Monday, 1 August 2016

When What Feels Like the End of the Journey is Actually the Very Beginning: What I Really Learned at University

I first began this blog when I started University. That was a whole four years ago. My only readers  then were my Nan and my Dad, the two people with whom I wanted to share my  experience and keep in touch with, for I am truly awful at keeping touch - easily distracted, forgetful and more than a little bit afraid of phones.

I was about to start a brand new chapter. I had never lived anywhere before that wasn't Cornwall and I had done a year at Falmouth university studying Art, which hadn't been an altogether pleasant experience. I was a little unsure about what university had in store for me, but I was excited to begin someplace new, explore a whole other part of the island and make new friends. After quite a few applications for a variety of courses and last minute mind changes (Originally I was accepted into York, Warwick and Bath Universities to study French and Linguistics/Modern languages) I settled on a degree in Photography at Bath Spa. It was a shock to so many people who knew me as a literature and language nerd and they couldn't understand why I would turn down acceptance at such prestigious universities to go to a little-recognised institute such as Bath Spa. 
My Nan and Dad were so supportive and I couldn't thank them enough - Not all parents are agreeable when their child wants to pursue a degree in the arts field, especially after turning down a promising future in languages, but mine were. They were patient with all of my mind changing and supported me emotionally throughout the year that I spent stalling at Falmouth University doing a Foundation in Art & Design whilst trying to figure out what sort of person I was.

Why did I choose BA Photography? Looking back, I think it was a bit of a whim. I really enjoyed taking photographs and thought that the degree could teach me something. I thought it would be pretty fun - more fun than studying languages and I thought I would connect with lots of like minded people. I LOVE knowledge and I have so many interests! I really struggled to pick one subject that I could stick to for three years. I sort of wish our degrees were like the French system where you study lots of different classes. I'd pick philosophy and english and foreign languages and art and geography and history and astronomy and the study of celtic folklore. In the end, my tutors at Falmouth pressured me to pursue photography and offered me a place there, but although I loved Cornwall, I knew that Falmouth wasn't the place for me and I needed to get away, open my eyes to a different way of life and escape the stuffy pretentiousness that made me so anxious in art school. 

What I actually learned

I do not like studying photography 

Well guess what, that degree didn't work out. Within three weeks of starting the course, I knew it wasn't for me. I begged one of the teachers to let me change degree but they said it wasn't possible. I stuck out the degree for two years, feeling disconnected from the work I produced, a sadness that I didn't have the community I had hoped for at university and frightened that my third year was approaching and I hadn't experienced the academic onslaught and saturation that I had hoped for. Under stimulated and deflated is what I felt and I wasn't ready to leave, having racked up an enormous debt for such a vanilla experience. The truth is, I am an academic at heart. I have always been somewhat of a split personality and despite being creative at my core and loving to imagine, paint and make things, my soul requires the stuffiness of libraries, dusty books and intellectual challenges. I am a glutton for knowledge and wisdom and I needed other people like that. The truth is, I really hated Art school. I totally understand that for so many people, it's an incredible and perfect experience, but I felt like a fraud. I couldn't share in their hobbies and passion for art history, galleries bored me to death and I felt that my interest in fine art was superficial and insubstantial. I struggled to connect with the other kids at art school, I really disliked the campus and yes, overall, I felt like the odd sock. 

It's okay to change your mind, even really late in the game 

I was so fortunate to be in what must have been the loveliest flat ever in Halls. I stayed in the Unite Waterside Court accommodation which was shabby and impersonal but not uncomfortable, and the true delight were my flatmates. Some of us decided to move into housing together the next academic year and one of them, Keren, was studying Creative Writing. 
In my second year, I became quite envious of her assignments. It seemed that her course was combining both academia with creativity - I didn't even know this was a thing? I began to research the course quite heavily, sighing because it became clear that it was a degree that was akin to my soul. It was everything I had ever wanted in a degree, and I wasn't on it. 
Towards the end of my second year in BA Photography, I had to write an essay (Something about zombism, culture and commodity fetishism) and the tutor who for that module who was nothing to do with photography, peered over his glasses and leaned forward. He asked me if I had ever considered that I should be on the Creative Writing degree. I bemoaned that I had indeed but it was too late, there was no way I could do that as I had already asked my teachers if I could change and the idea was pooh-poohed. He told me that it was most certainly not too late and that I could start  in the new term at the beginning of second year Creative Writing and that I would be daft not to. I immediately emailed a begging letter to  the head of Creative Writing who kindly waved aside my frantic crazy and accepted me. The rest is history, I began again in September at a new campus, entered into the most colourful and zany community I have ever known and became a student of a degree that I couldn't possibly have loved more. 
Changing degree was the best decision I have ever made. It may have taken a long and winding path to get there, but got there I did. It was so worth it and eventually, as of a week ago Friday, I graduated with a First class! 

