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Sub-Honourable

Adolescent life is fraught with expectations. Fuelled by a drip feed of daytime television, blockbusters, and university prospectuses, our formative years have been projected back at us relentlessly. In fact, they have become a narrative playground for directors and principals alike, embedding the so-called ‘student experience’ into the public imagination. Depending on your viewing history, this ‘experience’ will have been imagined along one of several (admittedly compelling) intellectual pathways.


Victims of the State-side mentality might have fooled themselves into thinking they were destined to follow the likes of Pitch Perfect’s Becca or Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods: kitted out in the latest fashions and harbouring talents of which they remained inexplicably ignorant, university would have granted them the platform to ‘make it big’— in fact, they’d probably look back on it as the apex of their careers. Certainly, Ms Mapstone’s spiel argued along a similar trajectory.


Over on this side of the Atlantic, the bar was set rather lower. I don’t know about you, but Fresh Meat practically convinced me to pack in the idea of higher education altogether — I thought flat sharing was meant to be liberating, not pose a public health risk to all those involved.


Equally, I can only pity the forthcoming swathes of St Andrews freshers who, no doubt, will have been woefully misinformed by The Crown Season Six: princes in abundance there are not. (And no, whatever Northpoint says to the contrary, Wills and Kate did not meet there for coffee.)


Yet, three years in and very few of my preconceptions have materialised. Of course they haven’t: they were rooted in pretexts about as believable as the Otis/Maeve storyline in Sex Education. ‘Student life’, it transpires, is more elusive than it seems.

In fact, sitting at my desk — Pret in hand — on a drizzly Thursday morning, I was tempted to conclude that university was a bit like ordering a cocktail at a London bar — and, no, I don’t just mean that it was hideously expensive.


Picture the scene: the mixologist (preferably Italian) has promised you something otherworldly and exotic. Gesticulating passionately, they have described taste notes of citrus and gentle spice, with numerous garnishes to boot. Sure enough, your first sip is unlike anything you’ve previously experienced, overwhelming your senses with heady, sugar-induced delight. Take a few more, though, and (sigh) your well-marketed drink has become indistinguishable from any other cocktail you have ordered in the past and/or are likely to order in the future.


Similarly, one could argue with some conviction that student life is just life: Freshers’ Week might feel edgy and exotic, but the chances are that Weeks Five, Six, and Seven will ultimately feel much like any other. Had this all, in the end, been a hollow Hollywood fantasy?


Reflecting further, however, my mindset changed. After all, university retains a unique brand of drama — less suitable for our screens, perhaps, but no less compelling.


Heartened by this discovery, I have considered it my civic duty to reflect this experience in a true-to-life form. In so doing, I hope to disillusion the general populace — after all, your misconceptions can only result in disappointment all round. I therefore present Sub-Honourable: a realistic, (some might say pioneering), deep dive into the lives of a St Andrews undergraduate. Parental guidance advised.


Episode One: Overdraft — wide-eyed and bushy tailed, credulous young Fresher invests in a wizard costume (sorry, academic gown) that will never again see the light of day. Continuing this frisson of excitement, they sign up to the university gym, before downloading FIXR and heading out for a well-earned brunch. Times have never been happier, but events are about to take a darker turn. Following a frantic call from home, said Fresher concedes that Pret’s subscription is unsustainable beyond its half-price introductory offer. Even more alarmingly, they have fallen victim to an accumulation of dire circumstances, (Starfields, Opening Ball, and now Welly), and — staring incredulously at a Brew Co’s menu — they begin to wonder when Netflix will finally cull the account they hijacked from their ex’s cousin last summer. Holding back the tears, they muster the courage to address the situation: sacrificing their ritual Guinness, they opt for a Tennents instead.


Episode Two: Delusions — rejuvenated from a summer of home-cooked meals, self-assured Second Year is full of lofty intentions. Determined to ‘make the most of their time in Scotland’, they resolve to take up golf, indulge in daily morning swims, and visit Pittenweem. None of these ambitions survives beyond the drawing board, having been curbed by a combination of hangovers, Dunny trips, and a perennial lack of funds. Scarred by a painfully platonic Hinge date, (how could they possibly have ended up in the same seminar group?!), Second Year’s dating ambitions have been similarly sidelined. Shivering over a mug of English Breakfast, they reflect that flat living has not been plain sailing, and that heating is a luxury that will never again be taken for granted. Ditto dishwashers, non-stick pans, and power showers. It’s not all bad, though: a single visit to the varsity gym was enough to curb Second-Year’s athletic ambitions. It looks like brunch might be back on the cards after all.


Episode Three: Dark Academia — in a turn of events that is as surprising as it is catastrophic, Third Year is confronted with an entirely novel concept: work. Faced with a barrage of deadlines and a tutor who appears ominously invested in their academic output, they admit defeat and decide to visit the library. Here, tensions reach breaking point: naïve to the point of ignorance, Third Year has fatally misjudged the number of students in St Mary’s. Shuffling their feet along a well-worn walk of shame, they take it on the chin and head to Main Lib instead. However, in an unexpected twist of fate, the group chat has announced an afternoon pub trip. Not one to be anti-social, Third Year dutifully redirects to The Central instead. Sipping a half-pint, they assure themselves that they’ll make up for it next year.


Episode Four: Hibernation — donning a compulsory uniform of tracksuit and eye bags, sorry Fourth Year faces a treacherous crossroads. Juggling the mutually incompatible demands of their degree with what remains of their social life, they wonder whether the axiom that all St Andrews graduates are either married or an alcoholic holds any truth. They’re beginning to err towards the latter. Contemplating their dinner of days-old pesto pasta, Fourth Year reminisces about a life fuelled by smoked salmon and avo toast. They wonder dimly whether a vitamin deficiency is responsible for their stubbornly average grades. Despite all this, audiences are met with a shocking, heart-stirring denouement: speaking with unabashed confidence (just before the end credits, accompanied by a rousing score, etc.) Fourth Year declares that this has, without question, been the best four years of their life. The Bubble, they announce (wiping away a stubborn tear), has become their home; their friends their second family. Undoubtedly, St Andrews is the most special place on earth.


And who are we to question them? After all, whether or not university propels you towards national — even international — pre-eminence, there’s a reason that students have captured the imagination of directors worldwide. Unglamorous and under-funded (not to mention overstretched and perpetually self-questioning), we somehow manage to have an incomparably good time. Shrunk to the dimensions of a bubble, our lives assume all the emotions (if not quite the levels of action and drama) of a Hollywood blockbuster. The highs and lows of Ms Woods may occur in unbelievable circumstances, but their essence remains true all the same. It might be as mispackaged as a London cocktail, but perhaps there really is substance to the ‘student experience’ after all — just watch out, I’ve heard it’s a tear jerker.


Illustration: Isabelle Holloway

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