I was going to write a review this week, but decided that I’d rather start making some blogposts tailored at students just finishing A-Levels and GCSE based on my own experiences around University. I don’t doubt once I graduate I’ll probably come back to these posts with a more informed piece regarding the entire experience and whether University is ‘worth it’. Also, the art is by me. I couldn’t find the images I took from Hillwalking so I just decided to illustrate some bits.
A lot of the material I found was heavily tailored towards STEM related subjects and the economic ‘grindset’ side of University, ie. ‘It isn’t worth it to rake up £9000+ in debt for a degree where you read Shakespeare’. My perspective is from a humanities student that had a non-linear experience with University due to mental health.
Some background: I’m a third year English Literature student at a Russell Group University, who’s started this blog to kickstart myself into a career in writing. I have been working on short stories and a novel outside of the blog. I am autistic, and vocal about it since it has informed my entire life experience.
I hope this post is enlightening to anyone about to go into or considering going to University that may have struggled with mental health, are neurodiverse, or just need the extra tips.
Moving Out isn’t for Everybody
My Uni experience started off terribly.
I went to a University an hour away from home in order to study History. I enjoyed it at school, found the Open Day persuasive and because I had negative experiences within my local area, I hoped that I too could experience the ‘blossom’ that happened with moving away.
Turns out, moving out of home as a neurodivergent individual still grappling with mental health was a terrible move for me.
It started with Fresher’s. I was dressed and ready to enjoy the parties but realised I couldn’t stand a rave, then realised every fresher’s event was a rave. I didn’t mind the idea of drinking but did drinking have to necessitate a dance party with blaring loud music?
Then it was the housing. I chose one of the more expensive catered options so that my parents wouldn’t worry about me skipping meals. Even so, once my mental health declined I even skipped those provided meals.
The problem with my housing was that I was on the first floor, and I had to go down the stairs to the ground floor for the toilets and the showers. These were communal, and unfortunately there’s a major difference between communal in the sense of home and the sense of people you barely know. There were times I would go to the toilet at 11pm and freeze up because someone was in the stall next to me. With neurodivergence too, there’s already extra steps (spoons) that are needed when it comes to self-care, and I found the steps to navigate downstairs to shower and dress to come back up the stairs very stressful the more my mental health declined.
Big tip on moving out: Even if you feel you might not need accommodations, you probably might. Take advantage of student loans.
You want and need to support yourself. Make use of every service available to you, whether that’s libraries for free course books, helplines and mental health services, DSA, and tutors.
‘Useless’ Degrees and You Can’t Study Everything
Then it was the subject itself. I enjoyed History at school as previously mentioned particularly when it came to History from the 1800’s up. However, the majority of the curriculum focused on History around the 16-1700’s and certain modules I chose I found to be far from what I expected.
I admit: I felt pressure when choosing my subject because I wanted a shot at post-uni employability, and was partially swayed by my parents in making that decision. Even if English was and has always been my passion, it didn’t feel useful as a degree choice through the many videos telling me that I would be unemployable and effectively wasting my money.
As my grades began to slip and I struggled to keep up with the density of the coursework, I started to get more anxious about going into class. I didn’t make a lot of friends either, so I dreaded any seminar that involved talking to the person next to you, and I would ruminate on the smallest hints that justified in my mind that people hated me.
There was a big case of imposter syndrome. I was good at History at school, but here I saw people that seemed to know so much more than I did. Particularly in a class focused on Tudor history, I saw people that seemed to know everything when the entire extent of my knowledge came from Horrible Histories.
Something important I learnt through my grades turning abysmal was as follows:
- You can’t read everything.
- You can’t be perfect.
I struggled deeply with perfectionism as a side effect of bullying, effectively needing to prove myself as capable and hating myself when I couldn’t achieve that. These days, I’m alright with just getting a solid 2:1 grade, because it can be very hard to get 1sts and I’m happy just passing and doing well. And while I’d love to read absolutely everything, sometimes you just don’t have time to read that one Austen book at the end of term or that one 50 page theoretical essay. It’s about crunching down, finding what you enjoy the most that you can work with on coursework and tailoring the degree towards the eventual marking.
What I’ve come to learn is there’s no useless degree. Any degree has its uses, but it all depends on you. I’ll come back to that point a little later, but especially when you don’t have an exact career in mind, it’s important to choose something you love rather than something you hate.
I definitely still worry about my post-uni prospects, even though now I have a little more guidance in what I want to be doing (which is writing). I, and possibly you the reader, are part of a generation screwed over by big corporations and governments where home-ownership feels like a dream and the job market is stacked against everyone. It’s pretty daunting, and it’s scary sometimes to think the next few decades of my life will be paying back debt because I didn’t really know anything better because I was institutionalised to stay in education.
