University College London is one of the most multicultural universities in the world, with 43% of students arriving from outside the UK. I started there in September 2014 with no idea of the diverse kinds of people I’d meet. I’ve dated Americans, flown around the world with Ecuadorians and gone to Harrods with the Chinese.
You don’t realise what you can learn from people until you befriend those who you never thought you’d meet. Some people have overcome challenges you couldn’t dream of facing, and that makes them all the more interesting to talk to.
And then of course there are the ordinary Brits at university who, like me, fooled around throughout school and generally don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. But surprisingly, they have been no less important than the international students in helping to change me as a person.
Students posing with cute kids and changing the world
Cool people are those who spend money on experiences rather than things
Being in school, the most popular people are those that have the iPhone 6, an Apple Watch and Rudimental’s latest album. Your friends abandon you and go crowd around the guy with all the great gadgets in the common room. And after school, they want to hang out at his house because he has a PlayStation 4. The materialistic and technology-obsessive culture teaches you that you have to splash out on toys to claw back some social status.
But at the end of the day – or rather, at the end of sixth form – you may realise that you shouldn’t be paying to put yourself in front of a bank of pixels any longer. It’s a key sign that you’re becoming an adult when you understand that experiences are far more valuable than meaningless, unhealthy, electronic distractions.
Why text someone far away when you have a potential friend right in front of you?
In fact, going to university is a good way of reaching this epiphany. With its far more sociable environment and diverse body of students, you recognise that you’d rather spend time with someone who trekked over the Aogashima Volcano in Japan or interned for a year in Shanghai, than someone who got to level 44 on Mortal Kombat X.
When I was younger I always thought that adults rarely played games on their smartphones because they were forced to do important stuff by their boss. Now I get that many of them want to do important stuff for themselves. Stuff that’s important to do is to see the world and get real life experiences under your belt.
So volunteer at uni, do weekend trips and get cheap flights abroad. Meet new people and have your own stories to tell. Whether you like it or not, you have to make conversation with people without the aid of mobile Tetris from now on.
Look: the Chinese, British, Peruvians and Americans have all come together in one photo
Most people are far more awful than we perceive them
However, yes, I am making it sound like all humans except you are perfect. This is not the case. Although you’ll meet lots of students who make you feel lazy, they’re sure to have dirty secrets and poor habits that become more obvious as you get to know them. With the culture of being almost permanently hungover, student life often brings out the worst in people.
Let me give an example. I made a great bond with someone at a party back in November, and was thoroughly impressed by the fact that he’d moved from a small town in Russia to central London in order to improve his job prospects, and that he’d worked all of last summer to save up for a gap year.
Laziness at its finest: sometimes we like to be a hot mess and be proud
Then I lived with him for a week and found out that he takes two hours to get ready each morning, refuses to eat anything green and drunkenly hops on a bus to the wrong corner of London after most nights out. None of this I saw coming, and although it didn’t stop me wanting to be his friend, it certainly made me stop holding him up as a god-like model of competency and prowess.
We all have a habit of being overcome with insecurity, comparing our lives to those of our acquaintances, and vastly overestimating their levels of productivity, skills and happiness. That’s because lots of people know how to market themselves well and put on a front of perfection and grace. The personality beneath is far darker and more satisfying to observe.
See, some people are actually very weird
Every relationship you have teaches you something new about yourself
You might think that some people, whether friends or dates, waste your time because they mess around when you’re supposed to meet up, send you confusing signals, gossip behind your back or generally bring you down. But the truth is that everyone operates very differently and will therefore impact you in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.
I have realised this because, if you’ll let me be very deep and profound, I’ve met a lot of weird people this year. But how did this benefit me? It’s hard to imagine. For instance, a friend from Jordan taught me how prone I am to asking questions based on my pre-conceived perceptions, whether they’re to do with gender, religion or ethnicity. I wasn’t exactly being racist but I do need to think more broadly sometimes and be aware of how easy it is to offend people of faraway cultures.
How to be cool and cultural at the same time
He also educated me (I noticed after a long while) on the extent to which I fit a certain stereotype. We had bantered about how much I conformed to it… until I realised that it was funnier to challenge it and think differently.
So essentially, this person taught me why they so often say ‘opposites attract’ – it’s because, usually, the more different two people are, the more they’ll have to teach each other, and thus the more fruitful and lively the relationship will be.
People say it’s great to meet new people but often don’t mention why. Well, everyone has the potential to bring out a new side of you, to get you talking about different things, to encourage you to pursue certain opportunities, and gets you to see another side of a story. So if you hate meeting new people then treat it like exercise: exhausting and horrible, but infinitely beneficial in the long run.
Boundlessly different, yet born to be together
Employers value people skills above all, because efficiency depends on smooth human interactions, not the speed of your internet
The most valuable lesson to come out of my first year of university is the emphasis that employers place on people skills. I’ve worked with the presidents of university societies, entrepreneurs with their own start-ups, marketing managers, members of parliament, solicitors, and even Claudine Collins off the Apprentice. Apart from the fact that my work experiences are very random, I’ve learnt that what they all commonly valued was someone who can create a good office atmosphere over the guy with technical know-how.
Studies have proved that people work more efficiently when they’ve built trusting relationships and connected with their co-workers on an informal, humane level. A team will work better if its members are less likely to be awkward and have conflict. Employers will ultimately find value in a team in which ideas flow freely and decisions are reached quickly.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Job interviews are thus important in a multitude of ways, and ‘people practice’ is essential to become socially fluent, confident in all situations and able to relate to those who are very different to you. You need to show employers that people will like and trust you. You need to show patience and empathy, and that may come down to something as simply as varying the tone of your voice when reacting to someone telling a story.
Being a good listener and aware of body language, showing manners and a genuine interest in others, and being able to negotiate and persuade, are all essential in workplaces when time is at a premium and technology requires constant communication. Which are nearly all workplaces.
Of course I have people skills – people love me
Again, it’s something that may only hit you at university. At school, you may have thought that it was the geniuses who aced every single GCSE that had the brightest futures ahead of them. But university brings into focus the importance of being life-smart, and how a lot of people often show themselves to be solely book-smart.
Of course it depends what sector people are aiming for (some place more emphasis on technical abilities), but in reality, it was probably the people who joined the most after-school clubs and got a few Bs in their results who will have more success in their careers. Ultimately, you can bring more to the table if other people have brought something out of you.