Wednesday, 26 December 2018

on university

Over the last two years I have been to two different universities but remain curiously unable to express my feelings about my experiences without the urge to justify myself. My thoughts continually resort to comparison against the mythical definitive 'university experience', and I shape them in accordance with how they appear against this concept. My university experience is not a recognisable narrative and in some ways I feel like a failure. After attending university once before and giving it another go, I'm beginning to understand that university is not a drama I play a role in, but a script I am able to write for myself.

My first attempt at university took place in 2017 in London. It was a dark place, a busy place, a place that introduced me to a depression I hadn't encountered before. I left after struggling through nearly two terms. Looking back now, I probably should have realised something was wrong when I stopped leaving the house, stopped eating properly and developed an unhealthy taste for pesto paninis and large cups of tea purchased from the university cafe and consumed after every lecture or seminar. In this state of complete ignorance, lying to myself to cope, it took my mum suggesting I might actually be depressed for me to break down in the Tottenham branch of IKEA and admit that this university wasn't right for me at all.

Trying to communicate afterwards how utterly empty I felt to friends and family via metaphor or comparison always felt, and continues to feel, clumsy. I'd hear myself utter yet again that London was a 'bubble' I couldn't handle. All the cliches spilling out my mouth seemed performed, spoken by a disembodied voice that didn't belong to me. I felt distant from my own communication of the experience, unable really to capture it and so resorting to images which didn't truly serve my purpose faithfully. Lacking the tools of language to shape a narrative to be told, I felt denied of a sense of ownership. I didn't feel I was telling anything sincere, my experience reduced to this dark mass I couldn't get a hold of; a force which rendered me devoid of energy and happiness and to a certain degree, self hood.

Months passed and I tried to get on with my life. I got a job. I met a boy. I made friends. I reflected. I was reunited with home comforts. I fell back into the routine of family life. Parts of me were growing and parts of me were happily reacquainting themselves with the self I left behind when I moved to London, a place where I lived in a state of constant emptiness, surrounded by the feeling that this city and this university wanted nothing more than to spit me out. A pervasive fear of this emptiness haunted me. However much I struggled for it, my motivation for engaging with culture, with music, books, podcasts, with things I loved before, was nonexistent. Amidst the trauma of losing myself in a place where happiness was a rarity, I continued to feel as if that part of myself that was capable of happiness was gone, irretrievably left behind in memory, belonging now to the summer of 2017, a pre-university world.

In other spheres of my life I was happy, but there were aspects of me which didn't seem to have recovered. I went to therapy. I went to work. I tried to move on. I spent a lot of time thinking returning to a new university better suited to me would cure me. An instant remedy of sorts. When I arrived, ready to tackle it all once again, it was different. I was different. In the struggle of attempting to return to a self I once was I had become an altogether different person. Through working and encountering new people and navigating the world outside of university I had grown. Being thrown into a world full of 18 year-olds fully intent on getting drunk and not turning up to lectures put this into perspective. I was so utterly pissed off at all this around me. What I wanted from university was not the narrative everyone else seemed to be living. University was not going to cure me or help me find myself when I felt so distant and detached from the world everyone perceived it to be.

I'm in Norwich now. I live in a flat with 12 people and only really get on slightly (and that is putting it kindly) with one girl. On my course I don't click with anyone. I've had coffees and gone for food with a handful of students, but never anyone I'm enamoured by. I find it difficult to get on with people who do English, despite the fact we may share an obvious common interest. I work hard, perhaps too hard, and put my all into my degree. I'm home a lot, visiting my boyfriend and don't get involved with a lot in terms of university life. Societies are full of people that want a very different experience. I want a degree, I want a new city, but I don't want the university world.

Whenever I reel off facts like these I have a tendency to over-compensate for things, feeling I have to justify the fact that I'm home so much, or that I don't go out-out and dislike the alcohol culture, or that I spend a lot of time focusing solely on my degree. I feel as if because I am going about a university experience that isn't part of public discourse, I'm doing something wrong, or I'm failing, or I somehow deserve the anxiety I sometimes get about feeling lonely. I expect only choruses of 'You don't help yourself Imogen'. It's hard to put into words that I'm not necessarily not helping myself when I don't throw myself into the university bubble. I don't really want to be a part of it. It's not what I want from my university experience.

I'm learning that it's okay to feel out of place at 19, surrounded by students younger than me going about things differently. It's okay that my party-animal flatmates probably bitch about the fact I sometimes keep myself to myself, only seeing me when I emerge from my room to collect my second Deliveroo of the week. It's okay that I've become known as the elderly 19 year old at the end of the corridor with a penchant for doing jigsaw puzzles. It's okay that I'm there for the degree rather than the life experience. I have a life at home, I have friends here and I'm incredibly close with my family, and university is just something I happen to also do.


  1. I totally think uni has this persona that only a small, small proportion actually fit into. Its so ridiculous because, at the end of the day, what's the point of spending £30,000++ on nothing??? But its so hard not to feel as though you are somehow inadequate because you don't conform to that stereotype. Your uni life sounds dreamy and real and really that's how it should be. I hope you continue to find your place in Norwich, admitting something isn't right is scary, and trying again is even scarier so go you!!!
    stick to what you do xo

    1. You're so right - and despite it being suited to so few, it's become such a norm and so ingrained in cultural expectation that we don't even give it a second thought, we just assume it's something we have to do even though the lifestyle may not actually suit us at all!
      Thank you so much - I'm really trying to commit to the idea that it's okay to just live my life as normal and not feel as if I should be subsumed by a uni bubble. I'm just doing what makes me happy and if uni sometimes comes into that, then that's great, but it doesn't have to be a world I fully immerse myself in.



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Maira Gall