, chunky belt – obviously); there was very little outside influence – no apps to scroll through in moments of boredom, no YouTube vidoes to teach us how to contour, no wifi, no high-res camera phones, no Daily Mail circle of shame. We lived in a strange limbo where the digital world was rapidly speeding towards us – we had mobile phones with internet (although God help anyone who accidently pushed that button to launch it – did they think we were made of money?!), we had iPods, we had email addresses and Bebo accounts – but today’s world of instant updates, of viral photographs, of likes and shares and followers and two blue ticks on Whatsapp wasn’t yet upon us.
My memories of university aren’t ones created for social media; they don’t have filters to make me look more tanned; they aren’t carefully curated to ensure my experience looks better than everyone elses. That first year at university shaped me as an adult, it gave me some of my best friends and it enabled me to be one hundred percent myself. I’m so grateful for that time of my life, and I am beyond grateful that we got to do all of it before social media, that we didn’t feel the pressure young girls must now feel to create Instagram-perfect makeup, to dress like Kylie Jenner, to take the perfect selfie, to be #couplegoals or #squadgoals. We were able to make our mistakes without them being added to someone’s Snapchat story or shared on Facebook for the world to see. I love the fact that my memories are recorded as slightly blurry, slightly unattractive photos. They are so real.