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.