Letter to my undergraduate self: Genevieve Beech – ‘If something doesn’t feel right make sure you get advice and address it’

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.

This month we’re hearing from one of our Library colleagues: Genevieve Beech, the early early morning Library Support Assistant at the Arts & Social Sciences Library.

Genevieve Beech, the author of the blog post

What and where did you study? 
Creative Writing with Media Studies (BA) at De Montfort University in Leicester and English and American Studies (MA) at Paderborn University in Germany. Both times I headed alone to a new city and I found that the most daunting part.
Did you experience culture shock when you started university? 
With my BA, it was definitely a shock to go from living at home to living independently, including managing my finances and cooking all my meals, in a new city with new friends. There was much more of a culture shock involved in studying abroad for my MA though. I’d been living in Germany for a couple of years before I began the course, so I hadn’t moved directly from England to study there, and that helped lessen the shock.
What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? 
Due to a couple of lifechanging events that happened during my first year of my BA Leicester I struggled to attend all of my classes and if I’d known about any kind of wellbeing services I would have loved to have made use of them. As that was 15 years ago, I don’t feel these services were emphasised enough. I don’t class it as a failure but I regret not seeking help when I needed it. I’m proud that I finished the course and did well throughout it, despite dealing with these big changes.
What are you most proud of about your time at university?
In my final semester in Germany I decided to take 11 classes so that I could head back to England that summer and write my thesis from there. I didn’t want to stay for another semester as I’d already been in Germany for five years. It was an intense time – and I worked part-time too – so I’m really proud I completed all the classes, including the weekly readings, quizzes, essays and end of term papers. I was definitely a lot more dedicated during my MA than my BA and really enjoyed studying even though navigating the German university system wasn’t so straightforward.
What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
If you’re unsure, I’d recommend taking a year or two out and heading to uni when you feel more certain of the path you’d like to take, rather than feeling like you have to go straight to uni after sixth form/college. I also think that if something doesn’t feel right make sure you get advice and address it. I originally auditioned and was accepted to study Dance at De Montfort University but I switched to Creative Writing very early on, as I realised the theoretical side of the Dance degree was not something I enjoyed, and I don’t regret switching at all.

Letter to my undergraduate self: Therese Kelly – ‘It is okay to ask for help and to say you don’t understand something’

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.

This month we’re introducing our newest Study Skills Tutor, Therese Kelly, who will be working with students in the Faculty of Social sciences.

Photo of Therese, the author of the blog post

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What and where did you study? 

I studied for a BA in the Anthropology of Religion at the University of Wales, Lampeter. Then 15 years later I went back to uni and did an MA in Social Anthropology, here at Bristol. I am now finishing a PhD in Social Anthropology through Manchester University.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university? 

That’s an interesting question. It was more the location that was a shock rather than the university itself. I grew up in London and then opted for a university deep in the Welsh countryside, in a very small farming community. This was partly because I was a young mother with a child, and I wanted to be somewhere less hectic. I was a mature student of 24 when I started my degree; I became a mother when I was 20 so waited until my son was old enough to go to school before going to university, and Lampeter seemed lovely. It was a wonderful place to study! It is a very small university, and it didn’t take long to become part of the student community.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? 

My time management was awful when I was an undergraduate, especially during my first year. I always left it to the last minute to write an essay. One essay I handed in two weeks late and so it was marked down 20%. If I had submitted it in time, it would have got 70%, a first, so I was gutted! I learned pretty quickly after that to plan my writing time better.

What are you most proud of about your time at university? 

I was, and still am, a shy person, the difference is I have learned to manage it. When I was in the first year, I was part of a group giving a presentation about a Hindu temple we visited for one of our modules. I can still remember how I felt when it was my turn to speak. The blood rushed to my face, my heart was beating in my mouth, and I was so nervous I struggled to focus on the people in the room, I was terrified! I managed to get through it but thought, I must get over this fear. So, I signed myself up for presenting at as many seminars as possible and each time I did it, my ability to talk and present improved. I believe it was one of the bravest things I have done for myself.

What was the best bit of feedback you received? 

I didn’t think my work was any good most of the time as I had very low self-confidence. But after having completed an essay that I actually enjoyed writing, the lecturer said in the feedback that I had ‘clarity of expression’ and that the essay was ‘a joy to read’. I was so happy that my essay was not only readable but that someone got joy from it too!

