The theme this year at DLD College London is ‘Resilience’. Alumni student Sarah Dittrich returned to the college on Friday and gave an inspiring speech to our new students.
“According to Psychology Today, resilience is the ability to meet and overcome challenges in ways that maintain or promote well-being.
Those of you sitting here today, whether you are studying for your GCSEs, A Levels, BTECs or a Foundation programme, will be faced with problems on your way to attain these goals. During my time at OLD, I don’t think I came across any ·fellow student who never encountered obstacles in their path. Each and every one of my friends was, at some point, disappointed by a bad mark on a test, got rejected from a job or university or was simply overwhelmed by the amount of work they had to do that particular week. Society tells us to shy away from failure, that we always need to be perfect in order to achieve the goals we set out for ourselves. But that is not what resilience is about. It’s about embracing our imperfections, recognising them for what they are – that is, things to be improved upon if we work hard enough – and doing everything we can to do better next time. Rejection and failure are not things that we need to despair over – although the temptation to do so is always great. They are valuable steps in the learning curve of life. By examining the times in our lives when we didn’t do so well, we can make sure that the next time we try something, we do better. So, in the spirit of embracing our imperfections, let me tell you about some of the difficulties I encountered during my time at OLD, when applying to university, and the things I struggle with even now, at Oxford.
Three years ago, I was in the same place that many of you find yourselves in today. I arrived at OLD as an excitable 16 year old, transplanted from the German countryside into the big and bustling city that is London. I was eager to learn, make new friends and I was certainly not ready to hear that I didn’t have life all figured out At the school I had previously attended, I was always the clever kid who knew English better than anyone else. But suddenly, I was surrounded by other students who had been raised by their parents to speak and write English, when my own language teachers had been books and TV.
Suddenly, being good at a foreign language wasn’t so impressive anymore. I had to·work extra hard to make sure that my work was still up to scratch against people who, when it came to the English language, had had an advantage over me. As an international student, it can seem like a huge challenge to be surrounded by so many native speakers. Initially, it can seem daunting that the words that roll off their tongues so seamlessly are hard fought to acquire for someone who has only just arrived in a foreign country. However, I would encourage you to turn such insecurities to your advantage. If you look around you, you’ll find yourself surrounded by students and teachers from all over the world. As schools go, it would be difficult to find many others like OLD, where being surrounded by people from so many different backgrounds, countries and cultures is a part of everyday life. Although that prospect can seem daunting, I encourage you to embrace it. Speak to as many people as you can, irrespective of whether they are from your own country or hail from the other side of the world. As an international student, making friends with people whose first language is English was an amazing help to my studies. As time went on, I became increasingly confident in my own abilities. Studying for three A Levels in essay-based subjects – Politics, English Literature and History – having a great time with my friends became a gate-way to better grades. What’s more, having friends from countries like Iran, Russia and Botswana helped me understand different cultures in a way that the internet or TV could never have done. I encourage you all to see the incredibly diverse student body at OLD as an opportunity to broaden your horizons and engage with ideas, cultures and ways of thinking that you may not have considered before.
I know that many of you will at the moment be preparing to apply to university. Just two short years ago Iwas writing my personal statement, deciding on which courses to study and visiting different universities at open days. For many of you the decision of how to spend the next three or more years may seem terrifying – I know it was for me. The opportunities seem endless – UCAS lists 321 universities for undergraduate study and over 50,000 courses to choose from. The application process only lets you select 5. When it comes to finding the course that is right for you, I advise you to go with a subject you are truly passionate about. At Oxford, I met a girl who chose to study Law, not because she had a genuine interest in it, but because her parents thought it was the right path for her to take. To this day she struggles to motivate herself for her subject and has thought about dropping out of university. Although I have found my course challenging at times, I would not change it for the world. My love for History, which was nurtured at OLD, makes me genuinely excited for the week’s work, be that looking at Anglo-Saxon archaeology or researching gender relations in late medieval England. Your parents mean well in the courses they might suggest to you, but in the end you’re the one who will have to spend three or more years studying for a degree in that subject. That becomes a great deal easier if you love the things you’re learning about.
I suggest you all to take your time selecting which courses and universities are the right ones for you. Although that is a very big decision to make, the good news is that you are not alone. The staff at OLD, be that your personal tutor, your subject teachers or the UCAS coordinator, are here to give you guidance, advice and the help you need to select a future that is right for you. But even though that, in my experience, is a great help, it doesn’t change the fact that the application process can be extremely long and stressful. I remember my frustration after spending hours and hours on my personal statement and sending it off to my personal tutor, only to have it returned to me with a huge number of suggestions on what to improve. Only after editing my personal statement for what felt like the 20th time did I begin to appreciate how difficult it is to present your achievements, ambitions and interests in just 4000 characters. But although it took a lot of work on my part, I am incredibly grateful for the help that the staff at OLD gave me in making sure that my university application was up to scratch. After all, they are trying to help you to present yourself to your future places of · study in the way they see you – as bright, talented and ambitious young individuals with the potential to achieve greatness.
