9 Lessons Attending
an Arts University Taught Me

9 Lessons Attending an Arts University Taught Me

nikonkoly - Comments (0) - Musings

From persistence, confidence, and individuality, to the art of winging it, here are 9 things I learnt at uni. Besides my ever so exciting Costume with Performance Design degree, of course.

While applying for undergraduate programs, through the magical course search tool on UCAS, I discovered the Arts University Bournemouth, a small art school in a quiet coastal town in the south of England, offering a costume design course I decided to apply to. And boy, am I glad that I did – visiting the uni on an exceptionally sunny February day, I fell in love with its close-knit community, welcoming tutors, and awesome vibe in general.

These days mark the first anniversary of my last ever hand-in, the bittersweet, sleep-deprived celebration over a giant vegan pizza and pear cider at The Stable in Bournemouth, then dozing off on the beach with my best friend. It is with utter joy that I remember this crazy journey of the three years of my degree, jam-packed with incredible moments, tough challenges, lots of tears, but even more laughs, tremendous growth, and a whole lot of fun.

Just to give you an idea, these are the kinds of shenanigans we were up to:

Of course, I’ve learnt a lot of new skills and have plenty of hands-on experience I can now decorate my CV with, from sewing and pattern making to laser cutting and a plethora of design software, as well as niche skills such as spot welding, spray painting, or resin casting. I am no stranger to a drill, I know how to make a glowing red hot poker, or a 1:25 model of pretty much anything, and I know how to assemble a complete outfit from, like, five quid. However, while these skills can be quite practical (some more often than the others), I am most thankful for the personal development I have gone through. I’ve always enjoyed our self-evaluations at the end of each unit, so I’m compiling the ultimate one now. Below are 9 lessons attending this university has taught me.

1. Remember why you started

I had always been somewhat of a quitter. Whether it was dance classes or projects I  had come up with myself, anything I didn’t succeed at first, I’d just quit. I lacked the patience and resilience to try things one,  two, or three more times, and follow through on my plans.

There were so, so many times at uni when I felt I couldn’t handle the pressure and just wanted to quit and run away. But this time, I wanted to stick it out. I was determined to graduate. I promised myself that I would never quit because of an obstacle I’m facing, for I refused to run away yet again. So when times got harder, I kept up. ‘Just this one more project’, I’d tell myself, and then I was halfway through the course, then it was only a year left, and then, all of a sudden, it was the final major project, and I obviously couldn’t have quit when I had already made it that far.

It definitely helped that all the shows and films I worked on held me accountable: I couldn’t let my peers down; I had to stay up all night and do whatever it took to finish the projects, or else, I would’ve ruined a dozen other people’s hard work.

If you also have troubles seeing through the goals you’ve set for yourself, I’d suggest trying to consciously remind yourself why you started in the first place. Whether it be visualising yourself as you throw your graduation cap in the air or the satisfaction you’ll get when you complete a big project, knowing what you’re working towards helps to get you through the tough days and to accomplish your goals.

2. Everyone’s just winging it, and so should you

When I was growing up, I somehow thought that adults just have it all figured out. We were always told, ‘When in doubt or danger, seek an adult’. However, as you grow up and start hitting (socially constructed) milestones like the ages of 18 or 21, you soon realise you still have little to no idea what you’re doing. Which (hopefully) makes you realise that not many people do so, either. Everyone’s doing what they can, and just hope for the best. Which means that even highly trained professionals are bound to make mistakes, so don’t always fully rely on a lawyer without reading the contract yourself, and always double check if you feel you weren’t given the right answer in any situation, be it at a shop or airport.

On the other hand, realising that so much winging goes into each project empowered me to take risks. We had a number of lectures held by industry professionals who told us all about their creative journeys. The one thing they all had in common was that at one point in their lives, they were offered a job that was just (or way) beyond their abilities, but they said yes to it, and hoped they’d figure it out along the way. They eventually did, of course, and usually, these opportunities sky-rocketed their careers.

One of these accomplished speakers advised us to

Jump first, and learn how to grow wings mid-fall.

Replica of a 1937 BBC broadcast camera I engineered and made out of, well, cardboard, and odd plastic bits from a scrap store

3. Confidence is key

It probably goes without saying that in order to wing that job, you first have to confidently say yes to it, even if you have no idea how you’ll make it work. ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’, or so goes the old saying. I first received this piece of advice from my host family in the US when I was struggling in my Anatomy class as an exchange student, so I started forcing myself to just throw my hand in the air like the other kids did, and hoped I’d be able to answer the questions myself.

Now, I’m not saying you should pretend to be a neurosurgeon when you failed biology in high school, but you should definitely say yes to opportunities you’re a little unsure about, because with the right amount of determination, you’ll always find a way to tackle it.

4. Grow to trust others

By nature, I’m one of those people who always says, ‘I’ll just do it all by myself,’ because I had had so many experiences in high school where no other member of our team did anything for a project. I would manage school events all on my own and didn’t really let anyone help me because I doubted they would actually do it, and then I wondered why everything fell on me.

At university, I had to adapt to teamwork. With the vast projects we worked on, it would’ve been simply impossible for one person to handle it all. I saw what it’s like when everyone has a different role and is giving that role the best they can, so those multiple various efforts come together as one amazing production.

And sharing a role has its benefits, too. You might not be able to take all the credit when something goes well, and your partner might do things worse than you would, but at the end of the day, it’s wonderful when you can share responsibility with someone, so you don’t get completely crippled by pressure, because you know you’re in this together. This means that you’ll eventually trust others and won’t insist on doing everything on your own, because you realise others can manage just fine, too (and may even do certain things better than you would have).