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

I could say, PLAN YOUR WORK! I could have reduced so much stress and got a better mark if I had organised my writing better. Saying that, getting a 2:1 rather than a first is still a great achievement and I did really enjoy being an undergraduate. So, what I would say to my undergraduate self is that it is okay to ask for help and to say you don’t understand something, and enjoy the fresh air and the wonderful countryside!

Letter to my undergraduate self: Alison Marshall – ‘Freewriting is liberating for people with perfectionist tendencies like me’

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.

Next up from the Study Skills team is Alison Marshall, Study Skills Tutor.

Photo of Alison, the author of this blog post

What and where did you study?

I went to Exeter and did a BA in Ancient History and Archaeology (largely because I liked watching Time Team on the telly and thought archaeology looked like fun). After that I did an MA in Medieval Studies and a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Bristol.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university?

Various family members went to university before me, so I had the advantage of being able to visit them and experience a bit of the culture. The biggest shock for me was going from a full timetable at college to having only a handful of contact hours per week at university. I’ve always struggled with self-discipline, so I slept late a lot and watched loads of rubbish daytime telly. At the time I thought it was brilliant, but in retrospect I think I’d have been a lot happier if I’d created a routine for myself and spent some of that ‘free’ time a bit more productively.

The other thing I found difficult to adjust to was suddenly being surrounded by lots and lots of people I didn’t know. Obviously I knew that was part and parcel of going to university, but I was excruciatingly shy and the thought of not knowing anyone was really daunting, so I buried my head in the sand. I wish I’d spent some time thinking about how I was going to make friends and settle in before I started – joining a few more societies (and actually going along to them) would have been a really good idea.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?

My biggest failure happened just before I started university: I messed up my A-levels and missed out on my first-choice university due to an unfortunate combination of laziness, stupidity and bad luck. I tend not to let go of things quickly, so I beat myself up about it for a good few years afterwards. With the benefit of hindsight, though, I can see it all worked out for the best. I mean, what’s so good about Oxford anyway? I’d have had to work really hard, and knowing me that probably wouldn’t have gone very well! I ended up having a great time at Exeter and I loved my degree course. I also met my husband there – we’ve been together for 22 years and have three beautiful children – so you could argue that messing up my A-levels was the best thing I ever did. In essence, what I learnt is that every cloud has a silver lining: you might not see it for a while or sometimes you might have to look really hard, but it’s there.

What are you most proud of about your time at university?

Well, I survived an archaeological dig which involved camping on a wet and muddy hillside in Wales for four weeks. There was a copious amount of rain, boozing, late nights, early mornings and digging very big trenches with a mattock whilst still hungover. I fell down the spoil heap several times, accompanied by the wheelbarrow. It was character-building, but the word ‘camping’ brings me out in a cold sweat even now.

Ultimately, though, I’m most proud that I came away from university with a First. I wish I could say that I’d learnt from my A-levels and put in a huge amount of hard work, but that would be a lie. I left every essay until the last minute and had some horrible cramming sessions before exams. I made it much more difficult for myself than it needed to be! Thankfully, luck was on my side when it came to my final exams. I’m really proud of my degree result (if not, perhaps, the way I went about achieving it) and it helped put a few demons to rest.

What was the best bit of feedback you received?

I ashamed to say that I can’t remember. I liked getting positive feedback because it made me feel pleasantly smug for a while. But most of the time I don’t think I really understood the feedback I was getting, and I was too shy to ask the lecturers to explain it to me. We didn’t have a study skills team to talk things through with, so I mostly just forgot about it.

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

It would be tempting to go all mumsy and give myself a lecture about boys and booze, but nobody appreciates that sort of advice, so instead I’d probably tell myself to look into something called freewriting. I used to find academic writing completely agonising because I’d put pressure on myself to get every sentence perfect straight away. As a consequence I’d procrastinate, which led to lots of stressful last-minute essays. With freewriting you just splurge out a very rough first draft, then spend lots of time editing later on. It’s really liberating for people with perfectionist tendencies like me!

 

Letter to my undergraduate self: Lewis Coyne – ‘I learned to actually listen to the feedback I was getting’

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.

This month we hear from Lewis Coyne, Study Skills Tutor.

Photograph of Lewis, the author of the post

What and where did you study? 

I first studied at Cardiff University for a BA in Philosophy and English Literature, followed by an MA in Analytic and Modern European Philosophy. Then I switched to the University of Exeter, where I got an MRes in Science and Technology Studies and a PhD in social philosophy.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university? 

