Driving down Great Western Road, my life in boxes in the back of my Mums car ready to personalise my standard design room in student halls, I felt small. Glasgow was a big deal for a wee girl from Crieff, a town of around 6000 population where everyone knew everyone’s business. I should have been excited. It was the moment I’d been waiting for. University, where I would finally become the gorgeous, popular and self assured woman I was destined to be.
As much as I may have believed that I was a mature fully formed adult, it was a wee girl who moved in to Queen Margaret Residences in September 2011 to start a course in Politics at Glasgow Uni. My fellow country bumpkin flatmate and I were almost run over six times on a simple trip to Tesco on our first night. The thought of going to the student union that night triggered a surge of anxiety, as I wondered how I would navigate the maze of West End streets to find my way home.
University is often referred to as the best years of your life. A warm cocoon of ivory towers and safe spaces, where students are protected from the harsh realities of the world. But once you scratch back the glossy veneer of the prospectus, you reveal a student population struggling to carry on. Many of us are overcome by financial worries, fear of the future, mental illness and an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome.
University has moulded me as a person, but my memories of my time here are far from rosy. If someone had told that anxious girl back in 2011 how the next six years would go, I’m not sure she would have stuck it out. I first considered dropping out in October of my first year. I was a number in a sea of students crowded into too small lecture theatres. I wasn’t cut out for this. Little did I know what was to come.
My University years have been plagued by mental illness. It doesn’t make sense. I was one of the lucky ones. I hit it off with my randomly assigned halls flatmates. We’re still in touch today. I did well in my course despite my lack of self-belief. I got involved in student life. I’ve held committee positions on student societies, volunteered, and edited a student magazine. On paper my university experience is perfect. Yet I spent more time in Doctor’s offices and counselling appointments than in class. I dropped out of University twice.
Ultimately this is a success story. On the 26th June 2017 I put on a ridiculous robe, was capped and hooded, and received my 2:1 honours degree. But the rosy narrative of overcoming the odds doesn’t do justice to the last 6 years. I’ve stretched the definition of rock bottom to it’s very limit. There was a bittersweet tinge to my elation upon receiving my results in June. Two months before, when I was in the depths of one of the deepest depressive episodes of my life and I had failed to hand in any of the years coursework, this hadn’t seemed possible. However, it was nowhere near the heights I had come to expect from myself. What could I have done if I’d been healthy? Mental illness robbed me of the opportunity to find out.
The fact is, I wasn’t healthy. I quickly realised that life doesn’t stop because you have a degree to do. On reflection, University has been about so much more than that parchment in my hand. Much is made of the so called “student experience. Whilst it is true that university is as much about what you do outside the classroom as within it, it’s not like the prospectus would have you believe.
University is about realising that success is not inevitable, and that this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Our late teens and early twenties are our time to try and fail, most likely more than once. Life rarely goes to plan. Nothing will teach you this lesson as effectively as University, where kids who’ve become accustomed to receiving straight A’s realise that the real world isn’t so easy.
Suffering from mental illness in the hallowed halls of Glasgow University taught me more than any degree could have. I learned that happiness is more important than presenting the world with a façade of success. That other people’s success does not diminish my own achievements. That my peers didn’t have to be my competition, and that some of them would be the only thing that kept me going during the hard times. That there is no shame in admitting you are struggling, and that asking for help is never as scary as you think it is going to be.
The truth is, If I could go back and do it all again, I don’t think I would do anything differently. In the end, it was the struggles that defined me even more than the successes. Glasgow uni has given me some of the best moments in my life, as well as the worst. But when I drive down Great Western Road, I don’t feel small anymore. If she could see where I am now, I’d like to think that wee girl who moved in to Queen Margaret Residences six years ago would be proud.