Monday 15 July 2024

University changes your life, there is no doubt about that

Charlotte shares the struggles around the pressures and expectations of freshers year at university. (TW: death)

- Charlotte Millar

Your university experience is uniquely yours. 

I came to university with the expectation that I had to be prepared to have the “typical university experience”, to do it right. However, I soon realised that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Social media often highlights students partying and making loads of friends, creating pressure to live a certain lifestyle. 

Before university, I wasn’t a big drinker but I felt compelled to join in during fresher’s week getting drunk every night until I realised this wasn’t for me. I was one of the first in my flat to turn down a night out, and now we spend more time playing Mario Kart than we do going clubbing! Don’t be fooled by the glamorous portrayal of university life online. For me and everyone I know, university is the most amazing but loneliest experience of our lives.  

I built friendships with people I felt I clicked with, and before I knew it I had a group of friends who, one year later, I am so lucky to consider my best friends. I was posting videos, replying less to my friends from home, and often talking about how amazing my uni life was. However, the honest truth is, my best friend from home was at a different university and having a very different experience. She wasn’t close to her flatmates and struggled to find people who shared her interests. Social media made her believe that this wasn’t okay, and she felt like she had failed to immerse herself in the expected university experience. This, along with other factors, devastatingly contributed to her taking her own life after 3 weeks of university. This turned my world upside down in more ways than you can imagine.  

I returned to university after taking some time out to process this huge loss in my life and suddenly became so much more aware of the intense pressures of university life. Why were there so many expectations? Why is there an assumption that your flatmates will be your new best friends? Why does social media dictate the type of experience we should have? If you don’t enjoy that lifestyle, why pressure yourself to conform?  

University changes your life, there is no doubt about that. It is important to remember that ultimately, it is just a degree. You are not defined by this degree, and you have to do what is right for you. Come to university with no expectations and an open mind. If you need to go home every weekend, then that’s what you need to do. If you want to stay at university as much as possible, then that’s what you need to do. University is a huge chapter in anyone’s life and it is crucial that you look after yourself. No degree is more important than your mental health – your happiness comes first.  

Throw yourself in and give it your all, but if you realise that university isn’t the right path for you or not a path you feel is best for you at this specific time in your life, then know you have options. 

Mental health doesn’t discriminate, anyone can struggle at any time and that’s okay. If you are reading this, please remember there is so much help out there – you are loved and this experience does not define you. This new chapter of your life is yours and nobody else’s. Do what feels right for you and take care of yourself, please ask for support when you need it. Be kind to yourself - I can assure you that you are doing better than you think. 

Find out how you can get involved with the Student Minds Blog.

I believe that the pressures of first year at university are not spoken about enough, and sadly, I saw the devastating effects these pressures and expectations can have. If even one person reading this realises that there is no perfect uni experience, just an individual one - then I am glad I shared a piece of my story. 

Wednesday 10 July 2024

How an autism diagnosis encouraged me to thrive in education

Laur shares how transitioning from an undiagnosed autistic student to receiving an autism diagnosing helped them thrive in education

- Laur Charleston

To commemorate Disability Pride Month, I wanted to touch upon my experiences of transitioning from an undiagnosed Autistic Student to a diagnosed Autistic Student within the UK education system.

Perhaps its cliché to highlight that I had *always* felt different, I knew that I had my differences and often put my struggles to fit in down to shyness or extreme social anxiety. As early as my Nursery years, I could not approach other Children and would simply walk away when I was approached as a possible person to engage in playful activities with. I could not maintain a long-lasting friendship, eye contact, or a conversation, and felt entirely broken, or like a failure of a human being, for having limited friendships and social interactions. I longed to be ‘like everybody else’ even if that meant losing myself in the process. None of that mattered so long as I would be socially accepted and valued.

Upon reflection, I discovered that a selection of my traits were criticised or ridiculed from Teachers themselves, I was commonly met with the phrase “You can’t keep doing things this way” despite it working well for me and being an accommodation of my personal needs. For example, I have fine motor difficulties stemming from Dyspraxia, which means that I cannot grip a pen ‘properly’. The seven years I spent in Primary School were heavily centred around unsuccessful attempts to modify this, with the constant supplying of a rubber pencil grip along with the complete disregard of my neat handwriting abilities.

