This post will be a reflection of my experience with studying at University. There are many ways in which I wasn’t your typical ‘fresh out of a level living in halls’ student and so I thought it may be of use to those in any similar situations to myself, who may be thinking about going to Uni but thinking they may not quite fit in.
My time at University was very busy. With my ongoing fight with mental health, working full and part time, commuting hours, moving house and becoming engaged and planning a wedding. It was no simple feat!
I will be discussing:
- Deciding to go to university: My education (no A levels), thinking about money and affordability when independent from parents, gaining a place without enough UCAS points and choosing my course.
- A review of the course I studied year by year (Bsc Hons Animal Behaviour & Wildlife Conservation). Including student finance and making friends.
- Commuting to University – do you get the same experience?
- Mental health and University – do these two really mix?
- Working and studying at the same time – is it possible?
- What I’ve learnt – a few final words
Deciding to go to University
My education before studying – not doing A levels and leaving my diploma
I was very lucky in that I knew roughly what I wanted to do, and that was to work with animals. After my GCSE’s, my college (Lutterworth College) gave their students two options: leave and start full time work, or do your A levels. So, like everyone else who stayed on for education, I started my A levels. I chose 4: Biology, Chemistry, History and Independant Project. A couple of months in, I found it increasingly frustrating that although I was doing Biology and a subject which I should’ve been able to choose my topic – that I wasn’t learning anything about what I knew I wanted to do. I explored other options and found another college (Brooksby Melton) that did more vocational subjects. So, I threw the towel in to my A levels and applied to study Level 3 Extended Diploma in Animal Management instead. I was too late to start there immediately so had to wait until the following September, but I filled my time with voluntary and paid work until then.
I enjoyed College Round #2, for all the wrong reasons admittedly. I had a great time with my friends and the work wasn’t challenging. I got the highest grades for every piece of work that I did with hardly any effort. At the weekends I was working at Dogs Trust without stress of having enough time to study. I took on another qualification (Distance learning Level 3 Canine Studies at Oxford College) to give me more to learn. Although for a while it was fun, I knew it wasn’t a great use of my time and felt I could do better by just working full time instead. And so, I did! Again I left my studies and worked full time. I asked for all the remaining assignment briefs (about 10) and did them all within a week and handed them in, so I could at least get some form of qualification. I ended up with a Distinction* Level 3 Subsidiary Diploma in Animal Management, which is 140 UCAS points.
Thinking about Money
As I started College Round #2, I had moved in with my boyfriend. He is 6 years older than me and so had an established full time job, whilst I was about to start full time education again. Although I was working part time at the weekends, it is easier to have two full time wages coming in. Leaving my diploma to work full time with Leicestershire Wildlife Trust meant we were doing pretty well and during this time we bought a house together.
I then started working for Pet Blood Bank UK. This was all fine and dandy for a while until I came to the realisation that I was unhappy. And I knew it was because I believed I was capable of doing something more. I wanted to be challenged. I knew I wanted to work with animals – but I also loved learning, and was inspired by the scientists and conservationists whenever I watched David Attenborough documentaries. I remember thinking ‘I wish I could do what they are doing’. And the realisation came: ‘Why can’t I do what they’re doing?!’.
And so, me and my partner spoke things through about me potentially going to University. It is obvious that for our lifestyle and household it was far easier if I carried on working full time and not have a £40,000 student debt. We had a dog and a cat to look after, an eternal mortgage and all the other bills associated with housing. Like anyone we wanted to go on holidays, go out for posh dinners and have nice things. However, we decided that I should try and follow what we thought would make me happy and apply for University. I am so thankful that Simon gave me my freedom to do this even though I had previously said I wasn’t thinking about doing a degree. I am even more thankful that he supported me fully and was behind me every step of the way, believing in my endeavours.
Getting a place without enough UCAS points
So for those in the midst of applying for university or have been to university have probably had the exhilaratingly fun time of filling out the excessively long UCAS application. For those who don’t know what on earth I’m on about, UCAS is a website which gives you info about courses at various universities and is the main portal that allows you to apply for undergraduate studies. Many universities require a minimum amount of ‘UCAS points’ to be able to study. The amount of UCAS points you need will vary on the University, the type of course and the level of course (i.e foundation, HNC/HND, degree). UCAS points are earned mainly through level 3 qualifications – for most people it’s their A levels. The higher your grades, the higher number of UCAS points you have.