However, I do understand how difficult the admissions process can be at times. Once you’ve finally hit sent on you.r UCAS application, the real challenge begins – waiting. When I applied to Oxford, it took me about 4 months to finally receive my offer. Before that, I had to sit an admissions test for my chosen course, History, send off a piece of written work and go through the interview process, which can take from two to five days.
Staying at Oxford for my ·interviews, I was surrounded by hundreds of other very bright people who were hopeful to get a spot for my course.
Speaking to people who had worked at African orphanages, worked for parliamentarians and published their own books and magazines, my own achievements suddenly seemed comparatively small. When I, to my great surprise, received an offer to study at Oxford in January 2016, the next hurdle became making my offer.
If you have recently sat your GCSE or AS exams, the pressure of getting good grades will not be alien to you. Parents, teachers and most of all you yourselves expect a lot from you, knowing that the right marks on a paper can guarantee you a bright future. Although I was incredibly pleased to have received my offer for Oxford, I don’t think I actually believed Iwas going to go there until results day finally came around.
When I had sat my AS exams a year earlier, I received a D in one History paper which I knew I would have to resit. That year, Iworked harder than I ever did before to ensure I did everything I could to make my offer of AAA. My retake was the first exam Itook at A2, and when I left the room after sitting the paper, I was sure that I had done terribly. My mind was buzzing with all the things I forgot to say and Iwas frustrated becase time pressure left me unable to finish one question. I remember speaking to a teacher afterwards and asking him whether I should just give up studying for my other exams now, as Iwas sure I was never going to make my grades for university. Looking back on that day now, I see it as a turning point. I could have despaired and refused to keep working to attain the goal I had had since I was 5 years old, when I saw the the Great Hall in Harry Potter, filmed in Christ Church College, Oxford, and thought to myself – I have to go there. I could have given up my dream due to my own insistence of how terrible my exam had gone. Luckily, I didn’t. I persevered, kept working hard and did the best I could in the rest of my exams. And I am very grateful I did – because, as it turned out come results day, I had actually done rather well in that exam that I thought I’d failed.
When I did finally take my place to study at Oxford last October, one of the first things we were told about was ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that getting into one of the most prestigious universities in the world was a mistake, because how could we measure up to all of the intelligent and ‘intriguing people that suddenly surrounded us? I believe that no matter which university we end up in, the ‘imposter syndrome’ is something we all experience at times. We all think occasionally that no matter how hard we try, someone else will do better, even if we work twice as hard. In my first term at Oxford, I regularly worked all night to make sure my weekly essays were good enough to submit to my tutors. I spent whole days in the library because I thought that if I spent the maximum amount of time on work, it would be the best it could be. It was only after a few months that I realised that what I was doing was comparing myself to other students, who would brag about their long work hours and the amount of sleep they missed because of it. With that realisation came the most important lesson I learnt at Oxford – that Iwas absolutely fine just the way I was as soon as I stopped comparing myself to others. In my second term, I settled into my own work rhythm – I found out, for example, that my most productive hours for reading and writing were just after lunch, and that the quality of my work improved considerably once I got a healthy amount of sleep the night before. I began putting breaks into my day – going for a cup of coffee with a friend, for example, or taking our college puppy for a walk – and would return happy and content for another hours’ worth of work. Once I realised that finding my own way of studying was much more important than listening to what others think I should do, the feedback on my work suddenly became a lot better.
So let me just give you one piece of advice before I stop boring you with my ramblings about university. Instead of listening to what other students tell you, or how much work they’re putting in, make your own welfare a priority. Instead of spending nights in your room studying for the next test, make sure that before anything else, you are in a healthy space mentally and physically. Make use of the ECA opportunities at OLD, get involved with sports, music or anything else you enjoy. And most of all, make use of the support network that this college provides you. During my time studying at OLD, I stumbled across many hurdles and difficulties, but they could always be mitigated with the help of the staff and teachers. If you’re feeling stressed by the seemingly insurmountable challenges that school and university can appear to present, don’t keep it to yourself. Reach out to the countless people at OLD who are eager to help you achieve the best possible results. Hard work is important, but in trying to secure the future you want, remember that you are not alone. As I look at you- now, I see a wonderful community of staff and students working to support each other. It took me a while to figure this out, but I have always worked the best when I felt supported and confident enough to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. So recognise OLD for what it is – a place to grow, not only academically, but also as a person, learning from others and helping them in return.”
Sarah left DLD last year after studying A-Levels in History (A*), EPQ (A*), Government & Politics (A), English Literature (A) and German (A), and is currently studying History at Wadham College, at the University of Oxford.