Fifth year (or: how university should be)

Of all the years at university, the fifth year was the best. Why did I decide to do a Masters when I had found my undergraduate so difficult? And why in History, a subject I hadn’t even studied at A-level?

The summer after fourth year, I found out I had not got a first. I was absolutely crushed, but given the amount of time I had spent in work or in the newspaper office, I had no right to be. There was one thing I knew: I was done with English Literature. I had presented a possible PhD thesis to a tutor in my final year – a psychological study of Milton’s Satan entitled ‘What’s the problem, Satan?’ – only to be laughed out of the room (or actually, the opposite of laughing – ‘you can’t make a joke on your PhD proposal’).

I loved my job at the theatre. I’d been promoted, so I had more responsibilities and more money than I had ever had before. I ate proper meals and was genuinely happy.

I decided I wanted to really challenge myself. In my final year, I had chosen courses I knew I would do well at, but now I wanted to do something I was unsure of. Having spent four years in Ireland, blissfully ignorant of the country’s history, I would spend a year immersed in ‘Modern Irish history.’

To prepare, the summer before I began I read tome after tome on Irish history. I asked everyone I knew who had done a history degree for recommendations. I went from knowing nothing at all to having a very shaky grasp of the chronology on the first day of the course. But I loved learning something new. And I loved reading something different. I read not a single novel for two years after my final year of university. At the time I thought I might never read a novel again. I was done with literature, and literature was done with me. I had never seemed to understand it, and the less I succeeded, the more I grew to despise what I had once most loved.

The Masters was blissful. There might have been 12 or 15 of us taking it, so we all knew each other. We were all total geeks. For once, I totally fitted in. We went for lunch and talked about history. We went to optional seminars just because we wanted to. It was absolutely joyous. I was totally out of my depth, but almost no-one had studied Irish History before, even if they had studied history. I also came to the course without arrogance – I knew I knew nothing. Unlike literature, which I felt so confident about, only to have my ignorance painfully revealed, here I merrily accepted how much I had to learn. My undergraduate degree had knocked humility into me.

And History suited me. Instead of synthesising abstract theories, I was plugging away in the archives, reading documents and letters written hundreds of years before. In History, the long hours spent reading endlessly were rewarded with high marks. I seemed to be doing better at something I had never studied before than I had for my entire first degree.

I grew in confidence. In the second term, I was the only person who chose to take a course which was fiendishly challenging that had hundreds of pages of assigned reading every week, along with plenty of statistics. Now I had a degree, I was paid more to teach drama at the weekends, and I also marked essays for a correspondence course. I invigilated exams for undergraduates. I had worked at the theatre for so long I could choose shifts around archive times and seminars.

Instead of queuing for the library, I swiped into the 24-hour graduate reading room any time I wanted; a beautiful and old room where there was always a place to sit and where you could bring your coffee without anyone seeing you and telling you hot drinks were for outside the library. The 24-hour reading room was full of geeks just like me. I knew few of their names, but all of them to smile and nod at. There is a warm community in the geek world. Now, lecturers wanted to talk to me. I would turn up to their offices and we could talk about the essays I had written or the documents I had found in archives. They would share their research, and point me in the direction of a new cache of papers.

As the year drew to a close, I submitted my PhD thesis proposal again – on nineteenth century Irish history this time. It was well received, and although I didn’t get funding for it, there was the strong suggestion I would if I reapplied the following year.

It would have been lovely to do a PhD. I finally had a lovely, lovely life; super friends and the best part-time jobs ever. But university had made me tougher. I wanted to take the difficult route. I had heard that Teach First was tough, so I decided to do that instead.

 

Summing up

After five years of university, I had not had a full week off. I had barely had a full two-days off. I had counted every penny for five years. I had been genuinely hungry many times. I would not do those five years again for any money. They were difficult years.

But I did not hate university, and I do not hate university.