For me, I didn’t have enough UCAS points to do a foundation course. This wasn’t because I didn’t do well enough in my studies, but rather I didn’t do them in the first place. Even though I didn’t meet the UCAS requirements for any of the degrees I applied for, I applied for them regardless. It was important I stayed in travelling distance because I wasn’t planning on living away, so applied for any animal type course that were within 1 hours distance on google maps. On my UCAS application I spent a lot of time and effort into my personal statement to try and persuade universities to give me an opportunity. I rang each and every University to give me an interview so I could talk to someone face to face and show my passion and determination to do well rather than be applicant #1023 that they read online. The University of Wolverhampton accepted my place without wanting to see me in person and I was given interviews at Nottingham Trent, securing places afterwards. For these universities who accepted me, it was a risk for them. I had no proof that I could be good enough to do undergraduate study. And so I am still very appreciative that they all gave me the opportunity to try.
Choosing my place
When I was choosing my Universities I didn’t think about ‘how good’ any of them were. For me, I was pretty glad to have any place at a University considering my lack of UCAS points. So, this wasn’t a factor in my decision making process.
I looked at each course individually, and although they were all essentially very similar, I believed some had better opportunities than others and suited my own personal interests more. I also wanted to carry on working due to the money issue, and so ultimately decided on the course/university that days suited well to the days I was at work and seemed the most interesting. In the end I chose BSc Honours Animal Behaviour and Wildlife Conservation at the University of Wolverhampton. Funnily enough, this university actually had the worst reputation at the time from any of the ones I had places for. Jeesh – its the only university in the U.K. that refuses to be on university league tables. However, I loved the sound of the course and was very happy with the decision I made.
My Course – BSc Animal Behaviour & Wildlife Conservation at the University of Wolverhampton
Oh, how I hate you. I was extremely disappointed that even though I had been living indecently away from my parents for over 2 years at this point, having worked full time and owning my own home my student finance was based on my Mum and Dad’s earnings. Not only that, even though my Mum was not in work and my Dad was retired, it was based on their income a couple of years before. In a nutshell, I was not entitled to a grant (money you don’t have to pay back) and received the minimum possible student loan (around £900 each semester, in which there are 3). Had it been based on our household income, I’d have been entitled a lot more. I fought it every year when I had to reapply, but nope – it was always based on my parents previous income. They even told me on the phone, “your parents have enough money to be able to support you financially”. Like it was their responsibility to give me a wage because I made the decision to go to University. So cheers, for that, Student Finance, for making being a student as financially difficult as possible.
(please note this is nothing to do with my university but with Student Finance England/ the government).
Making friends before I stared
I knew I was going to be commuting in and so it was really important for me to try and make some friends so I wasn’t going to spend the next three years on my lonesome. A lot of uni’s have Facebook groups dedicated to Freshers so when I had made my decision to study there I joined. There you can find others that are doing your course or if you are staying in student accommodation who was going to be living with you. I had made my decision to study at wolves pretty early because I wasn’t awaiting any results, so there was only one other student I found (my now best friend, Alice!). She was living in Australia at the time but we spent a couple of months talking and we had very similar interests and the conversations were easy. Slowly more and more people accepted their places and we had a little group going on Facebook where we started to get to know each other more.
I took the week off work so I could participate in freshers week which was combined with introductory sessions at the university. I finished work at about 9pm in Leicester and drove to Wolverhampton where I was going to stay for the week and go meet the people from the Facebook group for the first time. I have to say it was pretty daunting and I was definitely nervous! But my beloved relationship with alcohol got me through and I had a great first night. For the rest of the week I went out pretty much every night, which was also helped by my wonderful friend Alex who came up to party with me!
