Inspired by the Big Issue’s regular feature Letter to My Younger Self, we’re asking staff to think back to their own experiences as a student and tell us what advice they would give to their undergraduate selves.
In this post we’re introducing Kerrianne Orriss, Study Skills Tutor.
What and where did you study?
History BA (Hons) at St Andrews, Royal Holloway and then Liverpool (three universities in 4 years – don’t ask!)
Did you experience culture shock when you started university?
Yes – to the extent that I changed universities twice. I kept worrying that either I wasn’t performing well enough, or I did not fit in with my peers (or both). At St. Andrews there were many privately educated students who had bucketloads of confidence and could (it seemed to my 18-year-old self) converse fluently in ancient Greek and Latin. In my first classical civilisation class, the lecturer repeatedly referred to Persia and I panicked – where was this place and why had I not heard of it? My head was a-blur with so many unfamiliar words and concepts that belonged to a different world. At my school, showing an interest in ancient languages (or anything that was fascinating to me!) meant instant ostracisation. At university I became aware that other students had a head start on me – not only in their places of education but in their exposure to other worlds.
What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?
The many times I kept silent in a tutorial. I was petrified of the sound of my voice filling the austere silence of the room. I often had a theory to put forward but my inner voice told me it was wrong or stupid. I then felt like an idiot when someone else gave ‘my’ answer and was praised. I gradually learned that my opinions were just as valid as my peers and that my difficulty with thinking under pressure was not insurmountable. I found that I could prepare not only by doing the pre-reading for the tutorial but by anticipating the kind of questions and arguments that might arise.
What are you most proud of about your time at university?
As you can tell by now, I was not the most confident or self-aware student! I am proud that I developed my own techniques for studying as a dyslexic learner during a time when there was much less support for those with learning difficulties. I am proud that despite lacking confidence, I did start to believe in myself and speak up in classes. I am proud that I developed from a terrified nerd to a student who led study support groups in the third year and was confident in standing up for their beliefs. I am still a nerd, though.
What was the best bit of feedback you received?
Typically, the only feedback I remember is bad feedback; bad on behalf of both myself and the tutor. He merely wrote ‘17’ at the end of my essay and popped it in my pigeonhole so he didn’t have to talk to me. I collected it and cried because I thought I’d failed. I went to my personal tutor to say I was leaving the university as I wasn’t fitting in with the ‘clever students’, to which he replied that a 17 was a first, so what was I thinking? I left anyway. It amuses me, looking back, that I did not think to look at the grading system or ask for more substantial feedback for that essay. There wasn’t a Study Skills service back then – alas, I would have learned so much!
What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
Oh so many things! Here are the highlights:
Don’t eat so many marmite sandwiches – yes they are cheap, but you won’t want to look at marmite for another 20 years.
Don’t be afraid to talk to someone about your mental health – it’s so normal to struggle with university life and to feel like you don’t fit in. Ignore negative comments about being a feminist, not eating meat and caring about the environment. You will find your tribe.
Everything is fixable as long as you’re willing to learn. I wouldn’t change a thing about my childhood, but I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self that you can catch up on missed education, and there’s not some kind of secret society that imbues members with world knowledge and super-intelligence!
If you’re a staff member or postgraduate student and would like to write own letter to your undergraduate self, please get in touch: email@example.com