In a recent conversation about university, I remarked off-hand that ‘I hated university.’ Given that I spent five years there, this is, one would hope, a melodramatic piece of hyperbole. I’m going to write about university in a series of posts, partly to make peace with my time there, and partly to consider some of the pitfalls of the experience which I hope we will be able to prepare our children for in the future. These posts are personal, and I don’t intend for them to be representative of anything other than my own subjective experiences.
First year (or: why I didn’t drop out in the end)
Why did I choose to go to university in Dublin? Looking back, it seems like a bizarre choice. My first year of university occurred before the ravages of top-up fees set in, and I was eligible for a full student loan at any UK university. Why travel to another country, with a different currency and, as a foreigner, have no access to student finance? I think the choice was a combination of arrogance and ignorance, not uncommon in 18-year-olds. Arrogance, because I had spent my life surrounded by loving family and wonderful friends, and I assumed I was completely content in and of myself and had no need of these pillars of support; ignorance, because I didn’t recognise quite how hard university would be – intellectually, socially, or financially.
My whole life, I had saved up to go to university, but I was not well-off. I had won an assisted place to a private school, and my fairly posh accent belied my actual circumstances. The long summer after A-levels, I worked two jobs – one five days a week, and the other the two remaining days of the week. I signed up for as many shifts as possible. I remember two things about my jobs that summer: one was walking home at midnight through the eerily silent small town as fast as possible to maximise sleeping hours; one was doing ‘split shifts’ (where you work the lunch shift, have three hours off and then work the dinner shift) and coming home in the three hour break and sleeping. I saved everything. I used to go to the bank and deposit hundreds of pounds worth of tips in pound coins and small change into my account weekly. (They hated me at the bank.)
As a result, I paid for the first term of accommodation and had enough money to not work for my first term at university – if I could live on just under €70 a week. I wanted to focus on reading English and really understanding English Literature at university level. My understanding of what university would be like was formed by Kingsley Amis and Vera Brittain, and was hopelessly out of date. I envisioned evenings spent reading in a common room with hot chocolate, debating the vicissitudes of Victorian literature with equally eager scholars. The reality was somewhat different.
One anecdote perhaps sums up this first year at university. I clearly remember Freshers’ Week because I was reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement. This may well differ from many people’s Freshers’ Week experiences. I shared a room with another girl, and I remember her getting ready to go out. A swarm of other first years came into the room, where I was tucked up in bed in pyjamas, merrily reading. They valiantly attempted to persuade me to join them on their clubbing adventure. I had not been to a club before (I did go clubbing a grand total of five times in my career as a student. I hated it each time) and adored my book. I stayed home and read.
I attended every lecture, even the 9am ones. I queued for the library at ten to 9 every morning. I read everything on the reading list, and I read around each book. I sat at the front in lecture theatres. But I was also horribly out of my depth. I didn’t know what ‘dichotomy’ meant, and this turned out to be quite a pivotal word. Derrida and Fanon absolutely boggled me. I had literally no idea what Foucault was saying. I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, stupid. Stupid, alone, and very far from home.
A few months in, I plucked up the courage to say this to a fellow first year. To my shock, he said: ‘me too.’ I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like everyone else was having a brilliant time; but the reality was, I wasn’t alone. That conversation gave me the courage to go to my ‘mentor’ – the lecturer assigned to first years to be your helper. She was extremely kind, and said we could look into a transfer to a university closer to home if I was really homesick. But I explained that I wasn’t actually homesick. I was just sick of being broke. By term two, I was working long and unsociable hours – 6pm to 3am Thursday, Friday and Saturday – in a bar. The wages would just about cover my rent, and I lived off the tips. That meant I had between €50 and €120 a week to live on, depending on how busy we had been. Enough to live, and enough to eat; and for that I was very grateful. But closer to home I could get a loan.
The lecturer gave me some advice – if it was money I was worried about, I should stay put. The university offered an extraordinary scholarship programme – free accommodation, including a free evening meal, plus the annual ‘student charge’ (around €750 at that time) paid until the end of your degree, including your postgraduate, and all your postgraduate fees. It seemed too good to be true. All I had to do was pass the scholarship exams in the second year.
The hubris of youth burning bright within me, I decided to stay. I threw myself even more into my studies and stopped resenting work. I had a new goal: win a scholarship and stay in university.