University students in theatre
The cast and crew of our production of Marlowe’s Edward II that I had the pleasure of designing the set for. Photo by Ewa Ferdynus

5. Learn about the world from a first-hand perspective

Going to an arts university in the UK meant that I kept meeting people from all walks of life. It was so refreshing to see that people weren’t judged on their gender, sexuality, hair colour, outfits, religion or music taste.

At a time when we’re manipulated into fearing other cultures and religions by how the media portrays them, it’s more important than ever to meet these people in person rather than judge them through 30-second Facebook videos. Hearing about far-right misogynous movements in Poland, political crises in Mexico, family traditions in Japan, or just eating habits in the Netherlands directly from the people who’ve experienced it brings you so much closer to the world.

During the three years of my degree, I’ve lived with people of seven different nationalities and met many more through international events at uni. Just like travelling, getting to know people from all these different backgrounds makes you realise how diverse the world is, and yet, how similar we all are (besides, you get to try some pretty awesome food). Learning about the challenges I’m lucky enough not to ever have to worry about as a white, European, cis-gendered person made me so much more aware of my privileges, and understanding towards the world.

6. Come as you are

After going to a high school where looks and having the latest iPhone or Michael Kors bag was so important, it was such a relief to be part of a community where no one cared what cloth you put over your head in the morning. We were mostly covered in paint and thread anyway. ‘Hot’ gained whole new meanings. Most of the students assembled their outfits from vintage and thrift stores, oversized clothes, and their mums’ closets, and sported hair colours in every possible shade of Photoshop’s colour picking tool. A girl on my course looked every day as if she walked straight out of the 1940s, down to the details of red lipstick and nail varnish, curls set with rollers overnight, and stockings instead of tights. She looked absolutely stunning. Realising that you don’t have to chase the newest fast fashion trends to look attractive is so liberating.

Every once in a while, I still like to put on a nice black dress that I know looks flattering on me, but I now feel just as confident and sexy wearing paint-splattered jeans with a hole at the crotch, trainers, and my bright yellow Frida Kahlo lucky-socks: my power-outfit that has carried me through so many challenging days. And if strength and resilience aren’t sexy, I don’t know what is.

Girls at work – production designing on a film shoot

7. You don’t have to have it figured out already

I was one of those people (perhaps considered lucky) who knew from an early age what I wanted to do when I grew up. At the age of seven, after drawing a few outfits for my favourite TV show’s, Totally Spies’, characters, I figured I’d be a fashion designer. With my love for history and films, this eventually changed to costume design. Throughout my school years, I very consciously learnt drawing, sewing, pursued one language exam after the other, just so I would eventually get into an art school (preferably abroad) to pursue costume design, and I did. I was first hesitant to pick a course that also included set and prop design as I was sure I would end up as a costume designer for film, but I’m so glad I did.

I was lucky enough to try real costume design for two short films and got my own IMDB page, but I realised that as cool as it is, costume design for film just doesn’t quite fuel me enough to pursue it as a lifelong career. Instead, I shifted towards theatrical set design, which became my specialism. I absolutely love it, but I’m now happy to be taking a little break from it, trying myself out in interior design. I actually really loved our writing projects, and I’m now very consciously trying to do as much writing as I can to get better at it, so that one day I can do it for a living. While people will advise you not to spread yourself too thin, university is definitely the time to experiment and try all the things you ever wanted.

8. Do things you suck at

There are a few things I’m naturally talented at. I’m good at learning new languages, I’m killing it at word guessing games like Charades, and I make a mean banana pancake. However, to do things I’m not very good (or downright shit) at it is a daunting experience.  Most things you try for the first time, though, will most likely be just like that. At the end of our first year, we all had to make a complete costume, and mine was an 18th century ball gown.

While I felt confident about my design skills, I wasn’t at all about my sewing skills. I remember lots of tears, pin pricks, and repeatedly smashing the underskirt to the couch when the thread ripped for the umpteenth time as I was trying to ruche the waist. Experiencing this hell of not-knowing has taught me so much, and eventually accomplishing a challenge that had seemed impossible in the beginning filled me with so much pride.

You’ve got to consciously keep pushing yourself out of that cushy little cocoon of a comfort zone you navigate in with ease, and try the things that interest you, even if you’ll be an absolute loser at them in the beginning.  You have to allow yourself to suck. Embrace it, laugh at it, and eventually, conquer it. Because you can learn anything you set out to, but it takes resilience (see lesson no. 1).

9. Dare to ask questions

Finally, but very importantly, a skill that sounds so simple, but took me so long to master (well, I’m still learning). I take pride in knowing stuff. And I feel anger and embarrassment about not knowing stuff. I’ve always had the bad habit of refusing to ask for help, and instead trying to figure everything out by myself, even if it took way longer. I remember trying to find something on Photoshop for hours, when I could’ve just asked my coursemate sitting right beside me. But the fear of appearing dumb paralysed me.

I did know that this fear was silly, because the reason I paid 9k a year was to learn and ask those questions, but it was a serious learning curve to allow myself to shed my pride and ask a question during a lecture that I felt was elementary. But then again, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. We should constantly push ourselves to grow and learn, and that’s only possible through asking those questions you don’t yet know the answer to. And chances are, there’s at least one other person in that lecture theatre who had the same question, but was too afraid to ask it, so you’re doing them a favour too.

Spray painting a custom-designed modernised laurel wreath of a crown for Edward II

Wow, that’s one hell of an array of thoughts – can’t deny that I’m one for reflecting lots. Have you experienced any of these challenges, or come to the similar conclusions while at uni or on a job? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Share them with me in a comment!

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