And that’s why I focus inward. I love to read and write, and I spend my time doing just that because that’s my passion and what I’d like to make into my career. It’s been a long time coming in forming this view on what I want to do with my life, but I’m happy to have some direction. Use University, or even an Internship, to turn inward and figure out your path, and use the tools at said place to advance. What gives you purpose or meaning, then how can you live with and off purpose and meaning?
Societies aren’t too bad
Now, this is an example of taking advice and not following it myself here. Through the pandemic, I’ve been terrible when it comes to joining societies and I hope to remedy that going into my final year. I have a few Uni friends who have also echoed this sentiment.
When I was at this previous Uni, the highlight of the experience included the Hillwalking Society. I eventually struggled with going on walks as my mental health dipped, and struggled more than I expected when it came to scaling Tors in Dartmoor (and eating unsafe foods with sensory sensitivity). But the Saturday walks that I did attend were some of the most unforgettable things I did, and I don’t regret them in the slightest. They were arduous, sure, but it gave me some acquaintances during my semester, and gave me a love for walking.
Especially for Neurodiverse students: Join a society about an interest, whether new or not. Yes, give that Anime and Manga Soc a chance. ND people primarily form connection through shared interest, and at Uni it can be very hard to meet people without these societies, especially in a heavily self-study focused degree. Plus, getting involved is a great way to build your employability.
When it came to making friends at my current Uni, I sort of happened upon a very nice group of people just by joining group chats. Sometimes you don’t even need to put too much thought into it. Personally, I found honesty has really helped me when it’s come to friendships or passing acquaintances. It helps me to be upfront about who I am and what my deal is because otherwise I doubt myself when I’m stuck in my head.
Take advantage of everything you can get (And Deferral is an option)
Around mid-way through Semester 1 at this previous uni, I effectively became a shut-in. I only ventured out of my dorm if I absolutely had to, and avoided people seeing me at any cost. I became deeply ashamed of myself, and wallowed in self-loathing. I was Gregor Samson. I drew the curtains, and hid away.
I needed to use various tools and services in order to help me. I used the dorm’s phone-in service which was helpful for check-ins during particularly bad days of breakdowns, and the counselling service. The counsellor was nice, but it definitely helped me see the difference between talking services and CBT, the latter of which helped me on the road to recovery and healing.
The other thing I was very lucky to have was DSA. In particular, DSA offered me a mentor that would check up on me regularly and advocated for me as an autistic individual. I still work with this mentor, who’s incredibly wonderful. They helped me a lot when it came to deciding to defer my studies.
Now, when I was looking at information, a lot of it never pointed me towards deferring. I thought it was 3 years straight, or drop-out. Deferring is the case of postponing studies temporarily, rather than dropping out where you simply leave. We worked with the staff and tutors to explain my situation and helped to get me deferred at the start of January.
Which perfectly lined up with the entire country shutting down due to COVID. I was lucky my Dad could pick me up and take me back just in time, because I don’t know how well I would have been had I been forced to isolate. Deferring during the pandemic gave me time to get in contact with CBT services, return to my immediate support circle, and give me direction on changing universities to commute in and study English.
Even now, I utilise anything I can that helps me with my work. My current Uni added something for DSA students which is an extra coversheet, signalling to markers about how to mark my work in a way that is productive for ND people.
I don’t know if I could effectively answer if my current degree is ‘worth it’. Especially after the worst of the COVID pandemic, I don’t know what the state of English as a degree subject is (with governments wanting to defund the arts, teaching as a less lucrative/more demanding field and controversies around ‘liberal’ education). But going through the negative experience and studying something I love has given me time and direction that I sorely needed. In the last three years, I decided on writing as my ultimate passion, and this English degree has helped me to expand my literary horizons and focus my potential as a writer.
My partner just recently graduated too from a more streamlined, industry-focused degree. He put it into perspective that University is a way to build yourself towards your career goals rather than as a space of dedicated study. Even if you go into academia, what people don’t stress enough is you need to build the links and skills necessary to build your future. Make that LinkedIN page, attend talks, go to societies, go to careers services. Uni gives you three years of a space to help you enter the working world.
That’s why I’ve started this blog. Partially to get all of the special-interest info dumping into a digestible form, and partly to show that I can and want to write. And this coming year, I hope to network and talk to different people about ways of breaking into the writing industry. University gave me a space to study something I love deeply, but it’s also given me what I sorely needed: time to figure out how I define my life. When I finished sixth form, I had no clue who I wanted E.S.Wills to be. Now, even if I can’t say for certain what exact job I want to supplement my writing career, I at least have more direction.