My Open University Experience

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What do you do when you hit eighteen and go to university to study Drama & Literature, and realise you’ve made a whacking-great mistake? Well, I’ll tell you.

You spend a solid month in your campus bedroom, panicking in silence. To distract yourself from the anxiety, you listen to Kings of Leon’s ‘Sex on Fire’ and spin in circles on your swivel chair. You occasionally venture outside, wandering to Tescos to buy rotisserie chicken (and DVDs, so many DVDS). You try to ignore the state you’re in, but feel like imploding when anyone asks you: ‘How’s uni going!?’ You let the panic build, and build, until you finally realise; I have to get out. I have to get out – NOW’.

You eventually find the courage to tell your parents this. You tell your Mum first (she’s just forked out for a celebratory Pizza Hut on her first visit to see you). She’s shocked, concerned, and goes home to tell your Dad. He picks you up from the train station later that night, with half the contents of your bedroom packed in to your bags. You insist to them both you’ll do absolutely anything if they let you quit university, and move back home.

They try to talk you out of quitting, but eventually oblige you because they love you, and they’re concerned your skin now has the texture of a rotisserie chicken. You break the news to friends and teachers: almost everyone thinks you’ve made a life-altering mistake, but you know you haven’t, regardless of how awful it feels (and how chicken-like your skin has become).

The above is what happened when I quit university in 2008. I came home with a sense of simultaneous relief and dread to reassess my options. I was an A-grade Drama and English student at my secondary school *BLOWING MY OWN TRUMPET ALERT*, as well as prefect and Head Girl (a title I wish I’d never accepted). When the news spread that I couldn’t hack university, it was an absolute shocker. Clever Kate had failed. Oh dear…

I was out of work for three months, so I hit-up the job centre for pennies. I was distraught, I felt like I was the only teenager on earth who didn’t enjoy university. I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, I found a part-time job after three months of panic, got off benefits, and realised I still had that burning desire to learn, to know more. I started to consider higher education again, but knew I couldn’t handle another campus university. I looked to The Open University for inspiration and that’s exactly what I found.

I discovered a network of like-minded students and skilled tutors whose united goal was to achieve educational and personal success. I began studying English Literature with The Open University part-time in 2009, and last week I finished my final module. My first act as a deadline-free adult was to play David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, full blast, prancing round my bedroom. For the entirety of the song I felt infinite. When the music stopped, I wanted to cry. Six years of my life, over.

I began reminiscing with an intensity that would shame Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses. I remembered how hard it was to convince people that The Open University was a real university, and that I was a legitimate student (difficult to do that when you’re reading/crying over Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit as part of your children’s literature course). Friends and family made jokes about my ‘fake’ degree, but I took it all in my stride, because I was running this educational marathon for a reason. I was studying the same books as my friends who were studying literature on campus universities, and like all other students I had essays to write, deadlines to meet and exams to stress about. I will graduate with a BA Hons degree in English Literature in September. That’s right: a real degree.

My degree took six years instead of the traditional three because I opted to study part-time. This meant I could gain financial support, so I avoided accruing hefty student debts. I kept my part-time job, and this funded all of my weekends at The Pink Toothbrush (90% of the weekends in a year), and several trips down to Brighton to see my friend John, who was studying at Sussex University. I’ve managed to squeeze a lot of living and laughing in between my deadlines and work schedule, but there were times when I genuinely thought I might implode from the stress of it all.

These were dark days. I was not prepared for the crippling loneliness of being an Open University Student. My ‘days off’ were actually days on the books, on the laptop, on the edge of sanity, trying to cram in as much information as my little walnut brain could take. There were days when I’d stare blankly at my laptop screen, silently willing my grey matter in to action. It wouldn’t respond and the frustration was ridiculous; I’d panic, talk in a gibberish rage to my Mum, then run upstairs to cry for a solid thirty minutes. I’d snot out all the fear, have a pep talk with my reflection, then return to the laptop to write like a beast.

