University is supposed to be one of the best times of your life. You meet new people, make new friends, and experience new things.
But for me, university was the worst three years of my life. I never imagined it would be that way.
At the age of 17, I, like many of my peers, had to make a decision – whether to study at university or not. The secondary school I went tried to convince us it was the best option.
I still recall the morning assemblies now. How we would essentially be told that if we didn’t go to university, we were condemning ourselves to a life of working at a fast food restaurant and low pay.
Not being fully aware of what the alternatives to university were, I applied. But there were signs right from the start that it wouldn’t be for me. Despite being listed in the prospectus, my first choice of course was discontinued. It was only when my application wouldn’t submit that I found out what had happened.
I therefore decided to go with my second choice of course. But then, when I attended an open day, I was told that this course had also been discontinued, and that I should have been informed of this several weeks ago.
But these issues would really be minor to everything that happened later. By now, I’d decided to study my third choice – journalism.
It was as soon as the first week that I realized I’d made a mistake, not with my course, but with the decision to go to university.
I grew up and live in a sleepy village in a rural area, in the north of England. I’d made the decision to commute, with the journey by train taking about 15 minutes there and back. Looking back, I realize this automatically put me at a disadvantage socially, because while others would meet up in evenings, my daily routine consisted of getting the earliest train home.
But I still remember a seminar on my first week at university. It was a small class, and we were put into groups and told to find four things we had in common. A simple enough task, right?
A girl who was in my group immediately piped up with “Well, I guess we all drink alcohol!”
Uh, no. You guessed wrong. As bizarre as this will probably seem to anyone reading this, I, at the age of 18, had never touched a glass of alcohol. It just never appealed.
I said nothing that day, and just smiled. I was conscious of not wanting to be known as “the weird guy who doesn’t drink” on my first week at university. But that was when I knew, these people were different to me. Admittedly, I didn’t help my cause in fitting in with some of the mistakes I made.
Take the whole embarrassment with this girl I had a crush on, for instance. I cringe when I think back to it.
There was this girl who was on my course, who I saw from a distance. She wasn’t in any of my classes, but I’d see her at the big lectures we’d have. I soon developed a crush on her, and was wondering how I could make her notice me.
I decidedly, stupidly, to post about my crush on Twitter, in the hope that she’d both realize it was her I fancied, and take a hint. It was dumb, and soon the whole thing became a source of amusement for other class mates, and a huge source of embarrassment for me. I just hope that girl doesn’t remember it as well as I do.
Through that, I alienated a few class mates, and before I knew it I was struggling terribly with anxiety at university.
Rarely would I step off the train in the morning as I arrived in the city without feeling a pang of anxiety in my stomach. The fact that I hated the busy and crowded city life, and much preferred the quiet serenity that home offered, only made things worse.
It’s hard to explain how I would feel on a routine day. I would feel full of nerves, even if I knew precisely where I was going and what I was doing that day and therefore had little reason to feel nervous. Even on the shortest of days, when I only had to be in university for a morning, I’d come home feeling physically and mentally drained, exhausted.
As such, I suffered with my eating. I’d struggle to eat my evening meal. On several occasions, I was physically sick. My weight suffered.
I was scared and confused as to why this was happening.
In my last years of secondary school, I was perfectly content. I was with a group of people I felt comfortable around and enjoyed going to school. I was happy socially, and felt reasonably popular. Plus, I’d never previously had a problem with my eating. I was what you might describe as a “picky eater”, sure, but nothing more sinister than that.
But I didn’t seek help. “I’m just feeling under the weather”, I’d convince myself. “It’s just a phase I’m going through.”
You may wonder, reading this, why, if I was so unhappy at university, I didn’t quit?
Several reasons – one being something I said earlier. I didn’t feel there were any opportunities for me outside of university.
Also, I was worried about two other things. I was worried about the financial burden.
While I was studying at university, the cost was £3000 a year. To American readers, this may sound like nothing compared to the cost of college you have. But I still had to go through the students loan system to afford this, and the way it works is that if quit after the first semester, it doesn’t matter. It’s essentially free. But if you stick with university for longer, and then quit, well, you’ll still be racking up debt.
It’s messed up.
I was also concerned how I’d be perceived if I did quit by my family and other people on my course. I didn’t want to let anyone down.
And so I was determined I’d see it through to the end. In many ways it was foolish, given the effect it was having on my health. But I didn’t want to quit and feel that it had been a complete waste of time and money. I wanted to get something out of it at least.
There were times I came very close to quitting. There was one day in particular, where my loan for the year hadn’t processed correctly and I was threatened with expulsion from the course, where I felt like saying “fuck it”.
Another day, after being sick the previous night and feeling as low as I’d ever been at university, I came home and cried. But by then I had just started my final year.
I got through it. I graduated with an upper second-class honours degree (2:1) in journalism, and was only a few percent off achieving a first-class honour, the highest you can graduate with.
I remember my final day at university just as well as that first week I mentioned earlier. The sense of relief as I walked the familiar route to the train station was unbelievable. But it was mixed with disappointment that university had been such a terrible experience.
I didn’t once look back in the direction of the main university building. I didn’t go to my prom or graduation ceremony either. For me, university had been something I’d endured, rather than enjoyed, and truth be told, I just didn’t feel like celebrating after everything that had happened. I was just happy it was over and wanted to move on with my life.
I’m pleased to say that since I left university, things have improved an awful lot. I now have no problems with eating, and my weight is back to a healthy level. I work in an environment where I am both happy and content, and feel much more like my old self.
But it took a while for that to happen.
These days I find myself reflecting on my time at university a lot. If I’d done things differently, would I have been happier? Or was I, a quiet, shy, country person, always someone who university was never going to be for? I don’t know.
There are things I wish I’d done differently, certainly. But more than anything, it was a huge education of how I should and shouldn’t be. That’s ultimately what I’ll take away from those three years.
I just wish more schools would realize that, and didn’t try and force everyone down the same route.