As Valentine’s Day approaches, I can’t help but remember just two years ago when I was crazy in love and whisked off my feet with all the hearts and roses that come with the holiday. A romantic dinner for two and a year later, who knew that I would spend my next Valentine’s Day at a Half Moon Party in Thailand more single than I had been in a decade, that two years on I would be preparing to spend the day at a festival with good friends. It’s amazing how much your life can change with your relationship status and it’s only been since I left my nine year relationship to come traveling that I have really noticed how much others really let their relationships rule their lives and their decisions. Even now, when I tell people I left behind such a long-term relationship to travel the world solo, they look at me incredulously and think I’m slightly crazy - but then I ask, wouldn’t it be crazier to put your dreams on hold and end up resenting the person you love the most? Begrudgingly they nod in agreement, but then you seem them do it again, and again, and again. Sacrificing their studies, their hobbies, their families and homes, all for a love that changes their world but not always for the better.
Two years ago, for Valentine’s, I wrote a blog post entitled “Relationships | What’s it really like to have a boyfriend at university?” which has still remained one of my most popular posts. It seems that the title of this post was something that several young women found themselves typing into Google as they tried to plan a future with their loves, tried to make a decision about their own education and future, and tried to keep the balance between what their head and heart were screaming. Over the last two years, this post has probably received the most comments and messages above all of my others, and it seems to be a bit of a hot topic for young ladies who are about to advance to this stage of their lives. Sixth Form and College is around the time when many young couples start pairing off and often you’ll find your first love, I certainly did. It’s a great time, when you’re learning what it’s like to first love another person, to be part of a real adult relationship and to be regarded as a “real” couple instead of foolish young teenagers. It’s easy for this love to take over your life a bit and we all went through that phase where we didn’t want to leave each others’ side, but then comes the pressures of university - whether you decide to go or not, often this can be the decider for whether many couples will survive. Often one half of the couple will have a longing to continue their studies as I did, while the other half will have a plan to either study elsewhere, or not at all. So what do you do when this happens?
So many girls have written to me explaining how worried they are that their relationship will not withstand the pressures of university and separation. I’ve had some asking whether I think they will make it when their other half already spends his time eying up other girls or flirting, I’ve had others ask whether the distance will be a problem, and I’ve had far too many asking whether I think they should change their lifelong university preference to attend the same school as their boyfriend. Something I want to make clear is that I have always been a very independent person, so has my ex-boyfriend and thats part of the reason we loved each other so much - we both trusted each other to give as much space as needed throughout the nine years and I think that’s why we were so happy throughout. When it came to me choosing my university and course, he had no input into my choice. I told him all about the universities I visited and about what my options were, but that was the extent of his influence. I made my choice of university based wholly on the course content, the campus, the people and the feeling of the place - from the moment I stepped on to the campus at University of Hertfordshire, I knew this was the place I had to spend the next three years of my life. Because that’s what it was - my life. Not his, although he was a huge part of my life after three years. But I knew that regardless of where I was, what I studied or how far apart we were, if we truly loved each other we would make it work. And if it didn’t work, I certainly didn’t want to be anywhere but my first choice of university.
The same happened when I came traveling - I made the decision separately that this was what I wanted to do, just like my other half decided he wanted to go to university to study. Independently we knew what was right for each of us, and mutually when we discussed it, we came to a decision that we both had to go our separate ways in order to be happy. Whether it was a permanent or temporary decision is another matter, but we both knew we had to do this otherwise we would end up resenting each other. It was easily the hardest decision of my life, but now, over a year after I left, I can tell you it was the best decision I ever made. Much like my choice of university, it has led me to one of the happiest times of my life, and yes, it does mean I’ve had to say goodbye to an incredible relationship but it also means I’ve chosen to invest in myself. Because being single doesn’t mean being lonely - if anything, since being single I’ve never been surrounded by such love, light and laughter, I’ve actually made some of the best friends and family of my life. So many seem to stay in a relationship because they are scared of the alternative, but what are you really afraid of - not having anyone’s shadow to stand in? I look around and see so many young women in relationships that make them feel insecure, afraid or unhappy, and I wonder why they stay. I’m entirely independent and alone at this point in my life and I’ve never felt stronger, braver or happier. Being single has made me fearless, given me incredible confidence and made me really value myself as an individual.
