An education with good and bad surprises

University was an all-round learning curve for Jessica Sale, who graduated this summer. Here she reflects on her experiences
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The Independent Online

I began my university career by abandoning it just weeks before it was due to start. While I was visiting the halls of residence where I was supposed to be living, the words "abandoned", "industrial" and "estate" sprang to my mind. I then had to break the news to my parents: "You remember the university of my choice? Well, I've chosen not to go there".

I began my university career by abandoning it just weeks before it was due to start. While I was visiting the halls of residence where I was supposed to be living, the words "abandoned", "industrial" and "estate" sprang to my mind. I then had to break the news to my parents: "You remember the university of my choice? Well, I've chosen not to go there".

I added that I was going to university – it just wouldn't be that particular university or that particular year. What knocked them sideways was that plans had been changed at such a late hour. In our house, the word "spontaneity" does not exist: when decisions are made they are stuck to. My parents have been choosing a new bathroom for approximately four months (and counting); but rest assured that once their decision has been reached, there will be no going back.

As she recovered, over the next few months, from the trauma of my not-so-huge life choice, my mother was hit by second shock-wave when I announced the location of my fresh attempt at getting a degree. This turned out to be not only the same university as her old one but also the same course. Again, this was not how things were supposed to be. My older sister had purposely avoided the universities where either parent had been, on principle. She had a point. Every parental visit to see me would involve endless descriptions of how things were "in my day".

Once I had filled in my gap year and was safely studying at university, there was a new factor in the parental shock department. They were concerned over the type of students I was being exposed to in this new environment. Having gone to a south London comprehensive, I believed, like them, that I could handle anyone with whom I had to share my living and studying space.

I hadn't reckoned on the "worthy" student sector, which I was to encounter on my third-year environmental module. I was prepared for the stereotypical pervasiveness of vegetarianism and a general desire to save the planet. I was prepared for much use of words like "stereotypical". But I was unprepared for the reaction to my confession that I had bought a pair of Nike trainers. I will concede that Nike may not be the most ethical choice of consumption. However, it became clear from the gasps, tuts, disbelieving faces and even death stares that, through my choice of trainers, I was single-handedly responsible for the destruction of the planet.

Seminars over the next year become a competition: "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the worthiest of us all?" Not me, obviously. I was well and truly out of the race after my faux pas. Ranking high above most of the pro-recycling/cycling and anti-car/corporation/smoking advocates was the student who insisted we should only buy Fair Trade products, being just beaten on worthy points by the girl whose student house grew all their vegetables on an allotment. Well, hoo-ray!

Once the worthy circle is circumnavigated, there is another dubious element I should have preferred to steer away from: the unworthy. Unfortunately this lot drag down everyone's reputation. At my university, the Snob Squad became slightly over-excited at being a member of one of the older institutions. This unfortunate trait was exhibited most strongly in the run-up to varsity sporting events with the local ex-poly which was now very much an established university. Posters would appear not only around campus but the whole area, declaring that "Your dad works for my dad," and "I'm going to be your boss."

Closely related, but with more money, were the Blondes (of both sexes) or the "yah-yahs", as they were also known. To my annoyance, our hall differed from the Big Brother house in that there was no opportunity for evictions of residents who got up the noses of the majority. This lot would have been kicked out at the end of Week One and so would have allowed the rest of us to hold a civilised conversation without being deafened by the upper-class honking.

As daddy hadn't yet given them their sports car in which to shoot round the nearby lanes, the Hooray Henries had to resort to pushing the Hooray Henriettas around the halls of residence corridors in shopping trolleys, swerving every now and then to make amusing dents in the walls. But not to worry: the rest of us helped pay for the damage by a compulsory levy on our hall deposits.

Blondes had en-suite rooms when they lived in hall and presumably the smartest student houses when they moved out, although they never invited me into their lairs to test that theory. Although the state of its accommodation made me dump university number one, the housing I experienced at number two was not exactly luxurious either. At the start of my third year I arrived at what was basically a very agreeable house to discover a living-room with no furniture, a bedroom full of half-empty paint pots and a kitchen full of water from a permanent leak. The landlord's solution to the deluge was to change the carpet, which mopped up the water, briefly. Fortunately my housemates and I could see the funny side – and swim.

There was a water problem at the top as well as at the bottom of the house. Spending most of my working hours in the handy little study next to my very pleasant bedroom, I was the first to notice that whenever it rained the wallpaper nearest to the roof became wringing wet. The landlord remained true to form. His first response – you're probably ahead of me – was to change the wallpaper.

My university career ended as it had begun: with a shock for my parents. When the results came out, I was astounded to receive, instead of the prophesied 2.1, an unforeseen First. My mother took an annoyingly long time to absorb this information. She asked me to ring on another line: "Sorry, I can't quite hear you. I keep thinking you said a 'First'."

The writer has just graduated with a first-class degree in social policy and administration from Nottingham University

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