My honest experience of university

Blog post by Rosa Blakelock, who graduates next week with a BA (Hons) in Geography

It is often said that university is the best time you’ll have, that you meet your “friends for life” and create memories that the rest of your days will struggle to live up to. These things are often said by those who are looking back, and no doubt some of these things are true, but memory is unreliable and this may not be the whole truth, and may mask parts of university life that re challenging and unhappy, stressful and upsetting memories. The truth is that university can be fun but can also be a very isolated place, which is strange to think, that you can feel lonely whilst surrounded by 25,000-odd people of your own age. When asked to write this blog post as a recently graduated Geography student, I was wary of exhibiting a cynical, Scrooge-like vibe, making readers feel disillusioned, but I am even more wary of contributing to the culture of not talking about issues faced by students, which helps paint a picture of university as clear as dishwater for those who are yet to come. Major organisations such as the NHS (where I now work) have reams of information about student mental health and Student Minds, which is a student mental health charity that provides information for students to look after their health, support others and create change. If you want to find stories written by other students, Imperial has a great blog section on mental health.

I think one of the things that is painfully ironic about university is that when you’re going through a hard time, it is so easy to think you’re alone because everyone around you looks as they’re having a ball. But the reality is that every single person, if not now, then in the not-too-distant past, has been through something very similar. From feeling homesick to feeling too dim to make it through the year, from discretely battling depression and having no energy to get up in the morning, to paranoia and anxiety developing, coming to terms with a newly diagnosed STI…what do all these things share, apart from being astonishingly common among the student population? They are hardly talked about.

Coming back to university after being sectioned in my second year (put in a psychiatric hospital for a few weeks), I felt more alone than ever in my life. I still had my wonderful friends who had stuck by me through the hell I went through, but they were now graduated and I was placed in a brand new year group…like a latecomer to a party where everyone has been hanging out for two years. I am generally a friendly person, easy to get along with you might even say, but man, my confidence plummeted hard during my last year in this new year group. I spent my days sitting on my own in lectures, not talking to anyone, isolating myself from a group of people I was convinced, had it together. Naturally I was given therapy and counselling after my episode and it wasn’t until a few weeks in, sitting in the overcrowded waiting room at the university counselling service that I realised, it’s not just me. The reason waiting lists are so long and appointments are so distant is because so many people apply for counselling that the services just can’t cope. A YouGov survey showed that 27% of British uni students report having a mental health problem whilst studying. And that’s only the people that actually spoke up about having one, I am confident that the percentage would be a lot higher if we were all honest.

Feeling alone is the worst thing in the entire world, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. But, if the fact that I am now graduated, married and in a full-time job bestows me with any wisdom whatsoever, I want to relay that anyone feeling down, anxious, lonely or a combination of the three, is certainly not alone. Your own mental health is more important than anything – good grades, friends, money, popularity, jobs, clothes, drugs, a flat stomach, approval from your parents…anything. So if any of these things are causing you to feel bad, I urge you, make changes, ask for help, take it from someone who’s been through hell and back because of bad choices, it’s just not worth it. Asking for help can be awkward but it is surely not shameful. After I took a year out of university from getting seriously ill, I lost all my confidence, and eventually realised that if I didn’t ask for help, my life would continue to be difficult for the rest of my degree. I sought guidance and advice from my tutor, who I will forever thank as the reason I made it to graduation. She told me that people like me, who have problems that affect their work, sometimes need a bit of extra help to push them forward to the starting blocks everyone else races from. Otherwise I would not only be battling through uni, I would be carrying the weight of my problems too, and no one needs that. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your friends or even your family, there are so many resources made specially for you! A quick chat with your GP will provide you with some general guidance, and although the university counselling services are stretched, they have drop in sessions and hundreds of leaflets with information that can help. Another good place to visit is the student support department, who have drop-in sessions tailored to give advice and help students out, because they know uni can be a really hard time. One thing that you can’t think is that nothing or no one can help. Initially reaching out for help is the hardest part, I promise. I used to think that getting help was giving me an unfair advantage, but actually, the help is there to give everyone an equal chance.

Anyway, to end on a lighter note, the person you will be when you graduate will be unrecognisable from your former self and for the best possible reasons. University teaches you to look at life pragmatically, develop into a mature version of yourself, and if you’re lucky, you’ll end up making friends that will be the godparents to your children one day.

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Winner: 1st year Laboratory Teaching in Physical Geography wins an Award…..

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For 2012-13 and with the formal opening of the Universities new Central Teaching Laboratory, the Year 1 Physical Geography curriculum underwent a fundamental overhaul. We designed two new laboratory modules delivered entirely in the Central Teaching Laboratories, and intriguingly named Experiments in Physical Geography I and Experiments in Physical Geography II. These modules comprise whole day (9.00-16.30) exercises using the National Award Winning (The Guardian) stunning laboratories and array of state-of-the-art equipment.