Advice I would give to Fresher's:

  • Trust your gut - If you're not getting along with your degree, it's not too late to swap to another one. It's important to study what you are passionate about and that which stimulates your mind. Your hobby may not always be your passion and that's okay. 
  • Don't feel guilty for hating Halls - It wasn't for me. I loved my flatmates but that was about it. Living in a huge and noisy building full of loud parties? No thank you. I am a fan of small spaces and creature comforts. 
  • Homesickness is normal, but also don't feel guilty for not feeling it. I got horribly homesick and spent a lot of time darting back and forth. I settled into Bath life a lot more when I stopped doing that. Putting down roots in a new place really helps, finding a part time job and making friends with the people outside of uni really helps you to feel a sense of belonging. 
  • Don't party too hard - they say the first year doesn't count but it sets a precedent for the rest of your academic career. Try to balance the fun with getting the most out of your course. You're only cheating yourself by doing the bare minimum, remember, it's costing you a lot of money!  I hate to sound like a granny but it's true. I saw a fair few people fall by the wayside because they had too many late nights out and racked up thousands of pounds worth of debt with nothing to show for it other than a slightly less spritely liver. 
  • Join societies - it's easy to let yourself get into a routine of getting out of bed late and going to class without doing much else. Enrich your life with activity and fun, go meet some new people, discover a new interest, learn a new skill! I joined Samba drumming and co-launched the Bath Spa Harry Potter society and those things really helped me settle into the Uni life and community. 
  • Enrich your life with good things! Go to the freshers events (I didn't do this and I really regret it!) Don't live off beans on toast... if you're really struggling for money, see if there's a job you can get for one day a week. Eating badly can make you feel more lethargic and won't help you in the long run so an extra £10 to spend on food will really help make a difference :) Suss out the local area and travel around! Make yourself familiar with the local walks/picnic spots/swimming pools and take time to explore and adventure. 
  • Don't leave your deadlines to the last minute - Seriously, I mean it. It took me three years to learn that doing my assignments when they're first set and finishing them with two weeks to spare before the deadline is extremely satisfying. As is watching everyone else flap around me in blind panic because they had left it to the last minute. Haha, just joking, I'm not that sadistic ;) Or am I?

Above: My Nan making a rare appearance on the blog! She hates me sharing photographs of her so I'm probably going to get told off for this, but how could I not when she has been such a big part of the day and my life? Not all families are the standard, conventional model of Mother + Father + Children. In my family, I've got my Dad who has always been a single father, My Nan (who is my mother's mum) and George.  My Nan has always been more of a Mum to me and is the closest thing I have to a Mum so it was only right that she got the one of the two graduation ceremony tickets. 

Here I am turning a page onto a new chapter and I haven't got a clue what's in store for me. It's sort of terrifying and exciting and feels like facing a huge empty abyss. I feel a little like that guy in the painting 'wanderer above a sea of mist' only the mist is replaced with adulting, bills, rent deposits, broken down cars and council tax. 
So what did I really learn at University that was worth fifty grand? 
Probably that University isn't really worth fifty grand unless you are going to be studying a career specific degree, which means you've got to be really serious about education and your subject if you're going to commit to that level of debt. 
I learned that it isn't for everybody, and that's okay. George quit half way through his first year because it just wasn't working for him. If you feel like the sort of person that really struggles with self-motivation and time management, Uni could be a tricky uphill struggle. University life isn't all parties and lie-ins, it's hard work if you want to make the most out of it. This post isn't necessarily about the black-and-white right answers for everyone but these were my learning experiences which really helped me. 

And now onto the Graduation part...
I had an incredibly perfect graduation - I really don't think it could have been better. The sun shone, it was filled with delicious food and I succeeded in getting the grade I wanted. I'll elaborate more on the delicious food part later as our choice of venue [The PIG] for the celebrations really deserves its own post - It was so unique and would recommend it to anybody! 
We drove up from Cornwall in the morning and Dad prepared a delicious picnic lunch which we had in the park by the weir just before the ceremony. I was part of the 1pm ceremony and afterwards we strolled around the city, making our goodbyes and had cocktails in the sun. Then we whipped off to The Pig which is a few miles just outside of Bath and fortunately on the route home and had probably the best dining experience of my life. We soaked up the sun outside after, finished off the wine and strolled around the kitchen gardens which were absolutely amazing. Around 9, we departed, watching the red sun sinking into the hills staining the clouds purple and orange. 

Md back again in one day, threw together a tasty picnic and treated us to the best meal ever. 