The Course, Year 1
For my first semester I studied Wildlife Conservation, Animal Behaviour and Animals Inside Out, for the second Wildlife Practical Techniques, Ecology and Life of Mammals. The assessment type was a mixture, exams, essays and a creation of a portfolio. Some module grades were 100% of one assessment, others were a combination i.e. 50% exam and 50% essay. In my opinion this is a good way to assess students to suit different learning styles and strengths. Truth be told, I was really nervous about going back into education and compared to the students around me who had actually done proper level 3 education I felt behind. Whilst most people there were used to writing essays and exams, I felt I hadn’t done anything like that properly since my GCSE’s. Luckily, you get a detailed assignment brief which details exactly what they are expecting from any particular piece of work. In year 1, none of your grades actually count towards your degree. This gives you space to learn how to reference, the differences between reports, lit reviews and essays and really understand what is expected of you. After every piece of work you get some form of feedback, which you can take on board to improve for the next time.
It also took time to understand how the grades fell. It went like this: 0%-39% = Fail, 40% – 49% = 2:3, 50%-59% = 2:2, 60% – 69% = 2:1 and anything above 70% is a 1:1 (or a first, as it’s commonly known). I remember thinking they seemed pretty low. But to get the better grades is actually a lot more difficult than it appears on paper.
Within the first few weeks, there was a short field trip to Aberystwyth in Wales. Covered by it supposedly being ‘educational’ it was actually a great way for students to bond and to test out our field gear. Nevertheless, we did get to see some wonderful sights. Watching the starling murmuration over Aberystwyth Pier was a particular highlight, as well as watching dozens of Red Kites flying together at a feeding station. I would imagine me running round Aberystwyth town with two jugs of Sex on the Beach from Weatherspoons was also a sight to behold, but I digress.
My first semester went well. I got some good grades and a few I felt I could’ve done better. Which is the beauty of the first year, you learn how to interpret questions properly to give the answers that the examiners are looking for. I also had a group of friends which I got on with well. Unfortunately this changed at the beginning of my second semester and for reasons that now seems irrelevant to detail there were altercations between the group. This is not uncommon to experience, for when you start University you just want to make friends with anybody to avoid not being on your own. As you get to know the people better, you may not actually get on with them and so the friendship eventually ends. And, that’s exactly what happened with me. Of course as I was commuting in and out of uni, I wasn’t always able to do things in Wolverhampton with the rest of the group I made friends with. Ultimately it meant that the people I directly had problems with eventually became closer to the rest of the group, leaving me and Alice in a little twosome.
Therefore, my second semester was a little more difficult. I just concentrated on my studies and worked hard, trying to keep out of any drama. Some days were difficult however, especially when Alice wasn’t attending. I used to leave my house at 6am and drive for hours, sit in lectures on my own in the same room as people who I felt disliked me, then get back in my car and get home at 8pm. But, I knew I was there for one main purpose and that was to learn as much as I can, get the best grades possible and do something with my life. And so, after a kick up my own bottom, I stopped feeling sorry for myself just got on with it.
I really enjoyed the second semester module Wildlife Practical techniques. Every week for 12 weeks we went to a local nature reserve and were taught how to do different practical skills, including butterfly monitoring, harvest mouse nest counts, water quality evaluation and small mammal trapping. After each session we were required to write a report based on our findings which went into a portfolio. Not only was it great fun but incredibly interesting!
At the end of the year, there was a week long field trip to the Lake District where we had the choice of doing different activities each day. There were lots of options, such as bat monitoring, butterfly surveying, deer behaviour observations and bird watching. I was excited to do the trip and the activities, however I was a little apprehensive because I didn’t know many people. However I had a brilliant time! I got to know my course mates better and made good friends. The activities were fun but educational and I may have had one too many glasses of wine on a few evenings. The days were tiring and usually consisted of lots of walking but it was worth it for some of the fantastic views I got to see. A highlight for me was playing cards with my lecturers – who knew they were so competitive?!
My course, Year 2
I was looking forward to the start of the year and couldn’t wait to get back into my studies. Semester one modules included- Conservation biology, Behaviour Ecology and Research Skills, whilst semester two included Animal Behaviour in Captivity, Independent Study and Fieldwork. We got a few options for this year and I chose to do the Independent Study module so I could specialise a little more in something I found interesting. Similarly we had a little more flexibilty in some modules with what essay questions to do or what topic or species to focus on. This was great because it allowed you to tailor the course to meet your own interests and specialisms.
