A recent blog in the Guardian peaked my interest talking about working class students feeling out of place at Russell Group Universities. Being the first member of my family to go to uni I can relate to how much of an adjustment or culture shock uni really is. I don’t remember being concerned about being perceived as intelligent or clever by my flat mates or people I spent most of my time with – just the academic for whom I was writing assignments for. I’ll admit I was intimidated by my course mates but that was due to an inherent competitive vibe most of them had going on.
Although I appreciate the article is written from the personal point of view of the writer I can’t help but feel there is a slight over exaggeration on their part when they talk about working class students having as hard a time, in terms of culture shock, as international students. My first reaction to this was one of surprise. I laughed at the thought. Having been a student myself and in a position working with them now, I thought how could anyone from the UK claim to suffer culture shock comparable to that of an international student?
After discussing this with a colleague she made the point that there may be more “allowances” made for students for whom English is not their first language. If you have a conversation with someone who is international you might be more understanding of errors or confusion? But is there more judgement on a “local” (i.e. English is their first language) student who can’t grasp academic content or even general conversation?
When I first learned about the class system and various means of assessing class in A level Sociology I was intrigued and absolutely convinced that this whole system was in existence around me and I hadn’t noticed it until the age of 17! I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it but I definitely felt as though rich people had it easier.
But thinking about it I don’t know many people who wouldn’t treat a uni flat mate, course mate, colleague, acquaintance with any animosity towards their apparent class background! I remember in my first year of uni sounding more “country” and apparently I have a “posh voice” I affect around different people but I thought any comments on my accent or voice were based on my being loud and opinionated not ” oh hahahha listen to the quaint poor girl”. I think everyone is still learning to be a “grown up” at uni so “LOL listen to their country accent” is just seen as a joke not a stab on someone’s background. Importantly, it is, of course NOT OK to do this to people from other countries.
I also think that regardless of background, students can feel a pressure of sense of competitiveness among their peers, even if they study different subjects. It’s hard enough to keep yourself on track let alone try and support someone else who might be struggling. People who know me have heard me say that even if someone is academically very strong at School doesn’t mean they will be able to adapt to the new learning style at uni.
I found it curious that this particular blog post seemed to paint a picture of students that contradicts this article in which students are said to be passive.
I think when it comes down to it students are sold university as the only way to fly the nest. They are told they are the best years of their lives where they can pay thousands of pounds to piss it all away on nights out killing their brain cells. HOWEVER no one really sets A level School leavers up to hit the ground running when they transition to higher education, or at least I didn’t experience any help or pep talk when I started. The School I went to pushed people into uni and didn’t give any support to those who didn’t want to go and that is still the case today. We weren’t prepared for uni in any way – unless of course you were going to Oxbridge then they were all about helping you for your interview!
I’m not saying universities do nothing I have worked on outreach projects and I run a buddy scheme for new undergraduates as do many of the other Schools and faculties across the uni BUT there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to S.P.E.L.L O.U.T to new undergrads how they should conduct themselves as students. Many of them do seem to be passive learners. The ones that excel are the ones that put themselves out there and shed the image concern.
To me, uni felt like a sink or swim situation – either stand up and get on with things, or don’t and end up feeling isolated and lost – that goes for both academic work and social attitude. Uni is not for the faint-hearted or lazy. A student recently told me a piece of advice they had been given about uni
Don’t let uni happen to you, let it happen through you
At first I didn’t quite get what was meant by that and thought it was a little bit cheesy. That said I now interpret it as saying you have to be in the driving seat of your uni experience. And I think that applies regardless of background.