I’m not saying that every woman out there should go dump her boyfriend this Valentine’s Day (that would be a bit mean wouldn’t it?!), I’m just saying that it is important to celebrate being independent and single as well as celebrating retaining your individual identity when you’re in a relationship. Don’t be afraid to make independent decisions within a relationship, especially when it will have a huge impact on your own life. It’s easy to get swept up in coupledom, to let your loins take over your thought processes but don’t forget that when it comes to things like education and travel - these are things that change the way you view the life you live. If you already fear that the change will challenge your relationship beyond repair, then perhaps that relationship was not as strong as you first thought. But that’s okay, some people are destined to dip in and out of our lives gently influencing us along the way, while others exist to shake our worlds to the very core, changing and rebuilding them in ways we never expected. It’s easy to get them mixed up and sometimes a big change like university or travel is needed to show one from the other. But whichever type of relationship you have, it’s not as important as the one you have with yourself - that is the one you should be investing the real time, effort and love into, because its the only one you can guarantee will last for life.
How do you remain independent within your relationship? Can you think of a time when you have put yourself above the relationship? What have you sacrificed for love - and was it worth it?
Travelling is one of the greatest learning curves you will ever have. You learn so much from heading outside your comfort zone, and doing it solo is one of the biggest character tests you can face in life. There is so much out there to experience, see and feel, and it really can change you as a person by bringing out that version of you that has always been waiting in the wings for your time to shine. There are so many reasons not to travel - money, commitments, relationships... The list goes on. But what about all those reasons to pack your bags and leave? What will you gain from it that you just won't get from staying at home and working that 9-5? I know travel isn't for everyone, and it holds no appeal for some people, but I do think that the values and personal lessons you gain from that time spent independently chasing your dreams are crucial to becoming the best version of yourself - however you choose to do this. So what do you learn? Well here are 10 things travellers have told me they have gained from heading off into the great unknown:
What have you learnt from travelling? What else have you gained from your travelling experiences? Tell us about the greatest learning curve you've faced on your travels...
Before discovering my love of journalism and writing could actually lead to a career, I had planned to become a teacher. An English teacher to be precise. When I went to university to study English literature with language and communication, that is what I wanted to do when I finished. I loved the idea of becoming that teacher who really inspires you, I was lucky enough to have a few like this who really spurred me on and inspired my love of learning from the very beginning to my last days in education. With two parents who both ended up working as lecturers in healthcare at a university and college near where I live, it seemed inevitable that I would inherit some of their teacher ways.
But I have to be honest, there was one thing in the back of my mind that put me off the idea of teaching, something that became a pet peeve of mine throughout later education - it was the attitude of students in the UK. Now don't get me wrong, I know there are many wonderful students out there who are eager to learn and develop. I also know there are many incredible teachers out there, some of them are friends of mine who stuck it out and are now working in schools across the country. But there are two factors in the UK that seem to be putting an extortionate amount of pressure on both sides, preventing them from being the best they can be and in some cases, stopping them from loving their job or learning.My concern lies with the government who are putting such ridiculous pressure and demands on teachers that they barely have time to notice when there are concerns over wellbeing of their students. The sheer amount of paperwork and time spent on fulfilling guidelines means often, as I have heard from some teachers firsthand, they don't feel they are doing their jobs properly and are sometimes expected to lie in order to fulfil certain criteria. It is ridiculous and I can't imagine I would cope well with such pressure, I have huge admiration for those who do on a daily basis.
The other big issue lies with the sense of entitlement in the UK - it really hit me when I came away and met so many people from various countries. I realised how much more dedicated they seem as students - how the majority of people I have met speak three or more languages fluently while most English people I meet seem to have only mastered English in their 18 years of education. How some people have gone to such lengths to achieve an education - like the Vietnamese woman who searched at length to find a scholarship programme so she could study in America for her PHD, studying in a different language, culture and on a new continent to become a doctor. It's inspiring to meet such people out here, but I can't help but feel a bit embarrassed when you think of the naughty students at home who used to disrupt the classroom and refuse to learn, who don't see the value in learning languages or maths and don't think past finishing school.While staying at Elephant Nature Park, we were asked to take part in an education programme run by the sanctuary by giving a morning up to go to the local school and teach English. The Park is very involved in the local villages as many of the men and women work at the Park and staff there make sure their children are sent to school, it's not just about the elephants - it's about ensuring a better way of life and a future for all involved. I jumped at the opportunity - teaching English abroad is something I've wanted to do for a while after knowing so many who have raved about the experience and how amazing it was. I chose a day in the middle of the week and was really looking forward to it. On the day, four of us volunteers headed out on a minibus to the village school where we were welcomed by the headteacher who was warm and friendly.
