Reflections on the “university experience”

So. Hello again. I’m back, after not blogging for over a year, but I’ve been having a lot of ~feelings~ recently that I just need to get out. On top of that, I feel that I’ve lost touch with some of my creativity since I started working full time and I need to reconnect with that aspect of my personality. Ideas come to me in fully formed sentences and let’s be honest, it would be a shame to waste that kind of inspiration.

Anyway, enough of my spiel. This isn’t a post about why I should or should not blog. It’s about a subject that I feel deeply passionate about.

I’m talking about the expectations of the “university experience”.

I graduated in June this year, and since then (and for a few weeks before graduating, actually) I’ve worked full-time in a bookshop. When I tell people this, I’m often met with confusion – not so much from my peers, who understand what it’s like to be young and break into the working world, but often from older people. After all, I got a First in my degree. Why on earth would I decide to go into retail? Why am I not doing something more “high powered” or even degree-related? And the truth is: I just don’t want to.

My time at university was full of ups and downs. On the downside, I suffered from (often crippling) depression and anxiety from the very outset. I decided to study music because I had aspirations of being a professional singer, but was soon put in my place by the voice in my head that told me I could never be good enough, that I didn’t have the energy levels to push myself to that kind of ability. And it’s true, I didn’t. I soon learnt that it was causing me far more mental fatigue and damage to my overall experience of university than was necessary. It was for that reason that I decided to pursue music psychology and community music instead. I really enjoyed these elements of my course, and it was definitely that enthusiasm that amounted to my overall success. But I won’t pretend that my experience here was without issue.

Along the way, I faced even more competition than I did when I was more performance-orientated. I had lecturers who would constantly pit us against each other, whether intentionally or not, and to be honest, my whole two Honours years were riddled with bias. It hurt. It really hurt. Constantly getting mixed messages from different faculty members and peers meant I rarely had any idea who to trust. I had lecturers who would pretend to be my friend, support me through my illness, then cut me off with no warning, suddenly ignoring me in favour of louder, more confident students. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. None of us would ever be offered any additional development opportunities, because they would be exclusively offered to the “favourites”. For someone like me, who had aspirations of studying for a Masters in community music and hopefully setting up their own social enterprise one day, it hurt that I wasn’t given the chance to prove myself and gain experience. In fact, when I visited my Masters university of choice to sit in on a day of teaching there, I was astounded at how democratic it all seemed. Of course, it may not have been as wonderful underneath the surface, but it definitely appeared as if all students and staff supported each other on a much more emotional level. Everyone there had different backgrounds and different ambitions, and they were there to learn from each other and develop their own ideas rather than being told, categorically, what “community music” was or was not. There was no “my way or the highway” attitude at all.

Unfortunately, I felt so disillusioned and exhausted by my whole undergraduate experience that any ambition I had to do this Masters soon dissipated. I left my course thinking, “I don’t know if I can ever go back to music if this is what it’s like. I don’t know if I was ever a musician”. Because honestly, I felt so constantly undermined that I felt like a totally different person from who I was when I had started university and had such big ideas for myself. The toxicity around me completely killed my passion.

Of course, there were some real highlights to my university experience that I wouldn’t change for the world. These highlights have made me the person that I am today. My involvement with the music society basically ruled my social life for four years. All my best friends – and the only people from uni that I still see on a regular basis – are music society people or coursemates of music society people. Being on committee for two years proved challenging at times, but gave me employability skills like you would not believe. Similarly, I absolutely adored volunteering at the student advice centre. The camaraderie between volunteers and staff was amazing and I loved going in for my shifts each week, not to mention all the outreach (including therapet sessions! PUPPIES!) I did with them. The advice centre was basically my second home. I actually had quite a few advisor and student support job interviews, but alas, none of them were meant to be. Ultimately though, I didn’t mind because I know that just volunteering did so much for my self-esteem and gave me invaluable transferrable skills.

Which brings me back to my original point. I love my job. I love being a bookseller. Sure, I’ve encountered a lot of red tape and hoops to jump through in the name of bureaucracy, but there is nothing better than talking about books and putting books into the hands of customers who I know will really enjoy them. And my colleagues could not be nicer. I’ve recently moved branches due to staffing demands, and I’m even happier in my new branch, where I’m working in a really small, supportive team. Much as I would like to do a Masters in a year or two (I’m now thinking maybe librarianship), I’m glad I’ve taken time for myself after my degree to really think about what matters to me.

What matters to me is my happiness. What matters is helping people in a way that feels nourishing to me. It’s not about making more money, or doing something “relevant” because there’s pressure to do so. I take great pride in my work and enjoy telling those who scoff about how tough it can be (my God, it can be tiring to be endlessly smiley to customers for 40 hours a week, find books based on the vaguest of descriptions, unload hundreds of kilograms of books every day, take everything off towering shelves to dust every little corner, rearrange toy animals only to have a small child take them out to build a cow army on the floor moments later…The list goes on but the good far outweighs the bad, and the “bad” is never really any more than a bugbear or two). I relished the opportunity to fill out the recent university graduate survey with “yes, I got a First, yes I work in retail, yes, I fully intend to still be in this position in a few months”.

Please, let’s stop perpetuating this idea that university is supposed to be the “best years of your life” and that you’ll come out of it with a comfortable 2:1, immediately be picked up for a lucrative grad scheme, and have a blast earning your first million. University is an experience that will change you and that’s never to be discounted, but it’s okay to not enjoy every little bit. Although I’d still say that my experience was more positive than negative, there’s definitely elements of it than I can categorically say I did not like.

By pretending that university has to be one long party and the best years of your life, we’re silencing students who would benefit from speaking out about their mental health, course concerns and the plethora of other issues that are constantly glossed over by this amped up “UNAAAAY” myth. I’m so happy that students are becoming ever more political, and while many bemoan my own student union’s political moves – never have the words “safe space” been so divisive – I think it’s fantastic that we, as students and recent graduates, finally have decent platforms to make our voices heard. We will never stop shouting out the message that our generation are the generation who want to make society fairer and improve wellbeing, rather than craving power. We are the generation who understand how tough breaking into a career can be, and applaud and recognise the value of hard work of any kind.

The phrase “you do you” has never been so apt.



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