University killed my arrogance – eventually. It taught me humility would be a surer route to learning. It taught me that work can be the highlight of your day – and that is ok. When I had failed in seminars and failed in the library, I could still turn up and do a good shift at work. We should never despair, because we can always do some good.

And however disappointed I was to not achieve a first, I did not fail. I did not drop out. I finished, despite how difficult it was.

In the amazing musical In the Heights, one of the characters struggles to find her place at university, far from her multicultural home, and wonders what her life would have been like ‘if my parents had stayed in Puerto Rico.’ University is such an immense culture shock, it is tempting during the experience to imagine: what might have been if I had stayed where I was ‘meant’ to stay? If I lived the life my background wanted me to live, instead of living this alien life, this life of literature and theatre and Waitrose?

I have so much to be grateful for: university taught me the value of a good day’s work; it taught me that I was strong enough to withstand slurs and smears and stay standing; it taught me that I could choose the tougher option and succeed in that option. A quote I read recently in The Count of Monte Cristo really resonated with me on this: ‘those who are born with a silver spoon, those who have never needed anything, do not understand what happiness is.’

University was not like I imagined it would be when I read those 1920s novels. Nor was it anything like the experience of some of my closest friends, who describe it as three years of fun and parties. University was a struggle, but the struggle was brilliant.

 

You can also read about my first, second, third and fourth years at university.

Fourth Year (or: I had to pass)

Fourth year started. I was feeling happy. I had good hours working a job I loved that paid well and also enabled me to study while working. I worked on the newspaper stand in Freshers Week when I wasn’t working, encouraging new first years to join us. I had a group of people I loved working with at university, and a group of people I loved working with at the theatre.

But it was also time to get serious. I may have neglected my studies in third year, but I wanted to get a first. I needed to get a first. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I wanted to show I had thrived there.

At the end of third year I had signed up to do a course in the modern novel and a course in Jane Austen. I had done all the required reading. I had even, possibly for the first time since Atonement in Freshers’ Week, enjoyed it.

But I needed a first. And one of the course leaders had given me a low 2.1 in first year; the other a low 2.1 in second year. I needed to be strategic. I swapped onto two courses with course leaders I’d never had before, but which were topics I had got firsts in previously – Shakespeare, and Old English. And I really did love those courses. We had optional essays for the Shakespeare course, one a week; I completed every single one and got a first for all of them. None of the marks counted towards my final year marks, but it seemed like a good trajectory.

I was balancing three jobs now: the theatre most of the time, teaching weekly drama and creative writing classes, and occasional waitressing at a sports stadium. I was also balancing my commitments to the newspaper and other university societies. I put everything into everything. I studied between customers at the theatre, where I worked with some of my favourite people I had yet met in Dublin. I ran between lectures and the newspaper office. I burned the midnight oil in the library. I was working so much I didn’t need money for anything but three meals a day; for lunches I could finally afford a proper sandwich with any filling I chose. Life was glorious.

There were low points. If you throw yourself into ‘public’ life (or, the public life of the amateur stage that is university), you are a target to be shot at. Plenty of people wrote letters to the editor about how awful my writing was. One person took umbrage at a column I’d written about life after university, alleging I’d been born ‘with a silver spoon’ in my mouth and ‘could rely on Mummy and Daddy’ to bail me out after my degree, which could not have been further from the truth. One person stood up at a society AGM and called me a fraud and a hypocrite. One person stood up at another society AGM and said I had abused society funds for my own personal advancement, when of course I had done no such thing. An email was circulated to the whole English class about me, the content deeply personal and clearly vindictive. When I complained to the university officials, they said they would investigate it if I halted an ongoing newspaper investigation into dodgy aspects of the university administration they did not want being made public. It was my first experience of officials using their position so dishonestly. I refused to pull the investigation, and the writer of the malicious email went unpunished.

I remember the day results came out. I had arranged for the day off work so I could prepare myself. I longed for a first.

Use the links to read about my first, secondthird and fifth years of university.