Yes – but I didn’t think so at the time. I had an elder brother at university, so broadly knew what to expect, and had travelled around Australasia on a gap year with friends, so thought I could look after myself. But on reflection I wasn’t fully comfortable with taking charge of and being accountable for my actions, as I had a terrible work ethic, appalling diet, and complete inability to get out of bed before 10am. This was amplified by the fact that, as a humanities student, I only had about two contact hours a day – meaning that my work was almost entirely self-directed and the structure of my day self-imposed. I really struggled to adjust to that, and as a result most of my first year was a mess! 

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? 

My biggest failure was probably all of my first term: I didn’t do much reading (a major problem when you’re studying English Literature!), which led to not going to seminars very often, which in turn led to some shocking last-minute essays that thoroughly deserved the low marks they received. (Just thinking about the poor people who had to mark them makes me cringe, even now.)

What I learned was that I had to take university seriously, and as part of that re-discover how to properly apply myself to my education. I hadn’t enjoyed school a great deal, and from the age of 14 tended to do just enough to get by without excessively disappointing my parents. This carried on through to the beginning of my undergraduate degree. But by the end of my first year I’d found, for the first time I could remember, that learning could be immensely enriching – even enjoyable. That late discovery probably explains why I carried on all the way to PhD level! I should note that I didn’t make that switch in isolation, though: I was helped enormously by the positive influence of my then-girlfriend, now wife, who is a far more diligent, switched-on, and all-round better person than me.

What are you most proud of about your time at university? 

From those inauspicious beginnings I went on to win a departmental prize for the highest-performing undergraduate in Philosophy. (Needless to say, I wouldn’t have won it if first-year marks counted toward the final degree classification!) It was quite the turnaround, and I’m still proud of that now.

What was the best bit of feedback you received? 

I used to find getting feedback on anything I’d written a horrible experience, regardless of whether it was broadly positive or negative, in-person or in writing. I knew in the abstract that feedback was a useful, even necessary part of learning, but I just found receiving it excruciating. Over time, though, I learned to get over that anxiety and actually listen to the feedback I was getting, and this only came through the process of being given it repeatedly. For that reason I wouldn’t say there was a single best bit of feedback I received – it was nearly always useful in training me to be more comfortable with it. 

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self? 

The thing is, when I arrived at university I was such an arrogant twerp that I probably wouldn’t have listened to any advice, even from my future self. So what I would do instead is just talk to younger-me, explore what I enjoyed about the subjects I was studying, point out that it was a more stimulating form of education than school had ever been, and basically just try to gently encourage the process of self-development that my undergraduate years ended up being.

Letter to my undergraduate self: Beckie Arden – ‘failure will help you recognise what to do to succeed’

In a nod to 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.

This month we hear from Beckie Arden, Study Skills Tutor.

 

What and where did you study? 

Biology and French at Sussex University.
Which turned into just Biology at Sussex University.
Which then became Human Science at Sussex University.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university?

Yes! I found university a huge challenge in my first year. I was a hardworking student from a small rural town in Devon. I worked hard because I was terrified that if I didn’t, I’d fail. However I also felt that all my academic success was down to chance. I assumed it was luck that led to my GCSE success, or my strong A ‘levels, none of it could possibly be down to actual ability or hard work. Luckily I had some very intuitive teachers at school that spotted my ‘imposter syndrome’ and tried their best to help me. Things were a bit different at Uni. Huge lecture halls, the conveyor belt of practical classes, brief and infrequent seminars or tutorials. No one knew who I was or what I was thinking. I had to work very hard to overcome my insecurities myself. I nearly quit many times in that first term. I very nearly didn’t return after the winter break. But then I managed to take control of a few things. I changed my accommodation as I was very unhappy in my first flat. I managed to drop the ‘French’ part of my degree, because it was just not working out (I hadn’t actually done French A’level). I found some balance. Things seemed a bit more manageable. And I felt that I had some control over my journey through this very unfamiliar world.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?

So after two years of a Biology course that I was succeeding in but wasn’t very excited by, I discovered my perfect degree course; Human Science. It involves five major subjects – Biology, Anthropology, Philosophy, Psychology and Linguistics. Look it up. It’s amazing.