The school was a bit of a building site with construction ongoing in the middle, but the classrooms were laid out around a giant courtyard, they were bright and colourful. A quick decision was made, we would be spread across three classrooms and I was thrilled to have a class all to myself - I would be teaching students ranging from five to 18-years-old with the help of a local teacher who spoke minimal English. I love being thrown in at the deep end so this suited me perfectly, after checking out their workbooks for a clue of where they were up to in their studies, and after meeting the adorable, giggling students, I was ready to start. We ran through simple concepts they already knew slightly such as colours, foods, verbs, basic phrases and conversation, and had a good sing-song ones like head, shoulder, knees and toes, twinkle twinkle little star, the alphabet song and a few others. I was really impressed with what they already knew, it suggested their ability was much higher than I had anticipated which was great. The older and more fluent speakers were helping the younger ones to understand which meant we worked well together as a group and gave me the chance to try some trickier stuff with them later on.I had the most amazing time with the children that morning and felt like we were making so much progress that I couldn't resist staying for the afternoon when the other volunteers went back to the Park. After a lunchtime spent meeting the other children at the school, joining in a jam session with them, playing ping pong and chatting to the young girls, we were ready for round two. The classrooms were a lot stuffier in the heat of the day and you could tell the children were getting tired, but that didn't stop them for a second in their determination to learn and impress me. It was lovely to see how dedicated they were when I know full well that children in the UK would have been far more disruptive in the heat.
That afternoon we covered past, present and future tenses, complex phrases, adverbs and more conversation. We also worked on longer passages, firstly for pronunciation and then for meaning of longer and more unusual words. We translated a piece about a science experiment using rockets and worked on the hardest piece of the day - discussing a passage about April Fool's Day. Trust me, that is a hard enough concept to explain in English and it was nearly impossible to non-native speakers! But we got there in the end and I was so proud to see how well the children did - they picked up so much and helped each other to understand which was amazing. It actually mad me think that teaching English abroad might be something I would like to try for a while in the future.If you get an opportunity to go into a school while travelling and teach - whether English, music, maths or something else, snatch it with both hands. Even if you don't think you have the knowledge to do it, they can learn so much from you and it is such a rewarding experience. Often you don't need to have done a TEFL course and village schools will just have signs up asking for volunteers to come in, ask at your hostel and read notices. A friend of mine spotted a notice asking for those who can play musical instruments to come into a music course and help teach, he could play the guitar and jumped at the chance. Afterwards he said it was one of the best afternoons he has had travelling, that it was so much fun and they were wonderful students. It's a great way to give something back and if you choose to do the TEFL course, it's a great way to earn money while travelling.
Have you taught English while travelling? Tell me about your experiences and whether you would recommend doing it to others.
This is a subject that comes up time and time again, and after receiving an email from friend a few weeks ago asking for some advice on how to get into journalism - I thought it might be about time I tackled this subject in a post. Everyone has a different opinion on whether qualifications or experience have the greater input into where you end up in life, and I know there are great examples for both sides - but I know so many students are left confused by which one they should be focusing on. When you're at university, you're constantly told you need to gain more experience but when you try to get some you are told you're not qualified for the role. It's an eternal battle and a vicious cycle - one that many students struggle to break. So which one should you be concentrating on?