Third Year (or: I stopped going to lectures)

After the blow of not winning a scholarship, I felt resentment building up about English Literature. I had read everything, and worked so hard, but it had not been enough. Not knowing anything about Dweck and ‘Growth Mindset,’ I declared that English was ‘not my thing,’ and proceeded to throw myself into other aspects of university life.

And third year was in some ways a really wonderful year. I worked for the university newspaper, and for the first time my work felt purposeful. I wasn’t serving drinks to make a pittance, and I wasn’t slaving over books to fail to win a scholarship. I was writing, writing, writing and copy editing; spending whole days and whole nights in the newspaper office over a production weekend, and making actual friends who also got a kick out of working insane hours to produce something concrete at the end of two weeks. I absolutely loved it.

Getting involved in university also had other perks. I found out that there were events that had free drinks, if you only knew the right people, and suddenly I had something of a social life. I worked in a shop, not a bar, so I had evenings free and could actually socialise the way other people did.

The downside of my shop job was, after Christmas (when they had employed a huge amount of extra staff to deal with the massive Christmas bonanza), they kept on far too many of us, which meant there weren’t enough hours to go around. I went from working twenty-five hours a week in term time to being rota-ed for about ten. It was not even enough to pay my rent.

But others who worked in the shop were sometimes flaky. Although my availability for hours was weekends and times when I did not have lectures or seminars, I would often get a call: ‘can you come in for six hours? Someone hasn’t shown up.’ And I would go in.

Third year was the year I started skipping lectures. I didn’t make a habit of it; except that I did, because they always called to offer me hours, and I always said yes. I didn’t want to miss classes, but I did.

When I turned up to the classes, I had done the basic reading but nothing more. I had stopped reading anything to accompany the texts. When I knew I would miss the lecture or the tutorial I didn’t read the text either. I was scraping 2.1s on my essays, which I would painstakingly draft and re-draft in the hum of the newspaper office in between churning out articles and re-writing other people’s. In the newspaper office, I learned the difference between a dash and a hyphen, and when to use a semi-colon. I learned how to check sources and get quotes and find stories. But I did not learn much about English Literature in my third year.

Before exams, the hours had dwindled ever more. Others were feeling the pinch; for some, this was their full time job, and they were working less than 20 hours a week. I resigned just before exams, hoping others could take my hours. I went for a newspaper-related scholarship. After all, I had given up evenings and weekends (in between shifts) to the newspaper. I thought I stood a good chance.

The end of third year brought both good and bad news. I did not win the newspaper scholarship. It turned out, being involved in university societies meant you made enemies as well as friends.

The good news was that I had a new job. I was working in a theatre, selling tickets. It was a different world. For one thing, I got to sit down all day for the first time in three years. For another, they were willing to give me ten-hour shifts six days a week during my university’s summer holiday (on the seventh day, I worked as a teaching assistant at a weekend programme for young people; soon, I was a drama and creative writing teacher there). And finally, when the phone wasn’t ringing or customers weren’t queuing, I could read. It was the perfect solution to my problems. No longer exhausted and run off my feet earning minimum wage, suddenly I could draw the wages of a king (€10.50 an hour!) for sitting and reading. I saw Riverdance five times, and loved it each time more than the last.

In the summer, I looked up my exam results online. 66%. I’d got a 2.1. In fact, I had dropped only one per cent from my first and second year results. The difference in not attending lectures and not spending 8 hours a day in the library was one per cent.

Next week, I will write about my final year of university.

You can read about my first year here, my second year here, my fourth year here and my fifth year here.

Second Year (or: desperate for a scholarship)

The summer after first year was filled with work – paid work, and library work. I was surviving on five or six hours of sleep a night and spending the day in the university library. I spent the summer in Dublin so I could keep up my job and my library schedule intact. I read for my courses, and I read for my soul. I read all of Shakespeare’s plays and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I still loved reading. My first year results were good. I didn’t get a first, but neither did anyone else on my course for that year, so I felt like I had done well. I won a prize for one of my courses, but when I went to collect it they said that it had already been issued and they couldn’t give it to me again. It had been book tokens. They re-printed the certificate, though, which I kept as a reminder that I was not, contrary to how I felt, stupid.