But I was a scientist. I had aced my science A’levels and that was why I had applied to do science at university. I could do science. I knew what was expected. So when I got 41% for my first anthropology essay (honestly I’m not even sure I knew what anthropology was at that point) it was quite a shock. I realised that applying the same approach to studying and writing in anthropology as I had in biology wasn’t going to work. I needed to learn how to read, think and write for anthropology. I came to see that for each of my new subjects, there was a skill-set that I had to employ, a way of doing things for each that was distinct. It was my first experience of learning how to learn.

What are you most proud of about your time at university?

That I persevered. I was unhappy at the start, but I changed things and made things better rather than giving up. I asked questions I didn’t know I could ask – like ‘please can I change my degree’. I carved my own path through a very alien setting, despite the culture shock and the imposter syndrome, and I achieved a 1st class degree on a course that even today I could talk about for hours because I loved it so much. I’m proud that I made it work.

What was the best bit of feedback you received? 

When I failed my driving test I was told ‘failure will help you recognise what to do to succeed’. I wasn’t keen on hearing it at the time, but this feedback came flooding back to me when I struggled with that anthropology essay. I had been terrified of failure. This fear underpinned the mammoth efforts I put into my work. However I learned that my understanding of how to study and how to achieve was unlocked once I had experienced failure.

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

Take every opportunity offered and keep your ears and eyes open for what’s available. I didn’t use nearly enough of the support that was available as I just didn’t know it was there, and I didn’t join nearly enough clubs or societies, as I just didn’t realise that you could. Also maybe don’t wear tin foil and cling film to the freshers ball, and go easy on the free margaritas on salsa night.

Letter to my undergraduate self: Simon Gamble – ‘Don’t waste brain power on fears, spend the time studying’

In a nod to 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.

This month we present Simon Gamble, Head of Study Skills.

Did you experience a culture shock when you started University?

Completely. I had no idea what I was doing, plus I didn’t really know if I should be there because I got pretty bad grades at A’ level. It all had a huge psychological effect on me and I was very unsure of myself for a long time, which is why I spent the first term getting drunk, doing no work, lying in bed all day and making friends with some real idiots. One day I was so freaked out I just wandered round the whole city feeling lost, instead of doing a practical session about fungus. I genuinely had no idea what was happening to me. It took me about four months to get over it, well into Spring term. Luckily I’d also made friends with some really great people, not just idiots. Those good people really helped me.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?

I failed a unit in year two. It was my favourite subject and I loved all the lectures, but I spent all my time working on the subjects I found hard, just assumed I’d do well at this one and I tanked. That was when I had to relearn how to learn. It taught me that there are techniques and strategies for learning that I needed to apply, especially that testing myself was a huge help and that studying takes time and some organisation. In the retake I got a really good score, though it was capped at a pass grade. I didn’t care though, because the revision skills I gained were more important.

What are you most proud of about your time at university?

My time in France. There were two of us accepted to go to Université de Technologie de Compiègne on a placement year. We worked incredibly hard, but we had a brilliant time and we were trained very well. Some previous students hadn’t made much effort and we were going to be the last ones unless it went well, so we turned that placement around and even got our names on a research paper. When we got back the head of course knew our names, so obviously we’d made a good impression. I made some brilliant friends, learned to speak French really well, learned to cook, survived a car crash and kind of discovered myself. I came back transformed and it made the final year so much better.

What was the best bit of feedback you received?

“You’re enjoying yourself here aren’t you Simon? Well, if you want to keep enjoying yourself, do some work.” Head of School, January, year 1. I listened.

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

Don’t worry so much, just do your best. You have a perfect right to be here and to be doing this, so get on with it. Be kind, be helpful and friendly and say yes to anything that sounds interesting. All those things you’re scared of, they’re never going to happen because they’re extreme and life is mostly very mundane. Just don’t waste the brain power on fears, spend the time studying and talking to your fellow students about your subject instead. You’ve done really well to get here and that’s not going to stop, so just keep on at it.  And don’t move in with Gerry because he turns out to be racist and you end up really hating each other.

Letter to my undergraduate self: Anna Wallace – ‘Making better choices got me back on track’

In a nod to 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.

This month we’re talking to Anna Wallace, Admin Assistant in Library Services.

What and where did you study? 

English and Philosophy at Leeds University. 

Did you experience a culture shock when you started University? 

Most definitely! Although I had had a year out after my A’Levels and lived abroad in a large city, I wasn’t used to finding my feet in big social groups, and this was a real challenge for me. Having grown up in a rural town with a tight-knit group of friends, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself at the time to make instant friendships. I’ve realised since that friendship usually comes in time and often when you don’t expect it. 