Research skills was a not a great topic. We approached things like how to write a CV, how to look for jobs etc. which are understandably important things however felt a little too late. I believe this sort of learning should be done in lower educations and definitely not undergraduate study. For a number of students too, such as the mature students or those in a similar situation as myself, it was frustrating because it was things we already know and that the University already offers on the side. I would rather have had the opportunity to change the module so I could study something to do with my degree. Regardless, I do believe the skills which were taught are extremely important and so although not great for myself, was probably beneficial for others.
In the second semester I absolutely adored doing my Independent project. We had to choose a species which had not been researched on ARKive (an online animal encyclopaedia!). I chose the Corsac Fox and wrote a literature review followed by an article entry for the ARKive website. It was challenging because as a poorly researched species finding scientific articles about the foxes was very difficult. Fortunately, I found the single Corsac fox researcher going and he sent me all of his research articles. My enjoyment for this module reflected in my grade, and I was very proud to get 87% which was amongst the highest I’d achieved to date.
In February, we had another field trip (included in the course – no extra payments!). This was either to Slovakia or Poland, and I was on the Poland trip. This was to track wolves, bears and lynx in the Carpathian Mountains. I was super excited for this one because not only had I not been to a snowy country before I couldn’t wait to learn all about the animals there. (I was also extremely excited to wear my brand new snow boots I got especially for Christmas!). On the first day, we headed out to walk which was an immediate incline. It took about half an hour and was reasonably difficult. When our guide said ‘Oh, that’s just the warm up!!’ I knew that I was going to be in for a tiring week and regretted not getting a bit more fit before I left. Over the week I walked miles and miles through knee deep snow up and down mountains, it was physically demanding (especially as I put myself on the ‘hard’ group with the boys!) but oh my it was so worth it. We found wolf and lynx tracks and scat, saw a bear den and learnt how to use GPS. I even got to try wodka! The week was indeed unforgettable and was one of my favourite experiences to date. At the end I was also proud that I won a little competition and was awarded a book co-written by one of the scientists in the field with us.
A funny story of Poland that I won’t be forgetting very quickly involved my lecturer, Dr. Chris Young. The night before I was due to depart I was stressing about not getting up on time and missing the flight to Poland – so much so I had a little dream about it. This involved Chris, my prim and proper lecturer, driving in a modded up sports car to my house, where he had come to collect me because I was running late. As I ran out and started apologising profusely, his blacked out window rolled down and he was wearing a giant gold chain, a backwards baseball cap, black ‘thug life’ shades and had a gold tooth. He uttered the words “it’s okay babe, Lil’ Chris goes with the flow!”. Quite a funny dream right? Well I told my friends, who in turn told Chris when I wasn’t there. As I was in Poland making sandwiches for the following day, Chris came up behind me and whispered ‘Lil’ Chris goes with da flow!’ and walked away. I think I went as red as the jam in my sandwiches!
My Course, Year 3
The stressful year! Before the end of second year I had chosen my dissertation topic and studied arctic foxes. There are of course, no arctic foxes roaming about in the U.K. and so I did my research over the summer period in Iceland. I had gained a place working at the Arctic Fox Centre for a couple of weeks and had an absolutely fantastic time. If you can, I would definitely recommend doing research by travelling abroad if you are interested in doing so – not only is it a great way to ‘discover oneself’ but immerses you into a different culture, an opportunity to see non native species and is something that will stand out to perspective employers. It also allowed me to make my own research decisions away from my University and for me to grow as a student.
First semester modules included Conservation of Aquatic Vertbrates and Applied Conservation Behaviour, whilst second semester included Research Seminar and Fieldwork Practice. Our dissertation module was a year long over both semesters.
