I have never considered myself someone who is naturally smart, or particularly academically inclined – in fact, looking back, I can’t remember with any real clarity consciously making the decision to study A Levels.
I think I just went along with it under the rather ludicrous guise that surely it wouldn’t be that tough providing I had my friends with me – plus we could go out into town for lunch and that would make things better, right? So when I applied for the University of Exeter – a university that, academically, seemed so out of my reach – I guess I knew deep down that the chances of me actually securing one of the fifty places on the course were incredibly slim. Imagine my surprise to wake up on results day to find out I’d actually been successful and secured a place at my dream university, on my dream course, despite enduring a Sociology A Level paper that reduced me to tears – massive shoutout to AQA for that one.
I left the island I had lived on all my live brimming with hope, eager to embark on the next stage of my career as a Clinical Psychologist. But, spoiler alert, it didn’t take long for me to realise that I really didn’t want to be there. I fell completely out of love with psychology and aside from the few close friends I had made also on my course, I was completely alone. My mental health got so bad that I didn’t have the strength to leave my bed for days on end, and I wouldn’t eat for whole days at a time. I spent the majority of my time hidden in my room, feeling completely consumed by crushing anxiety and an overwhelming sadness like I had never felt before. After sitting some exams, and handing in half-arsed essays and research papers, I went home for Christmas and I never went back.
Withdrawing from my studies and dropping out of university was the most horrible decision to come to, and one that made me hate myself for a very long time. I didn’t want to talk to anyone for fear of being seen as a failure, but after many pep-talks by parents and close friends I was finally convinced to go back to sixth form one day to speak to my head of sixth about my options, and for any advice she had. My head of sixth – a woman I still commend for her patience and endless support – took one look at my face as soon as I walked into her office and said, “Emily, I swear to god, if you tell me you’ve dropped out of Exeter, I’ll scream”. In her defense, she’d put in immense effort to guide me in my application to Exeter – as well as writing me an incredibly kind reference letter that I was very undeserving of. I talked her through my struggles, missing out the bits where I had suffered a mental collapse so fierce that I found myself totally burnt out, and, as always, she was very understanding.
That same day, I went down to the library to put together an online UCAS application with under 48 hours left until the deadline, while she wrote me an amended reference letter. I was lucky that my English Literature A Level teacher from the year before was also on hand to help me polish the embarrassingly cliche personal statement I had put together. What better way to use the incredibly limited 4000 characters than to sing my praises for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – the classic way of alerting prospective English departments that you’re not as well read as you’d like to be, but that you are still trying your best by having read the most popular classic novel of all time. I decided, this time, that I’d only apply for one university which, as you’ve probably guessed, was Southampton. But even as I clicked send on my UCAS form, there was still a heaviness in my heart that weighted down on me and made me think, “maybe university just isn’t for you”.
I’m a firm believer that students receive far too much pressure to go to university, and that they’re led to believe university is the be-all-end-all. I knew Southampton was certainly the ideal place for me to re-start my undergraduate studies, but I was still absolutely terrified that it would all go wrong again.
Despite all the anxiety, all the fear that I would muck it up again, I’m incredibly happy that I made the decision to return to university after my experience at Exeter. It’s quite funny actually – I’ve met so many other students since being at Southampton that did exactly the same as me, some from other unis, and even some from Exeter. It certainly made an excellent ice-breaker when meeting people in that first week, and let me tell you, nothing brings two people closer together than a shared lived experience of being a university dropout. My experience at Exeter taught me that it’s always important to value your health over your studies, and that going into a degree that makes you happy, rather than entering into one that you merely tolerate for the promised employment prospects, is 100% the most important thing. There was a time I thought that I wasn’t cut out for university, but I’m so glad that it’s been at Southampton that I’ve found myself a home – a home that has allowed to me to grow in ways I didn’t think possible.