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? 

My second year at Uni was a juggle of socialising, working and studying, possibly in that order, which certainly reflected in some of my marks! It meant that I pulled quite a few all-nightersmissed a couple of essay deadlines and received some late submission penalties. I also didn’t feel up to speed with the reading, or completely engaged with my subjects. But on the plus side I was able to pay for my University living costs and have a few memorable nights out! 

By my third year, I realised that I couldn’t juggle everything, and if I was going to leave Uni with a reasonable degree, then I would need to prioritise my time better and focus more on my studies. In doing that, I would say that my final year was my most enjoyable, I finally engaged with my course and felt all the happier and more content for it. No essays were late, I was up to date with the reading and felt more confident to contribute in my seminars. 

What are you most proud of about your time at university? 

For me, the fact that I stuck with it, pulled my socks up in my final year and made some better choices which got me back on track is probably what I feel proudest of. 

What was the best bit of feedback you received? 

I received a good solid first for an essay on American Literature in my final year. It was an essay that I remember grappling with during the Christmas holidays, with limited resources to use (this was in the days before Google and Wiki!!). I felt very unsure about what I submitted, as I had struggled so much, so to receive positive feedback made all the effort feel worthwhile and was a confidence boost in my ability to build an argument without relying heavily on secondary texts. 

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self? 

If I were to go back and do it all again, I would manage and prioritise my time, which is no easy feat for an Arts student with just a few contact hours each week. I would complete the reading, and (perhaps most importantly) I would find a thread in my unit choices, so that I was building on knowledge each year, and choosing the units that I enjoyed, not the ones that I thought I ought to be good at. 

Letter to my undergraduate self: Jenny Norris – ‘Failure isn’t the end of the world’

In a nod to 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 (or sometimes even postgraduate) selves.

First up is Jenny Norris, Study Skills Tutor.

What and where did you study?

Mathematics at Bath University.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university?

I felt very grown up when I started university because I’d taken a gap year and lived in Cape Town for 10 months. So I’d already experienced moving away from home and having to do my own cooking and laundry. Coming from south-east London via South Africa, the biggest culture shocks were the lack of cultural diversity and the fact that I could safely go out after dark on my own.

The teaching and learning culture was also very different to school. We were taught in massive lectures with 200 people, so there was very little interaction with lecturers. The most useful things were the weekly problem classes, where you went through the problem sheets in smaller groups. I think the culture has changed a lot even since I was studying. Bath now has a maths support centre and runs courses specifically for maths students transitioning to university. I think it’s much less ‘sink or swim’ than it used to be, which is definitely a good thing.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?

I once got 0% on an essay. As a maths student I managed to avoid essays completely until I took an optional unit called ‘Issues in Science Education’ in my final year, so it counted towards my overall grade. I duly handed in an essay about maths education. After much debate between the lecturers it was decided that maths didn’t count as a science, so it was deemed to be too unrelated to the course title to even be marked. I discovered afterwards that I could have gone and talked through my title with the course tutor before I wrote it and got some feedback on my essay plan. Because the culture in the maths department was just to get on with coursework on your own, it didn’t even cross my mind that that might be an option. I was pretty devastated at the time but I learnt that failure isn’t the end of the world (I still came out with a 2:1).

What are you most proud of about your time at university?

My work-life balance. I got involved with the Salsa Society and the Christian Union early on and had an absolute ball (sometimes literally). I did work hard but it never felt 24/7. I’ve lost touch with most of those people but I did come away with one or two friends for life.

What was the best bit of feedback you received?

I once got a bonus mark on a piece of computer programming coursework for “effort rather than understanding”. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what I was doing at all so had just written down everything that could possibly be relevant.

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

I would tell my 19 year old self to ask for help at every opportunity, rather than trying to struggle through some pretty hefty mathematical concepts on my own. I’d tell myself not to be afraid to put my hand up in lectures to ask a really silly question (that everyone else was probably thinking) and to make a nuisance of myself by knocking on lecturer’s doors on a regular basis (because that’s that’s what they’re there for, and they probably weren’t as scary as I thought). Looking back I’m astonished that I didn’t ever make use of the careers service, or go talk to my personal tutor about module choices. I only realised after I graduated that I really enjoyed the probability side of maths and it was always my top mark. If I’d noticed sooner, maybe my career would have taken a whole different path.