Postcards from the past: alumni messages for first years

On the top floor of Charles Stewart House on Chambers Street, amid constant fundraising campaigns and the birthing of student development programmes, The University of Edinburgh’s Development and Alumni Office has been receiving messages from well-wishers for this year’s intake of new students.

University alumni were contacted over the summer holidays and provided with postcards on which they could offer words of advice to incoming students.

Students are often left feeling distinctly uneasy on being told to “enjoy yourself, these are the best days of your life.” Whilst this pressure-laden sentiment was echoed by many of the alumni who offered their support, some of the postcards contain rather more charmingly abstract advice.

Words of wisdom were received from a vast range of alumni from across the world and from a variety of degree backgrounds. Alumni were contacted irrespective of how recently they graduated, resulting in submissions from alumni who graduated as early as 1942.

Rooted in an understanding of the University of Edinburgh experience that only a former student could have, these pearls of wisdom ring as true for students entering their fourth year and home straight of their undergraduate degree, as they do for first years still acquainting themselves with this ‘wonderful city’.

One of the more profound reminiscences was sent in by a 1967 Dentistry graduate, urging students to make use of the time at university that “seems slow, endless, open” and “to use it joyously and learn as much as you can.”

Alumni also frequently extolled the virtues of the city in which we are living and encouraged students to explore the outskirts of Edinburgh, particularly the waterfront at Leith and the Pentland hills.

As winter creeps steadily closer and horror stories concerning the Scottish wind and rain begin to filter down to first years who come from the comparatively tropical English south, a recent Biology graduate was compelled to offer reassurance. They said: “It will be hard at times. It will be cold, dark and wet at times. But they should be good times; so do a bit of work, rest and play, and enjoy it.”

Particularly poignant in light of the recent Scottish independence referendum, one Englishman implored students from south of the Border to “make full use of the cultural and historical differences between our two countries” in the hope that their years at Edinburgh would “give you an appreciation of all the good things about Scotland.”

Overwhelmingly, alumni emphasised the importance of achieving a balance throughout the university experience, with “work hard, play hard” being the most commonly wheeled-out cliché. Achieving this elusive equilibrium, however, is rather more easily said than done.

One graduate rather sweetly suggested setting aside “one day a week when you don’t open a textbook.” Others remembered fondly their experiences with sports clubs and societies and urged first years not to get bogged down in an inordinate amount of extra-curricular activities but to pick your passion and commit to it.

With regard to deciding how to spend your time at university, a French graduate from the class of 1961 drew on Hemingway’s mastery of simplicity to get the message across: “when you stop doing things for fun you might as well be dead.”

Amongst the recommendations to “read voraciously”, “attend classes outside of your subject” and avoid “dabbling with drugs”, some graduates chose to send a resoundingly inspirational anti-establishment message.

One 1971 graduate beseeched students to “never swallow what you’re taught without chewing it well” whilst politics alumna Karina Brooke chose “illegitimi non carborundum”, the mock-Latin aphorism meaning “don’t let the b*stards grind you down”, to appeal to students’ individualistic resolve.

From Classics graduates submitting their favourite Horatian tags, to former English Literature students borrowing lines from Hamlet, Edinburgh alumni have contributed to an invaluable and tremendously sweet collection of guidance notes and university memories.

It is, however, a graduate from 1955 who perhaps offers the best advice with the following message: “Never trust some old fart’s words of wisdom.”

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