I recently read Melanie Reynolds’s article in The Guardian ‘Working-class lecturers should come out of the closet,’ and it resonated with me. I was the first generation in my family to go to university and it was difficult. I grew up in a poor socio-economic position, received government allowances, there was a stigma to this, and unspoken expectation that you kept this hidden. When I turned 18 I moved out of home and went to university, from the start I was supporting myself. I worked in a pizza shop, a convenience store, a sandwich shop, and a call centre. I lived pay day to pay day. Starting university felt like learning a new language to me, it was a shock.
I remember one of my first assignments I handed in. I had to print it on lined foolscap paper because I didn’t have any printer paper and I couldn’t afford to buy any. It is all well and good to tell a student to be prepared – trust me I would’ve been if I had the money. This meant I couldn’t afford to print at university either (before the days of online submission!). But I also didn’t know how to print at the university at that stage and I didn’t want to let on to anyone that I didn’t know how, I already felt like I stood out. It seemed that everyone around me had this innate understanding of how everything worked. It seemed like a simple thing, but it was hard to ask for help.
Another time I lost my student card on the train and when I got on the bus to go to university the bus driver asked for it. He stayed at the stop while I literally went through every compartment in my bag looking for it, with everyone watching it just brought feelings of shame. I had to pay an adult fare in addition to the three-zone student fare I had already paid, and those couple of dollars extra made a big difference to me, considering I knew I would also need to replace my student card.
I didn’t feel like I belonged, I didn’t know anyone at university, I didn’t know what services were available, even if I did I would have felt like I was wasting their time – taking away time for ‘real’ students. It was difficult to watch other students be involved in activities and wonder how they found the time and the money. Being in law school made me feel like I didn’t dress right, didn’t talk properly, that I was not connected to the legal profession because no one in my family was a lawyer or judge, I was an impostor. It was very isolating.
What can I say to help – it will get better? That you’ll get over the feelings of impostor syndrome? It does get a little better, for me it took time, realising that I was not alone in these feelings, that many students had the same questions, and to build the confidence to speak up. There was a lot of pressure to succeed and this is something you need to manage.
I try to be open about my experiences with my students so that they may feel more comfortable approaching me with their issues. To me there are no stupid questions. One of my most disliked words is ‘just’ – ‘well you just do this’ the expectation that you’ll ‘just’ know. I don’t expect my students to ‘just’ know. When I ask students to tell me when they are having difficulties I truly mean it. This is my job and it is the university’s job to support you. Starting university can be overwhelming. So, remember students ALWAYS ask me for help, email, phone or in-person.
What can we do as educators? Universities and their staff need to be pro-active in connecting with students and providing assistance – not ‘do you need help?’ but ‘what can I do to help?’ We need to seek to bridge the gap and bring equity to our students, not just equality.
For all students there are support services available to you at the University of Northampton, please take advantage of them.