I‘d like to think I know a thing or two about Universities. After all I’ve studied at 3, and worked at 6, and over that time I’ve gained a little insight into what makes a good University.
The truth is, it’s a very personal choice. When I read about League tables and rankings, I often wonder how much they truly reflect the student experience.
Whilst clearly, what we look for in a University is different for everyone, what might be my ideal place of study (one in the middle of nowhere as was the case with my first University), might be another’s idea of hell.
All I can do is share with you my experiences about what I looked for in a University and my personal experiences of 3 very different institutions.
I studied for my degree in International Politics and History at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales.
However, ‘Aber’, as fellow students call it, wasn’t my first choice. I’d visited York and had my heart set on going there so when I just missed out on a place I decided to go and visit my reserve choices.
The first one I saw was Aberystwyth. If I’m honest I went purely to discount it. I was certain I wanted to study at a University in a large, bustling town or city, preferably one seeped in the history I was hoping to study.
But when my sister took me on the long journey to Wales, winding through the beautiful Welsh hills and arriving straight on the seafront, I immediately knew this was the right place for me.
Growing up in the Midlands I was about as far away from the sea as you could get so the idea of spending three years near the water, studying on the beach in the summer (which is exactly what I did) had an enormous appeal.
This was confirmed when I attended a talk run by the Department I was to go on to study in, the Department of International Politics. As they talked about the kinds of modules they ran, the kinds of areas I never imagined learning about, I was sold. Compared to school, there seemed to be so much more choice.
On the journey home, I had time to reflect on what I thought I wanted versus what I actually needed. And it turned out that rather than a bustling cosmopolitan city University I wanted somewhere that was small and safe, where everyone knew everyone else, a place where I could walk down to the sea and enjoyed the relaxed vibes that came with that.
Despite overachieving in terms of grade requirements for my course, I’ve never once regretted going there and I look back at my time studying at Aberystwyth with nothing but good memories.
Not long after leaving University I started working full-time. The irony of study at University is that you end up reading because you have to, not always because you want to.
Reading for pleasure is usually the first thing to go. Now I was free to read whatever took my fancy and I started to rediscover my passion for literature.
I’d always loved literature and had done well at it at school but I never saw it as a subject I could make a career from, perhaps because I listened far too much to the thoughts and opinions of others.
I decided now was the time to follow my own passions but the thought of going back to studying full-time for three years held no appeal for me. Then someone recommended the Open University.
I’d always assumed it was for more mature students but I took the plunge and studied a single English module with them. That way I could still continue to work full-time, earn money and if it turned out that studying Literature wasn’t for me, then I wouldn’t have committed too much time or money to it.
As it turned out it was one of the best things I ever did.
Back then you didn’t have to commit to an entire degree course you could select modules as long as they worked towards a certificate or a diploma.
The first module I studied with The Open University was 19th Century Literature. One weekend a month I traveled to my nearest OU site and met my fellow classmates for a day-long seminar.
It was so refreshing to meet students who were 100% dedicated to the course, something even during my degree I noticed wasn’t always the case.
I never got the impression from my fellow students that they didn’t want to be there.
Perhaps this was because most of us were older (though I was still one of the youngest at 23), had more life-experiences, families or perhaps it was simply because we were paying the fees ourselves. It was never something we took for granted.
I can’t tell you how much of a difference this made.
For the first time, I found myself sitting in a classroom where there were no long, awkward silences or worse yet, the same 2 people always talking.
Everyone seemed keen to contribute and get the most out of the seminars.
In the evenings I studied alone, working through a textbook and reading the set texts so to have fellow students to bounce ideas off made a huge difference. This style of study suited me and my circumstances perfectly and I went on to receive my English Literature Diploma from the Open University a few years later.
By this point, I’d caught the literature bug, all thanks to the passion of my lecturers and the wonderfully creative texts that were studied on the OU course.
I was looking for a career change and I decided it was time to go back to University full-time and get my Masters in English Literature.
I accepted a place at Durham University but sadly my mum became ill and I knew it wasn’t the right time to leave home. I deferred for a year but decided in the end that even once my mum was given the all-clear, it was too far away from her.
I was shocked and overjoyed when Warwick University offered me a place on their MA programme.
Unlike the first 2 Universities I studied at, my reasons for choosing Warwick were very different. I needed to study at a University that was closer to home but also I wanted to go somewhere that academically, was the best for what I wanted to study.
I liked the campus feel of Warwick. Everything was all in one place, no having to catch buses from one campus to another. It was often called the ‘Warwick bubble’, but that was precisely what drew me to the University.
This time around, because I was older and I had a set career of teaching in mind, it wasn’t about where had the best student union, the most number of pubs, the best social life.
For me, I went to Warwick because academically it’s one of the best places in the country to study English Literature. This proved to be correct and it was something of a shock at how hard-working and studious the students were here. This was exactly what I needed and I have never learned as much as I did at Warwick.
What I have discovered then from my experiences of studying at 3 very different Universities is this; pick the University that fits you best and your circumstances at the time.
Don’t pick a University because it’s where all your friends are going because chances are, once you get to University, you’ll meet a whole new set of friends.
Nor is it wise to pick a University based on where you think you should go or where everyone tells you is best to go. Sure, listen to the recommendations of others but follow your own passions.
Three years can feel like a long time if you don’t love the course and the University you are at. It’s ok not to have a definitive course/career in mind. I certainly didn’t when I picked my degree. Sometimes you’ll get it right and other times you won’t but there’s no way you can know what you want to do with the rest of your life at 17/18.
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