To allow a comprehensive and more individual hands-on experience we designed for each semester ten whole day exercises that all run concurrently. So the students form research teams with a weekly challenge, rotating through the menu of practical exercises each week. Each exercise encourages teamwork as the groups develop their research strategy assisted by the module leaders and at the end of the day the groups present their findings and discuss the outcomes.

For these efforts the team were nominated for and won a Faculty Learning and Teaching Award. Congratulations to the teaching team on this reward for all their hard work: Richard Chiverrell (Semester 2 lead); John Boyle (Semester 1 lead); Andy Plater; Janet Hooke; Andreas Lang; Andy Morse; Fabienne Marret-Davies; James Cooper and Richard Bradshaw from the Department of Geography and Planning; Irene Cooper; Liz Rushworth and Josh Hicks from team Central Teaching Laboratories; and our postgraduate demonstrators Karen Hale; Daniel Schillereff and Tim Shaw.

1st Semester Menu….

  • How does forest cover affect soil development?
  • Discovering vegetation cover from pollen grains?
  • 200 years of atmospheric pollution from Manchester recorded in a peat bog?
  • Radioisotopes how quickly do they decay? And how can we use them to date sediments?
  • What are the controls on stream waters from mountains to the coast?
  • Evaporation from soils and sediments: what are the rates and controls?
  • Tree sequester carbon: but how much and how quickly?
  • River flows during storms: how does event sequencing affect the flood peak?
  • Meteorology: how do you measure the weather?
  • Patterns in the weather: how do you analyse weather data?

2nd Semester Menu….

  • How do variations in dirt cover on ice affects melting rates?
  • How can we use lake sediment records to measure both long-term soil erosion rates and carbon sequestration?
  • How do slope gradients and catchment cover (vegetation and urban) affect storm flow response?
  • What  regulates the delivery of sediments from catchments to lakes?
  • Why do slopes fail and soils erode?
  • Is the recent infilling of the Dee Estuary due to sea-level rise or sediment accretion?
  • Do changes in sand dune sediment composition reflect changes in wind speed and deflation?
  • What main factors control the rate of chemical weathering in soils?
  • Can particle size data be used to distinguish beach and river deposits?

 

Universities in a time of austerity: participatory geographies

Students take part in a ‘Silent Seminar’

Post by Dr Pete North

We all know that the current economic conditions in which universities have to function are very difficult for all involved.  We don’t yet know what the changes to funding and fees will mean for the students who are paying, or for universities.  But these challenges also present a possibility to think differently about the ways in which we, as academics, engage with our students and the communities that we research with. Participatory geography is one example of new ways of researching and teaching being explored in geography.

I am Chair of the Participatory Geography Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society and Institute of British Geographers. The group has two aims:

First, we think that the people geographers work with are not ‘objects’, like specimens on a Petri dish, to be prodded and studied by academics who are seen to have a privileged view.  We argue instead that better research will come if academics work with the communities they are researching to identify questions, ways of answering them, and work out what the data mean together. That way, we will get better answers, and the process will help everyone involved to better understand the world, so we can change things for the better.

Secondly, we argue that research should be about making the real world a better place.  Universities are civic institutions – The University of Liverpool was founded to advance knowledge and enrich the human experience. To be true to these roots, we need to remember that despite the changes in funding, universities are not private sector companies, but part of that rich civil society tradition of organisations like the press, voluntary and community groups, churches, trade unions and professional societies that are vital for an inclusive democratic society.

The Participatory Geography Research Group has recently been discussing what the new world of university funding means, not just for research but also for teaching, and has been thinking about how we can make sure that this leads to a better university experience for all concerned.  To do so, we suggest that it’s important in the new funding regime to make sure that students are not seen as  customers, as purchasers of our products and services, but as part of the team of knowledge producers – people who we respect, nurture and support and who can also teach us things.  We should remember to co-operate with, not compete against each other, and review each others’, and students’ work in a positive, constructive and supportive light.  We should bring the best out of each other, not try to get ahead at any cost. We should use teaching and learning methods that enrich the learning experience, and help students grow to be people in control of their destiny, committed to using their geographical knowledge to help solve some of humanity’s pressing problems

The participatory geographies research group ‘Communifesto for ‘Fuller Geographies’ can be found here

It’s inspired by Duncan Fuller who worked at Northumbria University.  Duncan died at a tragically young age, but he was always someone who was alive with the missions of giving the most to his students to inspire them to get out there and make the world a better place both at university and in their later careers.  What can be a more fulfilling job than having the opportunity to teach and inspire, and later learn from, future generations of problem solvers? The Participatory Geography Research Group’s mission is to advance that way of thinking about what universities are about, and developing new, engaged ways of making the experience of life at university more fulfilling.

The challenge is to make this vision of university life a reality.