I will always be a champion for the experience route, I may be an English Language and Communication and English Literature graduate, but I'll be honest when I say that my degree has not really had much influence over where I have ended up. I loved studying for my degree because I was passionate about both subjects, and I would always argue that if you are passionate about something it is worth studying. But it is easy to think a degree will get you where you want to be when in actual fact they really won't in many cases. While studying at university, I applied for work experience at national publication, More Magazine, where I spent two weeks working on the fashion desk, helping on photoshoots and so on... It wasn't for me, but it gave me my first piece of worthwhile experience to add to my CV. Work experience at my local newspaper turned out to be the most valuable - after five days I had the front page and had been asked to write a weekly column. I also worked full time for a month with them (paid) before returning to university and was given a job upon graduating. Since graduating, I have also started writing for a festival news and reviews site, of which I was made the editor. It has not only given me great experience, but it looks fantastic on my CV and will help me in the future. Despite not being a fully-qualified journalist, I have worked in two journalistic roles since graduating three-four years ago all because of the experience I have gained. I know other fully qualified journalists who have put a lot of time into becoming qualified, but have been stuck with unpaid writing work or copy writing roles instead of journalism.
Of course, not everyone is trying to be a journalist. But this is something that will work in most professions - I have friends who work in retail, in marketing and advertising, in engineering and several who have become teachers. All of them have had to gain experience in their chosen fields before they were able to progress in their careers - it has just come in different forms. For one engineer, he was given experience and training as part of the course to become qualified for his role. For the retail worker, she started as a shop assistant and gained experience while working on the job, which allowed her to work her way up and become qualified as an office manager. All of the teachers had to gain experience of working in schools, mostly unpaid, alongside their PGSE studies so that they could finish their qualification. And those in marketing and advertising found their experience vital to gaining employment in bigger and better companies upon graduating - completing a placement year or few months while studying was a necessity. Of course, all of them also needed qualifications in one form or another, but their experience played a much larger part in their overall career path.
In many fields, experience can be impossible to gain without having some kind of qualification beforehand. Journalism can be a tricky one, particularly if you are applying for work experience before studying for an NCTJ, because there is so much competition. I was lucky that I was given the opportunity to do work experience at the newspaper because I was the first in over five years to do so, and I wasn't even studying journalism! But I know of many student journalists who have struggled to get experience without already being enrolled on a journalism course. If you know that you want to study journalism, it is a good idea to just go for it and study for your NCTJ because some papers are unwilling to take on work experience students when they do not have skills like shorthand, or a knowledge of media law. Don't do a journalism degree! I can't stress this enough - I know so many journalists who have done a degree and then have had to pay to study for a NCTJ afterwards because they haven't fulfilled all of the criteria. If you want to study a degree as well, why not do like I did and study English or another humanities subject you have an interest in? Just bear in mind it is important, particularly if you want to work for a newspaper or news site, to be qualified. But also bear in mind, that there are lost of people out there who are working as journalists and freelance writers who are unqualified. It is not necessary to have a NCTJ, but it is a helpful addition to your CV and skills.
Don't feel like I am down on qualifications and how useful or important they are. I have always taken them very seriously, whether they were GCSE's or final exams at university, and I always think it is worth working towards having an official document saying you can do something - even if you have known you can do it for ages before. It is an achievement for yourself, and it also proves to the world that you can do something. Being officially qualified puts you ahead of the pack, if two people go for an office manager job and one has completed a managing course and the other hasn't - the employer will probably favour the one who has. When a potential employer is just looking at your CV, having an extra qualification on there can mean the difference between a new job and the dole. It can also mean a huge difference between the rate of pay - having an extra qualification can mean you are entitled to thousands more a year overall. It can also mean being paid significantly less than someone who is doing exactly the same job as you - soul destroying. I would always recommend trying to get a well-rounded CV packed with experience and qualifications - both will play a part in getting you where you want to be.
But which one is more important to you? For me it has to be experience - as much as I love and am proud of my degree, I have found my working experiences invaluable. My time spent working at the newspaper and the festivals site has changed what I want to do with my life and has given me the confidence, knowledge and skills to achieve that with or without the qualifications. I see them as an added bonus to my life, but not something that will hold me back or prevent me from achieving my career dreams. I know that it will be different for those working in different fields - but I would love to know about your experiences of different industries.
Do qualifications or experience mean more to you? Which has played a larger part in bringing you closer to your dream?