I found a few issues with some of the modules compared to my previous years (or perhaps, these are just fresher in my mind). A lot of people struggled with the Applied Conservation Behaviour, and I’m not really too sure why. The assignment was just a little confusing. Personally I did well and got 81%, but I still don’t really know how I managed that! I think there was approx. a quarter of all of our class got between 0 and 39%, which is a fail grade. Anyhow, I think that this will be rectified for the next years so this problem isn’t repeated! My second problem was with the Fieldwork Practice. The idea was that we had to complete fieldwork at one of two local nature reserves in Wolverhampton a couple of times a week. I felt this was suddenly sprang onto us, and so me and my research partner were having trouble being free at the same time (both work and commute) on the same days. I had asked to do the research closer to where I lived in Leicester, however this was not allowed initially. Had I been given a couple of months notice I think this wouldn’t have been a problem. Thankfully about 6 weeks into the module and a flurry of emails between me and my lecturer I was able to do the research closer to home. Luckily this was just enough time for me to get enough data for my project! The assignment was like a mini dissertation too which also felt a little too much admist writing our main dissertations. I think this module would benefit from being more portfolio style like the Fieldwork module in Year 1. Though, I have heard they are changing this module too, which is great for future students!
However, I still loved doing my third year even with these minor issues. The dissertation module for me went pretty smoothly. I didn’t have much input from my supervisor which allowed me to make my own decisions about my own piece of work, which really paid off. In January, we did our dissertation progress presentations to a small audience which made up 25% of the total grade. I did have one small hiccup here because although I sent my presentation to be looked at by my supervisor at the beginning of December, she didn’t email me any feedback. It didn’t really matter in the end though because I did well anyway! The project part was enjoyable, perhaps excruciatingly painful at times, and it felt brilliant to hand it in after a years worth of work gone into it. I opened my results for my dissertation last week and I cried with happiness because I got the grade I wanted.
Because I didn’t go on any of the extra field trips (to South Africa and India) mainly because I couldn’t afford them, *cough cough* thanks student finance* I was given the opportunity to go to the Cairngorms, Scotland to find Scottish Wildcats which was paid for by the University. 4 students from each year went and was my final university trip! This was an amazing experience and I got to witness pine marten (which I’d never seen before!) and badger feeding together at a mammal hide, go to the exceptional Highland Wildlife Park and set up camera traps to find wildcats. Unfortunately we didn’t get any snaps of wildcats on our cameras but I did manage to get many pictures of my face as I tried to fix my trap to a tree! I would like to thank Ken Oliver for this fantastic opportunity.
I’ve just had all of my results back and am delighted that I will be graduating with a 1:1 First degree, the grade which I aimed for from the beginning. The feeling of accomplishment and pride when you’re given the grades you’re after blows away all the feelings of stress you may have had writing the assignments!
With any course and any university you’ll find pros and cons. I feel that I’ve covered both above, but the pros by far outweigh the cons. I am extremely grateful to have been given the chance to study with the University of Wolverhampton and even more thankful to have attended a University which provides such fantastic experiences and opportunities for their students. I believe that in terms of field trips and practical experience, this course far outweighs that of others – including the ‘prestigious’ universities. The lecturers are professional although will give you the time of day. Other course staff too are exceptional and you do feel as though they do care about you which is a rarity amongst higher education establishments. If you have read the course guide, my very honest review and are passionate about a career in animal behaviour / wildlife conservation and think ‘actually, that sounds great’, then bloody well go for it.
Going to University – But I’m commuting!
Perhaps you’re in a similar situation to me and want to live at home (whether that’s because you’re a homeowner, don’t fancy halls or staying with your parents) you may question whether you will have the same experience as everyone else. I commuted from Leicestershire to Wolverhampton, and although in non rush hour traffic it takes an hour and a bit, in the mornings it could take me 3 hours or more down the M6. I ended up being late for a lot of my early lectures even when I was leaving at 5:30am! So the first thing I recommend doing practicing the journey in the morning and evening rush hour on multiple occasions to get an idea of how long it is realistically going to take you to get there. You may find it quicker to hop on a train.