I was reminded to “just put my hand up” if I was struggling; Unbeknownst to them, I found the concept of 1) Asking for help and 2) Admitting that I was struggling painstakingly difficult. I worried about the possible consequences of asking for extra support, worried that I would be turned away, shouted at, or laughed at. I frequently found myself in situations that involved group work and the weekly expectation to attend my drama class to create a piece to perform in front of the class was my interpretation of a total nightmare.

I didn’t enjoy working with people I was unfamiliar with; I could not communicate with them comfortably or put my ideas forward. The whole process included copious amounts of masking and holding in my stims. I preferred to be reading or writing in complete silence with the absence of communication pressures and pondering over how awkward I appeared to be.

It wasn’t until I had left the Further Education system that I obtained an Autism diagnosis. Although the general experiences of Neurodivergent Students in Secondary School are often negative, I had an enjoyable experience, and found that I only experienced problems when I challenged Teachers with my need for an accommodation. At the age of 14, I was told to ‘man up’ when it came to delivering my first ever public speaking presentation in front of my English class and that ‘this was to be expected in the workplace’. This led to a panic attack in front of my class and a lack of empathy from my Teacher. I gained detentions on numerous occasions for laughing and later found out, within my Autism assessment report, that this is an Autistic trait of mine, a factor I use for additional processing time or when I am feeling anxious and not as a means of causing disruption.

After two years at College studying Animal Care and Management, I was entirely burnt out and a victim of my evolving mental health difficulties – Including an ongoing battle with Anorexia Nervosa. The problems I experienced did not stem from College themselves, more so, my hyper fixations and perfectionism – I always needed to complete assignments first and on the same day that they were given, my workbooks needed to be flawless because I would rip out the page and restart otherwise. I asked my Teachers for extra work, although I was always in front with my assignments, the drive to be the best and to avoid failure ultimately took over and caused me to struggle.

In addition, I struggled to cope with the aspects of transitioning onto my next steps due to the uncertainty, worry, and need to be in control of my future. As it stands, I have experienced a significant lack of support during transitional periods (School to College  College to University – University to work).

Before I started University, I had gained my Autism diagnosis and had post-diagnostic support and a weekly 1-1 support worker to assist me in learning to navigate, and process, my new diagnosis. The confirmation of my disability meant that I could apply for DSA (Disability Support Allowance) to further equip me with support, accommodations, and adjustments throughout my time as an Undergraduate Student. Alongside impeccable support from my Personal Tutor, and other Lecturers, I had been assigned a disability mentor. I also had recording equipment for lectures and extended time on exams, assignments, and library loans to cater for processing time.

The revelation that I am Autistic encouraged me to thrive within education as opposed to previous attempts to ‘cope’ nestled in masking, meltdowns, and subsequent burnout. Not only have I been accommodated, but I have also been surrounded by people who encourage my special interests and who encourage me to seek as many adjustments as possible. Thus, I have found a newfound confidence in actively seeking and requesting the accommodations needed to make my life easier and more manageable.

As I prepare to begin my second Degree in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery, I can walk around comfortably with fidget toys, noise-cancelling earphones, and communication cards with the comfort in knowing that I am wholeheartedly accepted, seen, and valued as an Autistic Student and member of society.

The best pieces of advice I have recently been issued with are:
  1. To seek accommodations and to role model positive ways of working.
  2. You don’t have to trek into the deepest valley and then slog your way back up to the peak to get the nice view, sometimes, you can take the cable car, or the nice scenic route, chatting with others as you meander uphill – You’ll get there in the end.

Find out how you can get involved with the Student Minds Blog.

Image of Laur Charleston
Hello! My name is Laur and I’m an aspiring Vet from the UK. I am keen to share my experiences of Neurodiversity within the education sector to empower others and to encourage positive changes. As somebody who has worked as an Animal Management Teacher within Further Education and as somebody who has navigated the education system as both an undiagnosed and diagnosed autistic individual, I am keen to learn about the ways I can accommodate myself and others. face.