'Hard work and play will set you up for life'

To get the most out of university try everything, says Daniel Metcalfe, while his father cheers him on

My gap year had been entirely selfish. No building orphanages in Botswana for me. Nine months of filing in underground archives happily gave way to five months of hitch-hiking round the world, and I loved every minute of it. It was my first experience of independent travel and the first hint of what I eventually wanted to do. I think it warmed me up for university life. Though many people return from their gap years with a sense of apathy for study, I had been itching for some time to get back to the Greek texts that I'd got into at A-level. University could quench my academic hunger as well as open up innumerable other doors.

Oxford is a very intense place to study. Writing essays with authority on two new subjects a week and reading them out to your tutor requires a lot of work, concentration, and guts. To many this is a shock. I got a strange kick out of the twice-weekly all-nighter. Of course anyone with any sense of organisation could get their work done in time and get a good night's sleep. But then they'd miss out on everything else that students do: arguing in the union debating-chamber (which I never did), chaining themselves to lamp-posts over student fees (well, I thought about it), bungy-jumping for charity (once), or stumbling down the high street with a kebab at 3am (many, many times). Something has to give, and it's either your sleep or your sanity. Thankfully it tends to be the former, which is easily remedied between terms by home-cooking and a quiet bed.

In this heady atmosphere I thrived. I admit I worked hard and got a lot out of my course, getting a scholarship after my second year exams. I socialised a lot, drank a lot, played a lot of squash and did some drama: I was determined to try everything. When second-year exams finished I began to feel anarchic. I turned myself overnight into an expert ball-crasher. The Oxford ball is a classic summer institution where people spend sometimes more than £100 to wander around in a secured enclosure, drinking themselves stupid to a few dance acts and highland reels. I would leap over barricades, abseil down walls, and make painstaking forgeries of the security wrist-band to get in. Once, armed with new intelligence, I forged a sky-blue band and swam the river surrounding St Hilda's College, its ball in full swing. Towelling myself down, I donned my dinner jacket by moonlight. Sadly, I was rumbled by the security heavies.

But it was not all larks. A student can't be called a student without landlord strife. My first experience of living out was in my third year. We found, for a knock-down price, a virtually knocked-down house. In penury we decided to take it. The four of us lived in what seemed to be a leaky ship. The damp was so bad that every night I lay on a wet pillow, my essays turning soggy. Ed had the worst deal, with a carpet that squeaked when you ran your shoe on it. Towards the end of our sojourn, having been robbed of everything including the plastic telephone, Robin flooded what was left of the house when he left the bath tap on over the weekend. It made for fantastic parties, because the aftermath never made any difference to the state of the house. Our landlord, always shifty and unhelpful, amazingly returned our deposits. I think I now look back on the rangy 67-year-old with fondness and perhaps a bit of sympathy.

By contrast my next house was pristine and run by a domineering and ruthless landlord, who was unfortunately also my housemate. He had a nervous breakdown if the hoovering rota was missed and charged interest if the rent was a day late. Extricating my deposit was much more difficult. It required a series of carefully worded letters. He desperately wanted to be a hard-nosed businessman fluent in contract law, but couldn't cope with being a student.

The interim period between leaving school and leaving university cannot, when used well, be underrated. University is more than just a degree. But equally important is everything else that can come with student life. By living life to the full, trying things out, working hard and playing hard, as I feel I did, the student is far more ready for the "real world".

We could afford to dive in any direction in the semi-real world of university because there were never any serious consequences to face.

Nurtured by conversations with some of my contemporaries and the abundant academic resources around me, I began in my third year to take an interest in the Middle East. And so I went to Iran with a small grant from my college and spent a month researching ancient Persian sculpture and its relation to Greek sculpture.

Many kebabs later, I returned sun-blushed, stiff-necked and with a zest for more. It was by allowing myself the full experience of university life and the constant association with other people with different ideas that I was led to this valuable opportunity. I am glad to say my interest in the country has endured and it is luring me back again, this time on a professional level. Although, I'm hoping to cut down on the kebabs this time.

The writer graduated last year and is about to take up a job on the Tehran Times

Parent's View: George Metcalfe:
'It was the making of him socially and academically'

Daniel was always going to be an enthusiastic scholar. Aged two he asked his three-year-old sister, Luisa, "Where was I before I was born?" Her reply, "In God's waiting room", satisfied him for a bit.

At 12, he was invited to stay in Prague. I suggested it would be good manners to learn a few words in Czech and paid him 10p per word learnt. Our Czech friends, delighted with this budding linguist, suggested it might be useful to learn Russian. On his own initiative, Daniel obtained teach yourself Russian books, and his eldest sister, Georgia, gave him some Russian tapes. After a stay in Russia a couple of years later, he began a lively correspondence with the BBC, accusing them of dumbing down their language programming.

Daniel discovered Latin and Greek, and a deep fascination with linguistics, at school. At University College, Oxford, where he studied classics, Daniel was first granted an exhibition and later made a scholar.

His time at Oxford was the making of him socially as well as academically. I shall always hold in my mind a walk that Daniel and I took down the High Street at Oxford, during which he was constantly approached by various people who knew him.

I was struck by the gentle and courteous way in which he greeted everybody. The Master of University College told me the other day that he much admired Daniel's focus but that he appeared always to be surrounded by a lot of girls!

I must admit, it took me some time fully to recognise Daniel's somewhat idiosyncratic approach to life. When he was younger, I am ashamed that occasionally I became irritated by what I now recognise as Daniel's own way of working things out.

While he was up at Oxford, I thought about these moments with regret. I took him out to lunch, apologised and told him I loved him. We hugged each other. (We always have.) For me it was an important moment of resolution - for him, too, I hope.

His course prompted Daniel to undertake adventurous travels. To write his 10,000 word thesis for his finals, on comparing classical Greek and Persian architecture, Daniel went by bus from Turkey to Iran having, in his usual fashion, begun to learn yet another language - Persian, which he also speaks fluently along with his Russian.

His present plan is to travel to Tajikistan via Iran where he proposes to write a book on that troubled area.

In the last year, as he has throughout his student life, he has taken on any and every job to earn enough money to support himself in the succeeding 12 months, including, recently, wearing a pair of angel's wings in a store promotion - constantly fearing to be recognised by Oxford peers.

I am immensely proud of him.

The writer is a life and business coach

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