Massive thank you to my Dad who worked so hard to make the day amazing. He drove us all to Bath and back again in one day, threw together a tasty picnic and treated us to the best meal ever.



  1. Congratulations to you on your graduation! And thank you for such an honest post, it's so difficult for anyone trying to make decisions about further education nowadays (makes me feel SO old that it wasn't the case for me!) because the cost is so prohibitive. If you're not doing something vocational it can be really hard to justify it. I'm jolly glad your journey worked out just as it was supposed to.
    M x

  2. Congratulations! I'm so glad you wrote this post- I'm hopefully heading off to university in September and this is reassuring to know that all of the doubts are okay and that things work out in the end. I think I'm most looking forward to moving to Cornwall- the Penryn campus hopefully!
    Sending all my best wishes your way for the next chapter in your life!
    Emma xo //

  3. Omg almost shed a tear reading this Sarah :') what beautiful memories, and your Nan is so beautiful hehe despite the sneaky photograph! Well done on the first, you truly deserve it, with your amazing and magical words you've graced us here all along. Uni was super stressful for me, and I spent the first two lost and feeling left out (as law school often does to you) but the final two was memorable because I did an 'exchange' year out and spent the last one studying philosophy as one of my modules (my guilty pleasure teehee)! And massive kudos for being brave and changing degrees, I can see you made the right choice.

    Ahhh what else to say except big love and many wonderful times ahead for you! So happy for you, truly!

    Cherie | sinonym

  4. Congratulations! I am so glad you have done it- yay!
    Your advice is really good. I know my husband has so many regrets about his degree- he has so many hangups about it and wished he'd left and gone somewhere else.
    I am excited for what is coming next for you!

  5. So happy you managed to find the right path in the end. Congratulations! xx

  6. I have so many similar feelings about university. I originally was signed up to York to study English Literature, but actually I really hate people telling me what I should think about a novel, so ended up choosing geography in Penryn after a year of working and exploring a bit of India. Best decision ever came purely from my gut. Definitely true about getting stuck in at uni, joining societies, getting a job and meeting people outside your uni life to make you feel settled! Alice xx

  7. I love the gown and hat you wear for graduation in your country. We don't wear such garments in my country. I wish I could have paraded in them when I got each of my 2 degrees.
    BTW Congrats!!

  8. Congratulations Sarah! As someone whose uni experience has also been quite up and down and all over the place it is so reassuring to hear your story and valuable advice. Sometimes it can feel like everyone else but me is just breezing through and making the right decisions from day one but it's good to be reminded that we can all get to the right space in the end. I'm glad you found your place in creative writing, I love reading your words on this blog - your posts are like little stories in themselves! xxx

  9. Congratulations on your graduation!! And well done on all your hard work during uni. Like you say, university is a lot of hard work! Loved reading this post. University is definitely a journey, and it's different for everyone. How lucky that professor told you to change to creative writing! Following your gut is definitely the most important thing. I was originally going to study international relations because that's sort of what I did in high school, but had a change of heart at the last minute and decided to apply for English Literature instead. And now I've decided to do a joint degree in English Lit and Linguistics, because I've realised I love both subjects.

    Sounds like you had a wonderful graduation day. I love seeing Bath through your camera lens even more now that I've actually been there.

  10. Congratulations on graduating!! And can I just say I loved this post! I can't wait to come back in a years time when I've graduated & reflect back on it all.

    Katie // Words by Katie

  11. I don't know anybody who didn't feel like this about their degree at some point. Looking back after 2 years I definitely wish I pursued one of the other universities I got into as it was a joint degree so I got to do education whilst still studying dance, DOH. However, I met some great people and had some amazing experiences. I'm just doing what I still can with the thought in my head that it was what I wanted at that point!

    I'm SO glad you graduated a happy, motivated and determined young women! I wish you all the best :)

    Emmie |

  12. What an excellent post - you articulated the feelings of so many young people so well. I wish I had been as brave as you when I was at university and gone with my gut rather than persevering a dead end course I didn't enjoy - but you are right that it is never too late to start again and be in control of making your life a happy one.
    Will be sharing this with all the students I know!
    I'm so glad that you enjoyed university in the end and had such a wonderful graduation, you write beautifully and its clear you deserve that first!

  13. I think I congratulated you via Twitter but I'd like to say it again! Congratulations.

    I totally get this post and although I didn't go to university, I had the same experience with my education in general. I went down the wrong path but in someway it all tied in nicely with what I love doing now. Looking back, like you, I wish I'd gone on to creative writing ( I still probably would have gone into what I do now) but perhaps a little quicker. That said we certainly can't change our past and we can only embrace our future. You're so lucky to have corrected your life path so young.

    I'm excited to see what's next for you!
    Loving Life in Wellies Blog


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