This Summer, in the middle of a sweltering heatwave, I stepped onto the Colchester Campus of Essex University for the first time in 20 years. My mind shot me backwards in time: the last time I was there, I was teaching Italians how to speak English; the time before that, I caught a glimpse of Nelson Mandela, the guest speaker at a friend’s Graduation; the time before that it was my final hoorah at my own Graduation ceremony in 1994, alongside all the people who had touched my life in a significant way. This time, back in the future of 2018, I had someone else significant at my side: my son, who is going to apply after his gap year.
I could tell that my son was as equally enthralled by Essex as I was when I visited the first time, for my interview. That day it was not sunny; it rained and blew a gale. I had just dropped out of Cambridge, where I had failed to thrive, thrust into independence before I was quite hatched. There was a reason for that, a reason I had to wait another 28 years to discover: I am autistic. But back then, who really knew much about such things? I wasn’t like Rainman, so no-one would have ever considered the idea.
Naturally, the way my brain worked, and works, is not without its challenges and this is the problem I had run into when I first attempted University. I simply couldn’t manage everyday living, socialising, new situations and organising my studying- not to mention eating- all at the same time. And I was vulnerable- it was easy for me to fall prey to manipulation in my effort to keep up – or find myself out at 2 am with no way home, suddenly thinking this wasn’t a good idea. So I burned out, and dropped out. But I knew I wanted a degree, and I wanted the real experience. I didn’t want to give up, so I looked locally.
Essex was in Colchester and I am from Ipswich. This was near enough for me to live-in, but also to come home if I needed or wanted to. I wasn’t totally incompetent, just new to all this. So that’s my first piece of advice: don’t feel ashamed of staying a bit closer to home if that suits you, even if Essex is your local Uni, still consider it. When you are a live-in student, you could be anywhere and having a safety net is acceptable. It’s better than being overwhelmed and having to leave. Even if you come happily from far away, though, I would certainly advise keeping a check on your well-being and your ‘overwhelmometer’! Many students don’t ask for help or know where to turn to. When I was at Essex, there was a drop-in centre called Nightline and I was happy to see that it is still going, from 10pm, until 8am in Keynes Tower. If you need a friendly ear, that’s one place to turn to let off steam. But there are lots of services available, and my goodness, there certainly are a lot of places to ask for advice should you need it.
My time at Essex studying Literature and Sociology was one of the highlights of my life. I fell in love with it immediately – but now it is an even bigger campus, offers even more choice in the curriculum, and has a gold star rating! Yet it retains the home-from home feel that makes all students feel supported and included. I chose to live in the Towers- noisy, smoke filled (then, not now!) a pain in a fire drill – but full-on communal living and a place where I found friends for life. Now, there are many places to live on campus.
After I graduated, I completed a post graduate degree in teaching (English) and I enjoyed a career in secondary school for 16 years. But here’s my second piece of advice: life moves in mysterious ways. Don’t panic if you don’t go down your planned path straight away because, as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” In Uni or out of it, be prepared to be flexible. I took a deep breath, and I plunged into my own business as a Private Tutor. This is when I really found out that whatever your challenges, if you work with them instead of against them, you can find your niche. My amazing skill lies in the written word. I can see whole worlds in my head and interpret and analyse very quickly. I’m not great at bureaucracy or staff politics, so self-employment is definitely my happy place. In a few months I had over 30 students.
My third piece of advice? Know your strengths, but know when to ask for help. For instance, if you have any recognised disability, you can apply for help. Universities like Essex have good student support systems. After Uni, there can be ongoing help, such as Access to Work. Although my disability is a strength in my field, I do have a few issues with organisation and keeping the books, so this has been really helpful. I had a workplace assessment, and due to having Irlens and Asperger’s, I was given a grant for a support worker who does all the difficult-easy things I find challenging.
But it doesn’t end there. Essex gave me the springboard to develop my confidence as well as pointing me towards a career I love. So finally, I have to tell you that you never stop learning and growing. I now have another career alongside tutoring. I am a published author. I write poetry, prose fiction and feature articles. I’m also writing a novel. And here, as you can see, I’m writing this, hopefully to inspire you that Essex can be the beginning of your story, but that your story is on-going, with many twists in the plot!
As I collected my Alumni card, that day in 2018, it occurred to me that in one way or another, I have never completely left my Alma Mater, my campus, my cornerstone, my Essex.