My Facebook is littered with students who are starting to get excited about going back to uni, some who are just starting and those, like myself, who wish we could go back, if only for one awesome night. The countdown is starting, and after the bank holiday, there really isn't long to go until the universities once again open their doors to the madness. Regular readers will know that I had a pretty awesome time at university, made some amazing friends and loved every second of studying - even those all-nighters in the library and the early starts! And I have to say, that although by the time I left I was rather more excited to get out in the world and start working, I would always love to go back and experience it all again - I wouldn't do a single thing differently and would love every second.One of the things I would particularly like the chance to experience again is living in such close quarters with all of my fabulous university friends. We had a group of around seven of us who spent most of our waking moments together throughout first and second year. By third year, we were spread across two houses just a few minutes walk from each other and some of us were even on the same courses! It was brilliant, especially for someone who previously had mainly boy mates to experience being surrounded by so many like-minded girls who (sorry to quote Cyndi Lauper but...) "just wanna have fun!" We all had the same priorities, we all wanted to study hard and do well, but made sure we had plenty of time for lots of fun as well - these are the girls who would be up all hours studying and revising with me. But they are also the girls I was out pretty much every night with, the ones who came on Nando's dates with me and the ones who came round for pizza and X Factor nights.It was always great to have a group of so many because you could always guarantee that no matter what you wanted to do, there was someone who was free to come along with you, there was always someone to get drunk with and there was always someone who could help you when you got stuck on coursework. It always really helped to have that support network when you were struggling because there was always someone around who could proofread your essays, test you before exams and to make sure you revise with promises of cocktails as a reward. Each summer, when we were all torn apart for three or four months, and now between each reunion I'm always thinking about all the silly and fun things I miss about my beauties. Trust me there are quite a few, but the things I miss most are the qualities that make this friendship and sets it apart from other friendships I share.20 Things I Miss About My University Girls:
When it comes to university, I will never write anyone off. Even those who are the least academic people around can find a perfect course for them, perhaps with more practical work, and can find it a fantastic experience. The big question is whether it is in fact a truly valuable experience for the individual, and while I think the life experience you gain is immeasurable, often the money and time involved can mean the experience is worth somewhat less in the long run. For me, university was something I had been set on from a young age. Not because of my education, family or upbringing, but because I wanted to study, I loved to learn and I needed a degree in order to achieve my life goals. Plus I really wanted the experience, I wanted to get away from my town, I wanted to move out and look after myself, to gain independence. This was the perfect opportunity and I know that many who are currently looking, researching and making final choices will feel the same.
What I want to do is to make you aware that university is not a doddle, it is hard work for a minimum of three years of living away from home, working while studying and surviving on meagre loans and it can be lonely at times. But at the same time, you will meet the best friends, have the most bizarre experiences and finally have a chance to follow and indulge your true passions. So many people I know are preparing to sit their exams and are trying to make huge decisions about the next three years of their life and where they want to spend it. For me, I was lucky and this was easy - I walked on the campus and instantly fell in love with it. When I read about the courses and met the professors it only further cemented my decision and I am so glad I stuck with it despite my university asking for the lowest number of UCAS points out of each of my offers.
There is a lot to think about when making your decision and it is easy to be blinded by the thought of parties, living in a city, and studying with or following your friends. By writing this, I hope to give prospective university students into the slightly less exciting and fun sides of university just to try and balance out all the amazing fun you will be hearing about. Don't by any means take this as a negative view of university because it really was the best three years of my life so far and I would encourage anyone to take the opportunity, I just think it is important to make an informed decision. Here's what happens when things aren't all sunshine and roses at university:
Don't let this put you off - university is amazing. It is so much fun and really does help set you up for life if you make the most of it and grab every opportunity. Just be prepared and aware that it isn't sunshine and smiles 24/7, and that sometimes you might be homesick and lonely but that is okay. It isn't right for everyone, but it could also be the best thing you ever do, and it certainly whizzes by in no time at all. I have a friend who studied abroad for a year, left behind her university friends and made a whole load of new ones. She is now travelling the world and staying with all of her international friends along the way. If that doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will! Of course, I would never argue that university is the only option and I know that for many it isn't, but having the opportunity is amazing and making that decision over what is the right choice for you, is one of the biggest decisions of your life at 18.
What was your best university experience? Planning to go, what are you most worried about?