‘Hello, and welcome to Stirling University. My name is Gemma and I’ll be your guide today.’
Ok, so there’s the opening line, down pat. From there I’ll be flying by the seat of my pants leading prospective students around a campus I have known and grown to love in just over two weeks. Any attempt to mask the fact that, as a new student, I took the same tour not so long ago will, I’m afraid, be exposed after my broad Australian accent rears its head in place of the wonderfully curly Scottish intonation they might expect from someone claiming to know a lot about the University!
So, I don’t sound like a local (I am positive they are not always speaking English!) but sure feel like I’ve been embraced as one. I’m not in the habit of incorporating ‘wee’ or ‘aye’ into every sentence yet but here in Stirling, a small city heaving with 9000 students, ‘local’ is a relative term encompassing students coming from all over Scotland, the rest of the UK and another 70 countries worldwide. In the space of ten minutes, during an international welcome evening, I had met people from Sri Lanka, Lithuania, Spain, Sierra Leone, Canada, Japan - the list goes on… That is part of the reason why this exchange is so incredible. I know there will be very few times in my life where I will be able to experience a whole new culture and enjoy being part of such an interesting melting pot of people all at once.
Now some might call me a little brazen or even a slightly over ambitious for taking people around a university that was, two weeks ago, completely foreign to me. BUT when you find yourself in a place as beautiful as this, it’s hard not to want to share it with anyone who will listen! It’s the perfect scenario. It works for me and my family and friends who will no longer have to endure being the outlets for endless glowing reports of my ‘resort-like’ surroundings.
I believe I can date my first falling head over heels with this place when I drove through the gates and saw the rising hills mirrored on the loch which spreads its way across the campus. The trees are alive with birds, rabbits hop in between hedges and squirrels scamper over vast tracts of green lawn. What other university in the world has 'mind the wildlife' and ‘frog-crossing’ signs?! Set on 300 acres of parkland it’s easy to spend hours wandering along tree lined paths, across the golf course, around our own castle and through the woods which follow old lichen walls to little gorgeous villages nearby. I had been warned about the weather and am well aware of the impending winter but have enjoyed many a blue-sky day when everything comes alive with the sun.
The stint as a tour guide tracks back to a few words my very wise cousin told me before I left home - ‘do everything you can and always say yes to any opportunity that arises…’ I may have taken this advice a little too far by joining two sports teams, the campus paper and three clubs (something I’ve never done in Sydney) but there’s something about being away from your normal life and routine that throws you into a zone where anything is possible! I’ve suddenly found myself at the mercy of my own enthusiasm and involvement which means throwing myself head long into everything! Now if this also means enjoying a great many nights out - foam parties, pubs crawls, dancing until dawn or dressing up as a farm animal to attend a new friend’s 21st, then so be it!!
As my third week here comes to a close, I can honestly say that any qualms I had about coming to a whole new university, making new friends and settling in had expired within the first few hours after arrival. My classes are great (with one charismatic El Salvadorian journalism professor sporting African tribal shirts) and the Scottish are such warm and friendly people. I can sit here in my top floor flat (I like to think penthouse) looking over the loch and up to the William Wallace monument, and think that there is no other place I’d rather be right now. I knew I was properly settled in when I went into town earlier today and couldn’t walk 50 metres without seeing a familiar face or a new-found friend. There is a huge buzz in wandering down the street of a foreign city and running into someone you know. I had to smile to myself.
The air outside this afternoon is damp and the mountains in the distance are shrouded in mist (here comes the weather). You won’t believe me when I tell you but somewhere not too far away, a lone bagpipe is playing, the notes hanging softly in the air. Now, tell me, what could be more Scottish than that? Men dancing around in tartan might possibly do it but I’ll fill you in on that story if and when the time comes. In a country where the kilt is the most recognisable cultural tradition - it's only a matter of time...