My university days

I saw a post on Instagram recently by my friend Helen aka Actually Mummy about university and it struck a huge chord.

University days are the best days of your life, right? Not for me they weren’t.

I didn’t know much about university. None of my family went there. Most of what I knew came from a friend whose parents had both gone there and met their friends for life there. My friend knew for certain that she would meet her friends for life there (which was a bit demoralising for her school friends). I had this very clear picture in my head of uni. I would be there in halls, in my cool clothes, having a laugh with a big group of friends.

Twenty five per cent of first years were in halls at my university. I was not in the 25%. Instead, due to my own stupidity, I ended up in a rented house two bus journeys away from my campus.

I was very close to my family and I had a great group of friends at home. I missed them all badly. I was in a crappy house one bus journey from the city centre and two bus journeys from uni. My standards of housekeeping weren’t high, but I soon realised that having responsibility for a house, with cooking and washing and cleaning was a big thing. It wasn’t easy.

Very early on, I thought my housemate was my boyfriend. In my small town world, you were either boyfriend and girlfriend or you weren’t. People didn’t date, they didn’t play games. But he played games. He was happy to have me at home, but didn’t want the hassle of me leaving the house with him or seeing his friends with him. What an absolute dick. This only went on for a couple of months, thank goodness. But it was all down to my vulnerability and loneliness that I allowed it to happen.

I looked like a student. I would fit right in. I’d been perfecting my look since I was 14. It was a mix of a lot of bright colours. I wore clothes from ethnic shops, band Tshirts, stuff from charity and vintage shops, all mixed in with TopShop and Miss Selfridge’s edgier pieces. I was nailing the student look.

University, 1990s, My university years

Nobody looked like me.

It would have been fine if they just didn’t look like me, but they actively judged me for looking like me. And that’s hard.

At first, I thought I’d made friends on my course. But I soon realised I hadn’t – when I heard people talking about me. I ranted to another outsider, who I was already friends with, and we realised we were in it together. Just the two of us. We became the best of friends and went out that very night to commiserate.

On my course there was a remarkable number of private school kids. Either intentionally or unintentionally, they made me feel small. Which is ironic, because I’d spent most of my school life being judged harshly for being ‘posh’. If you’re quite clever and your dad has a half decent job, you’re posh. And in the eyes of a teenager in the 1980s, posh was always a bad thing and a perfectly valid reason to pick on someone.

There were only 28 of us on my course – slightly more girls than boys. Three of us were called Sarah. Which inevitably led to nicknames. The Queen Bee was just ‘Sarah’, then there was ‘Irish Sarah’, because of course she came from Ireland. I was ‘Sarah with the Clothes’. Credit to my friend, she said I was ‘Sarah’, then there was ‘Irish Sarah’ and ‘F*cking Silly B*tch Sarah’.

Friends, 1990s, My university days

Between the loneliness, the judgement and being away from my family, I cried every day. Every single day for the whole of my first year. People didn’t talk about mental health in those days, but I was clearly depressed.

Although I was very unhappy, it would never have occurred to me to give up and go home. In fact, I was very strict with myself about not going home for weekends too often to avoiding getting more upset. This was the early 90s. We didn’t have mobile phones, in fact there wasn’t even a phone in my first student house. I rang my parents once a week from a phone box down the road.

I carried on crying a lot throughout my uni days. My friend and I moved into a house for second year with some girls we didn’t know – and we encountered the same problems. They didn’t like us, we didn’t like them. I still cried a lot in my second and third years.

I came out with a 2:1 in Broadcast Journalism. Have I ever worked as a journalist? No. Was it a waste of time? Pretty much, yes. University was so far from the exciting picture I had in my head.

I then went on to a further two years of unhappiness as I struggled to get a job, so worked in McDonald’s to keep my head above water. There were times when I actually cried while working. People can be so nasty and judgemental – and the worst for it are usually the people who have got nothing themselves, but still feel it’s their right to judge someone who is actually working and trying to make ends meet.

One good thing came out of university. On literally day four, I met my husband. He was a friend of my horrible housemate who treated me so badly. We got together a few months later and have been together ever since. And my friend and I are still friends. We do go literally years without seeing each other, but when we do see each other, it’s like nothing has ever changed. And we do sometimes still laugh about F*cking Silly B*tch Sarah and her friends.

I never really told my parents how unhappy I was. If your kids have just gone to uni or are preparing to go next year, remember that they are still little more than children. This is a huge step for them and they may not enjoy it as much as they hope to. It’s so much easier now to stay in touch with them. Keep an eye on them from afar and trust your instincts if you think something isn’t right.

Author: Sarah Mummy

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  1. Well, I’ve finally made it in photographic form onto your blog 😉

    This post really takes me back. At the time I knew you were struggling (though not, I think, just how bad it was for you) but I didn’t know how I could help. I’m sorry I wasn’t more supportive – I know I latched onto details like your relationships and successful student journalism (I had one of your articles up on my wall!) to convince myself you were having an ok time.

    I have mostly positive recollections about uni but my experience was a lot easier from the get-go: bigger university so I could find my “tribe”, in halls the first year, not to mention some really close school friends (and boyfriend!). Even so, the first term was pretty hard going – the first week, I literally couldn’t eat, I was so anxious. And twenty-five years after we graduated when I’m stressed I still dream about my Finals.

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    • No worries about not being supportive, I’m impressed you even realised I was struggling! I’m very proud that you had one of my articles on you wall. As I recall they were dreadfully rambling. I would probably die of shame if I read one now!
      Your experience of uni was how I’d pictured mine, but it didn’t quite work out like that. But I got a husband out of it, so that was the biggest win of all.
      Sorry to hear about you struggling to eat. I know I lost half a stone in the first term through worry. I don’t actually remember my finals though! I’m questioning whether I even had exams and I genuinely don’t remember!