So will you have the same experience as everyone else? Truthfully, no. Though really, it totally depends on where you’re commuting from and how much extra time you prepared to put into going to societies and socialising with your fellow students. If you decide to commute and you already live in the same city as your university, I’d imagine your experience wouldn’t be too different from the students that live in accommodations. If you are still living with your parents you won’t have the same experience in terms of independence (i.e. cooking for yourself every night, paying bills, food shopping etc) nor sharing living space with friends. Though you also won’t have to deal with compulsory 4am fire alarms, Bob who always steals your food and Lisa who never cleans up.
If like me, you are commuting from a reasonable distance then you will have to ask yourself what do you want to get out of university. Do you want to have the student lifestyle – making lots of lifelong friends, going out partying and being involved in lots of clubs and societies? If you do, then I would say commuting is not for you. If you’re simply just after your qualification to progress your career then I would seriously consider it.
I found the social side difficult as I explained in my review during year 1. Although I have come away with one lifelong friend, there are people that I would’ve liked to have got to know better and formed a good friendship with. It was difficult to make close relationships when you just simply drive in , sit in a lecture and drive home. That said, I did get on with most people and by the third year everyone talks to everyone. Still, I don’t feel I missed out on anything, but that was because I never wanted the student lifestyle in the first place and just wanted to learn and get good grades. If you do not want to live away and there’s the option of a university in your home town that does course(s) you want to apply for I’d recommend that route. Unfortunately for me neither of the two Uni’s in Leicester do Animal Behaviour/Wildlife Conservation or similar!
Going to university and mental health
So, I am not going to make out like I can speak for everyone that has a mental health problem as each condition is very different and even those with the same condition can suffer from completely different things. I will merely give my own experience of studying alongside what problems I personally had to deal with.
By the time I had decided to go to university I had been in and out of psychiatric care since I was in my early teens. At this point in my journey I was seeing a very good psychiatrist and we were slowly on track to finding out exactly what I had and what could be done to help. I knew they were looking at Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Bipolar Disorder, however this was not officially diagnosed until further down the line in Year 2. (If you want to know a bit more about my journey, see my previous blog post!). I also wasn’t at my worst whilst in attendance at university.
The biggest thing that I believe tests students is stress. Stress of deadlines, writing thousands of words, having multiple assignments at once… I could go on. Those who have problems with mental health are more likely to find the stress factors problematic. Being organised with time and finding balance between work and play definitely helps this, but there’s no way of avoiding stress completely. If you are in a position where stress could really impact your health dramatically, I would advise holding off starting university another year until you are more comfortable with managing stress.
Even those who are confident in managing potential stress may struggle at times. I had a triggering episode at the end of my second year. I was struggling to complete an assignment and then had to drive into university to hand it in for a particular time. I was so stressed with the work and the pressure of getting there in time, it triggered a manic episode. I had racing thoughts and flashing lights in my head but I was still pretty ‘with it’, as so to say. I knew I couldn’t drive there in the state I was in so asked my friends who lived close to the uni to hand my work in on my behalf. But alas, everyone refused to do it for me, which looking back was pretty awful really. This then upset me further because not only I was upset that my friends wouldn’t do it for me but mainly meant I definitely wouldn’t get my work in and would fail that assignment. Therefore, the mania got worse until I couldn’t make logical decisions anymore, and decided to try and get there anyway and jump in my car. I remember driving and wondering if I could turn on my Moses power so I could split the cars like the Red Sea so I could drive through the middle on turbo speed. Eventually I stopped on the hard shoulder of the M6 in an absolute state and stayed there until I was at least not being so out of it.
Of course, I did get mitigation (an extra week to hand in) for the work. But I was very anti-mitigation and although I understand it’s what it’s there for – I didn’t want to feel that ‘I only got my good grades’ because I had extra time compared to other students. Didn’t want to have special allowances because I had Bipolar Disorder. Didn’t want to get higher grades than I deserved because ‘she produced this work even with her disability’. At time I was handing in work when I was depressed or manic – and still getting firsts regardless. Effectively I felt that I was still very capable and the problems that faced me I could manage on my own. (Please note: This is my own view point for me personally using mitigation for my own mental health).
Whether you use mitigation or not is entirely down to personal preference. It is supposed to be there for illnesses and severe personal circumstances, where it’s needed. Many students have been helped by it! However, I felt that the mitigation system was far too easy and you could get mitigation for really small things, or where someone told their doctor they had a particular illness and the dr would write a quick letter which then can’t be rejected from the university. Taking mitigation because you’ve simply just not done something in time and passing it off as something else in my opinion is shameful.