I had worked all summer so that I would not have to work during the first part of the year. The scholarship exams were in April, and term started in October. I had seven months to win the scholarship, and €100 a week to get me there, after rent. For lunch in my first year, I had bought a cup of boiling water (€0.35) and mixed a packet of powder soup into it. This year, I could buy a scone with jam (€1) for lunch. Life was good.

But studying for the scholarship exams was tough. You had to re-learn everything from the first year, including things I hadn’t especially understood the first time around, plus everything in the second year, including courses that hadn’t yet been taught. I went about it the only way I knew how. I read everything, learned quotes for everything, read critics’ essays and learned quotes from them. Somewhere along the way, I had lost any idea of having a critical thought myself.

While I ploughed the bibliographical furrows most the day, the lectures were increasingly disconnected from anything I had ever thought about literature, and the seminars left me feeling more and more out of my depth. I could not have spent more time in the library, but my ideas were all wrong. I had to give a presentation in one seminar. About halfway through my five pages of painstakingly prepared notes, the seminar leader interrupted me, shaking her head and saying, ‘no, no, no! You have got it all wrong. You haven’t thought about it at all.

I had read all the books, but couldn’t understand a thing. It was the intellectual equivalent of ‘all the gear, no idea.’

That said, I felt confident when the exams came around. I couldn’t help but feel confident. No-one else had spent the whole summer in the library. Some people had only started putting serious library time in from January. But I had always been in the library, and, like the slow and steady tortoise, I thought that would work. More than that – it had to work. I had to win the scholarship, and be free from financial stress; be able to eat lunch with my friends who I would surely make and keep when I could go out with them occasionally or buy them a coffee in return for the ones they had bought me. I went into that exam hall – huge and daunting, decked with immense portraits. I had my exam rituals and my lucky pens. I had read everything.

Immediately after the scholarship exams ended, I contracted the worst illness I’ve ever had. My body completely collapsed. But I had to work. With high fever, I worked two jobs under a ‘trial’ basis, only able to keep my tips. I collapsed and was sent home from one, and I stayed in bed and didn’t show up to the other one, which I had forgotten I had.

The day of the announcement came, and I had never been more nervous. I had managed to get a new job, and skilfully managed to get the day off. I silently hoped I would not return to the job, but would spend out my ‘emergency fund’ the rest of the year, safe in the knowledge my rent was paid for the following two years, and more if I did a PhD as I dreamed I would. I remember hanging around the English department with another hopeful before the ceremony started. The Head of English came out, and stopped. He looked at my friend. ‘You’re Tom,’ said the Head of English. ‘I am,’ he replied. The Head of English nodded and continued walking. He hadn’t said anything to me. That’s when I first thought: maybe I haven’t won it.

As it turned out, neither of us had. The long list of names was read out, and I stood with the others at the back of the hall, increasingly despondent. Afterwards, we crowded to the board to see our results. All the English hopefuls, five of us, had got 2.1s – enough to not have to take the summer exams that year. But none of us had reached the magic first – the 70% needed to secure a scholarship. The Head of English sidled up to us. ‘No Scholars in English this year,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It’s a real shame.’ Given that he had marked the papers, we felt his expressing this sentiment was a little inconsiderate.

In the two months after finding out I hadn’t won a scholarship and was exempt from all exams, I both worked and slacked. I did not go to lectures. I did not go to seminars. I did not go to the library. I did, however, go to the university newspaper. I met some people and started to write. I hung around and hoped I could find a place there.

You can read about my first year at university here, my third year of university here, my fourth year of university here and my fifth year of university here.

First Year (or: why I didn’t drop out in the end)

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.

 

You can read about my second year of university here, my third year of university here, my fourth year of university here, and my fifth year of university here.