Higher Education Academy Essay Competition 2006:
How does your experience of the course compare with any expectations you may have had?
David Cardenas-Mazurkiewicz, Royal Holloway University of London
The expectations I had of courses at university were never a distinct concept. When I applied to study English and German literature at Royal Holloway, I knew I would encounter something unknown to me. I was aware that I would be challenged to expand my mind and that the academic demands would exceed anything I had encountered before. My educational background is very different from the experiences other students may have had. I spend most of my secondary education in a classroom environment, where teachers merely presented facts in order for me to absorb them, providing explanations where necessary. Anything creative or analytical had to come from within me, the only spark of inspiration coming from the skeleton of facts provided by the teachers and their guidance. Only when I switched schools for the final two years prior to attending university did I realise the vast difference between learning in a classroom and learning in a seminar, which is the equivalent of throwing out the textbook. In this scenario the teacher is no longer the strong, unquestioned figure of authority he had been in years past. They become a mentor in the pursuit of knowledge.
Having experienced both a strict classroom environment and the intellectually stimulating concept of the seminar, I was hoping to adjust quickly to the structure of university courses and follow the same path I had followed before. Nonetheless, the first lecture I experienced, Introduction to Poetry, opened my eyes. That was the moment when I would no longer look at a piece of paper and see facts. In an instant I realised that I would have to look beyond them and immerse myself in the subject. When I was younger, that prospect had always excited me, since I had considered university studies the pinnacle of education.
I felt deflated walking out of the lecture, not knowing whether I could rise to the challenge. The bubble had burst. Indeed, this experience exceeded all my expectations. I found myself scribbling down notes of which I didn’t know whether they would make any sense later.
The aspect of individuality became much more important. I had the impression that in a lecture there was simply no time to breathe and contemplate the facts. I was challenged to absorb and mould them into something I could understand at the same time. My mind was stretched to new limits in that single moment. The intellectual challenge was quite daunting, because henceforth the material in question would always be intellectually challenging and contemplating facts would no longer be enough, which was a whole new experience.
I learned to look at the lines and see beyond them, knowing if I could master that skill, what inspired doubt and uncertainty now would soon be the source of excitement and joy. Then the courses I had chosen would fulfil and challenge me how I had always wanted to be challenged.
This desire was quenched in my seminars. I was glad to be surrounded by many exciting people new to my life, not yet knowing they would influence my life positively beyond the class room. Today I am bound to some of them by friendship and affection. This connection makes me feel alive and motivates me all the more. They are no longer strangers.
I consider this sense of togetherness and comfort essential, for it is only when one has a clear mind that it can be filled with wisdom. The expectations I have had of university were fulfilled in the seminars. I realised that the purpose of the lecture was to provide a foundation, like shaving the rough sections of a piece of wood to provide a smooth surface to sculpt into something beautiful and unique.
The seminar leader held the file and grinding paper. Although I would still be his apprentice, I always had the impression that a good seminar leader had the ability to make me feel as though they appreciated me as an equal, which is a cornerstone of opening a student’s mind to new ideas and encourage them to think on their own two feet.
I soon realised the views and thoughts of my fellow students sparked my imagination. The discussions I have experienced were often very animated, which is symbolic of what university studies and the expectations I had of my course had always represented. The seminars were not just based on facts and figures, meaningless pages in a dusty book. They were vibrant and alive, driven by young minds. Some lecturers made a very strong impression on me, in that they were not elderly people with glasses with a lot of experience, without an understanding of the fresh views that their students confront them with. They were eager to inspire enthusiasm in their students. I recall the seminar leader of my course on Dickens, Elliott and Gaskell, Dr. Ruth Livesey, as very lively. When she held her lecture about particular text, her face would light up and her voice was filled with enthusiasm, which was a quantum leap from what I had imagined lecturers to be. She was passionate about the texts on the course and the questions they raised. The lectures on Shakespeare were charged with emotion and electricity. They encouraged me to savour the plays as an intricate work of art, filled linguistic finesse, progressive and imaginative thought.
In the three years I have attended university, I feel I have grown intellectually. My initial experiences challenged my mind to adjust to a more analytical approach. The words were no longer important. Discovering the message wrapped in them and the reason for it nurtured my intellect. My first encounter with university studies may have been filled with doubt and uncertainty. Yet only when it is continuously challenged can the mind grow and take you further than where you ever expected to go. What I experienced in my courses wasn’t what I expected, it was more.