Having borderline personality disorder (BPD) although is not as severe or a lifelong illness compared to Bipolar Disorder – in some ways was more challenging for me personally to cope with as it effects you day to day rather than periods of time. Although I struggle most with having intense but unstable friendships, this did not effect me at university too much because I didn’t form any intense bonds. A large symptom of BPD is black and white thinking, in which things are one way or the other and there is no grey area. Things or people are either right or wrong, good or bad, angels or demons. This can make understanding conservation challenging at times or trying to make friends difficult. Also, quick and severe changes in mood. I could be really excited to be in a lecture one minute, then finding it unbearable the next. Fortunately I was receiving great psychiatric care at the time for this illness and learnt how to manage this alongside my studies well.
Overall, what I would say is that if you do suffer from an illness or think you may, make sure you have good support and feel confident in yourself to start. It’s ok to take another year or two out before beginning university – it is a far better option than starting and feeling like you can’t cope and potentially making yourself poorly and quitting. Most universities have their own counsellors and disability support centres. I didn’t make the most of mine because I was receiving my own care at home and felt that learning at university was my time off. But definitely seek them before you start, or whilst you’re there if you need. They can help you with mitigations, DSA (disabled students allowance), managing work and stress etc. More importantly, make sure you’ve made the steps yourself to talk to your doctor about your health and education (and register with a gp at your new city if you’ve moved!) and maintain regular contact with your physch if you have one.
Don’t ever think for one minute ‘I won’t be good at university because I’ve got *insert illness here*’. Mental health has no link with academic ability and as long as you yourself feel in a strong enough position to commit to studying, go for it!
Working and studying
For most of us, going to university isn’t great for our bank balances. And if you don’t want to always live off pot noodles you’re probably wondering if you could get a job at the same time. The amount of free time you have will depend on your universities or course requirements. I was attending university 1-3 days a week for my course, though other courses you may be in 9-5 daily. There is usually a set amount of work you must dedicate when not ‘in’ at university, and it’s totally upto you if you can handle balancing studying and paid work at the same time.
For the most part of my first year, I actually worked very close to full time hours. I was getting my uni work in on time and although I did have a few stressful periods where a lot of things were happening at once it was never awful. However, my job wasn’t very accommodating with me studying and so they kept asking me to work on days they knew I was going to lectures or put me on overnight call outs (where being called in at 3am in the morning was normal!) when I had to leave at 6am to travel to university the following day. Therefore, I left my job based on tiredness and feeling unsafe to drive, rather than study stress.
For the entirety of my third year, I had (and still do!) a job which was very good in terms of not giving me shifts on university days, reducing hours during busier study periods and flexibility to swap or cover shifts. Some weeks I could work 12 hours and others 35, I had more control of how much and when during the day I worked. This allowed me to plan out all of my studying time, work time and social time effectively. And although working does limit the amount of time you have to study, the fact I was earning money outweighed this and I just learnt how to be a bit more organised!
Most students can work part time whilst studying. Even if it’s 10 hours or under per week, it’s definitely helpful financially and easily achievable. Working full time however – I wouldn’t say is a good idea unless you’re doing a part time course. You may get away with it in the first year where things are a little relaxed and the grades don’t count towards your degree, but at the end of the day education has to be the priority over working.
What I’ve learnt
I’ve taken more away from being at University than just my course content. I’ve been able to completely control and manage my mental health which although down to me on my own in a lot of ways, I think studying and doing something I love helped me no end. Balancing time I feel I’m now expert at. I know I can work, study, see my family, have days out with friends, look after the house and my pets all at once as long as I’m organised. I’m more proactive. I’ve learnt that I can get to where I want to get as long as I work hard and push towards my goals.
I hope this exceedingly long post helps those who may be thinking of going to university, whether thats the same course as me or are in the same situations. I look forward to graduating and starting my Masters soon, and have high hopes for my future. In the words of Nelson Mandela “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”.