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  2. Oh I am so sorry it was like this for you but glad you met your friend and husband. I’m so glad that these days we have many ways to communicate with our children whilst they are at uni.

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    • It was pretty awful really. I know it will be so much better for the kids’ generation because it is far easier for them to stay in touch with home, but I would definitely make sure my kids know that if they need to quit that it is an option for them.

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      • I think it is still hard though – with social media putting new pressures on them.

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        • I don’t doubt that for a moment. I know that some of my son’s friends are already finding it hard. But at least they have an easy way to communicate, so they don’t feel as isolated as I did in the early 90s.

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  3. Aww! Bless you. It sounds like you had a rotten time.
    Ugh! The person who wasn’t your boyfriend sounds like a right dick.
    I love your clothes! That is what I imagine a student back in the day to wear!
    At least you got your hubby out of the horrible ordeal. x

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    • Thanks very much! I thought I looked like a student, but hardly anyone on my course looked like a student! They all wore designer jeans and expensive smart shoes.
      Thank goodness for my friend and my husband. My life would certainly have been very different if I hadn’t met my husband!

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  4. This is such an important post. Everyone assumes that uni days are the best of your life and for many, that simply isn’t true. I resonated with your ‘I’m not giving up’ stance because I was the same during my 3rd year of uni, when I was in Paris. I hated it. Really hated it. But I wouldn’t have ever considered giving up! People can be so mean can’t they? There were quite a few in the category you mention at my uni too! I think going into halls is really key actually. I would make sure that my kids were if any of them ever go. xx

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    • Sorry to hear you had a tough time when you were in Paris. I don’t know why people have to be so horrible and make judgements purely based on appearance rather than decide whether they actually like a person’s personality. I think there are so many more halls available at university these days. I would definitely want my kids to go into them too. X

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  5. I’m so sorry to hear this. I went to college, but lived at home. I encountered similar at school, but not as bad when I went to college. I do try to teach the kids that sometimes people say nasty things to make themselves feel better about themselves and to remember how bad it feels, so never do it to others. I’m glad you did make friends and you stuck at it. I wish I could have helped back then xx

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    • Thank you, that is such a lovely thing to say. It is so important to teach kids about kindness and understanding because I think their instinct is always to make judgments based on very little information – often what people are wearing. I am pleased that I stuck at it, even if my degree is pretty crap. I’m sure it made me a stronger person in the long run. X

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  6. Sorry you had such a tough time at uni. This makes me realise how lucky I was at uni, I’ve never really thought about it before. I’m still in touch with a lovely group of girls I was in uni with. I’m going to the 40th birthday party of one of them next weekend and we all have children in the same school year so the children get on well too. It must have been horrendous being away from everyone you knew and not meeting new friends that you clicked with. I’m glad I read this so I’m aware of the possibility that my children’s university experience might not be positive and I can look out for it.

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    • How lovely that you had such good friends and are still friends now. That’s how I imagined my university experience would be, but it didn’t quite work out like that. I think teenagers’ expectations of university are so high that anything that doesn’t live up to that is always going to be a disappointment. A few weeks in, some of my son’s friends are starting to discover that it isn’t the non-stop excitement they thought it would be. X

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  7. I feel for you. What should have been a great experience wasn’t. I feel lucky now that mine was great from all aspects. But i think campus living makes a lot of help towards that in the first year.

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    • I’m sure living in halls would have made life a lot easier for me. I hope that my kids will get that when they go. They have also been warned that university isn’t necessarily that exciting! My husband found it hard too. His situation was very similar to mine.

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  8. I must admit I toyed with whether I should read this post with Morgan going off to UNI next year, but like you said it’s far easier to keep in touch now more than ever. I’m so sorry you had such a difficult time, but thank goodness you went and met your husband there, and have built your life together over all these years x

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    • Thanks very much. It was definitely worth it for meeting my husband! I can’t imagine how different my life would have been if I hadn’t gone to uni and met him.
      I really hope Morgan has a positive experience, but it’s good to be aware that it might not be all plain sailing.

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  9. DD2 is away this weekend to meet up with uni pals, 18 years after she left there, her and 3 others meet up a couple of times a year and all went to each others wedding etc. She did uni halls for year 1 and then moved into a house with people she got in well with for 2 and 3. She seemed to enjoy it though from what I gather did not do much work, but scrapped through most things barely above the 40% pass mark for her course. She has made some real great life long friends who support each other through thick and thin.
    Glad that you shared this post and hopefully a few others may read it and it will help make their life a bit more tolerable. Sorry it was such a rough time for you. It is hard to swallow your pride and admit defeat and come home, especially when you are the first from your family to go.
    I agree the first year especially is hard with learning to be independent, doing everything for yourself, holding down a part time job as well as studying and missing home, and should be a fun learning curve, what a shame yours was not.
    Fifi has given up on the Uni idea which is just as well as she misses home badly when only away for less than a week having fun at whatever, this week she is in Poland and Facetimes the wee ones every day as she is homesick.

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    • So pleased to hear DD2 had such a good experience at university and has made lifelong friends. That’s how I expected my university experience to be, but sadly it didn’t work out quite like that.
      It’s good that Fifi can make the right decision for herself. Going to university wasn’t the right decision for my eldest, but it will be the right decision for my younger son. I’m not sure which way my daughter will go yet. But I will always remind my kids that we’re here for them and that there is more to life than university if they decide it’s not for them!

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