Fortunately, encouraging emails from tutors and student forums bursting with similar ‘I CAN’T DO IT, HELP ME!’ messages reassured me that it was normal to feel paralysed and lonely when deadlines approached. (I also discovered that power naps were the ultimate ally on deadline days, and this made the crying/snot less frequent).

Anyway, enough complaining: now for the praise.

I have always relied on literature to help me process things. I cite Roald Dahl’s Matilda as one of my earliest and closest friends (I’ll allow a 10 second laughing break here). She knew books weren’t for ‘boffins’ (classic year six banter) and that your mind is an immensely powerful instrument that needs to be tuned, and re-tuned with all kinds of new information. It’s this desire to devour the written word which made me choose The Open University and why, despite my initial traumatic entry into higher education, I never gave up.

Regardless of what was happening at work or in my personal life, I always felt that I could hit the books and everything would be fine. The quiet, inner knowledge that I was consistently working towards something kept me going for six strong years. I knew the literature I read was improving me, whether academically or emotionally. People who insist they ‘don’t read’ don’t realise what they’re missing. I’m all for living in the real world and putting yourself in the way of experience, but vicarious experiences are equally as valid. I’m glad I have travelled through the minds of some of the most intelligent writers in the English language in the company of The Open University. (If you think I’m nuts, a recent study has proved readers of fiction tend to have higher empathy levels aka are really quite nice, lovely people)

It was this unfathomable self-belief that made me set the following target for myself: in my last two years of studying, I promised I would score a minimum of 70% on all assignments. In between the working, panicking, and being hung-over I excelled this target, scoring between 80-85% on my essays. Sometimes I had to ask for extensions (ill health played a major role in this), and sometimes I had to sit up until the wee hours, then wake up at 5am before an 8 hour day at work to meet the seemingly unachievable deadline. Now, all of that sweating and studying is over, and I’m strangely sad that the student chapter of my life has come to a close (but let’s face it, it’s about time). It’s time to set myself new targets, preferably ones that don’t have deadlines too.

If you find yourself in the same situation I did when I first considered university, or if you feel you’re stuck and unable to change something; please don’t panic. Please don’t think you’ve ruined your life, and for the love of God: PLEASE DON’T WASTE ALL OF YOUR SAVINGS ON ROTISSERIE CHICKENS. Stand up, take a deep breath, accept it’s not working and look at The Open University’s website. If you’re hesitant about starting, my advice is to pick a module that appeals to you, and go for it.

The Open University is D.I.Y for the mind. With the tools they give you, you’ll be able to build something useful, sustainable and concrete. If you want it, you can have it, all you have to do is apply yourself and keep going, regardless of how hard it gets. You can do it, and you won’t regret trying.

(Image courtesy of: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbwjua7zXz1qi86x2o2_500.gif)

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One thought on “My Open University Experience

  1. Thank you for this blog post, Kate. It’s a wonderful, personal post and, while I never went to university, I can still relate to it. I was someone who did quite well in high school, and I really thought that I would go onto studying at University, but seriously messed up on my A levels. Looking back, I think it was simply making the choice of subjects that I thought would look good on a CV rather than subjects I actually wanted to learn. Massively discouraged, I tried making a break in full-time work for about 3 years, but nothing came up. Eventually, I decided to try having one more go at education, and I had a look at part-time adult college courses. Due to being on job seeker’s allowance, I was able to study the first year of my accounting course for free (minus the cost of the books and a small admin fee, anyway). Definitely one of the best decisions I ever made, as I finally found something that not only suited me, but encouraged me to work harder than I had in a long while. I had to pay for my second and third years, but by then, that didn’t matter: I had finally found work and, more importantly, I knew what to do with my life (vaguely, but vaguely is a lot better than no clue at all!).

    So a massive thank you for writing this post, as I think there’s a lot of pressure on young people to go onto university after school and that’s the only way to make it in life and achieve what you want to do. And while seeking further education and keeping your mind and your motivation in check is great, I think it’s important to know that there’s more than one path in this day and age towards achieving your goals and that uni isn’t for everyone. So thanks again for something as honest as this post was, and sorry for the long winded comment!

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