I’ve just finished my degree, going to university was definitely the best thing I’ve ever done. Thinking back, it was the toughest and yet the best three years of my life. I grew massively as a person and the experience set me up for the world of work.
Starting university is hard for everyone, but for those with a disability, it’s a completely different challenge. In 2013 I enrolled onto an English course at University Campus Suffolk not knowing if I’d really made the right decision. Of course, there were the usual worries, would I make friends? Would I enjoy the course? But my main worry was will I be able to cope with my illness at university? I have M.E (or CFS) which I’ve had since I was about 16 and it completely changed my life. I really struggled through sixth form so I wasn’t feeling very confident about university.
I’ll admit I didn’t have the best start. My first day we were given a tour of the campus and all the standing around and walking tired me out a lot, as a result, I started to feel a bit faint and I had a panic attack. I felt very embarrassed afterwards, but I tried my best to forget about it and move forward; I was determined not to let it ruin my start to university.
One of the best moments, early on, was when I got my first grade for an essay back and it was a First. I was so shocked, as at school and sixth form I never got the highest grade. This made me realise that I could do it, and it’s important to remember these positive moments to help get you through the negative ones.
Before I started university, I applied for Disabled Students’ Allowance, which I would advise anyone who has a disability and is due to start to university to do. I found it incredibly helpful as I was provided with lots of equipment and adjustments were put in place for when I had exams. I only did three exams throughout my time at university as my course was mostly essay based, however when I did exams I had my own room, a laptop, 25% extra time and rest breaks. I struggled so much with exams in sixth form, so having these provisions at university meant I felt more relaxed and confident when doing exams.
Through Disabled Students’ Allowance I also had a study support mentor who I met with for an hour once a week; her task was to help with me with study skills and I was able to send her essays to proof read. Most of all, my study support mentor was someone I could talk to which I found so helpful; we discussed what I wanted to do after university and she provided me with advice, while also directing me to the careers advisers within student services who I could also talk to. Having someone to talk to outside your family and friendship group is really beneficial, so I would always suggest making use of your university’s student services.
I also think it’s really important to keep your course lecturers in the loop. I kept my personal tutor updated on how I was doing and would send lecturers emails if I was going to miss lectures due to being unwell. My lecturers really appreciated this and it enabled me to have a good relationship with them; they were always extremely supportive and understanding.
University is very daunting, but it can and should be enjoyed. It’s about more than gaining a degree, it’s an experience that changes you and prepares you for the future. I gained so many skills that I’ll be able to apply to future jobs. For example, I had to do numerous presentations throughout university; we were told that doing them would help prepare us for interviews and give us vital skills for jobs. As I’m sure most people do, I hated presentations, but I also struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, so presentations were a challenge. However, the more I did them, the more my confidence grew and I found I was much better at talking in front of a group of people; I know that I will now feel more comfortable doing presentations in an interview or job.
While being in lectures and with people from university helped me develop a number of skills, I also had to overcome things by myself. Writing my dissertation in third year while having other modules to do was a struggle. I was always so tired from attending lectures that constantly having to think about and work on my dissertation as well was not easy. I learnt to cope with the situation by working on my time management and organisation skills. It was a very stressful time, but I got through it and achieved results I’m happy with. Moreover, I now have a variety of transferable skills which I know are valued by employers and will enable me to cope better in a job.
I am very sad that my university experience is over, but because of it I feel much more confident about my future. To make sure you get the most out of your university experience and enjoy yourself, my top tips are:
Don’t be afraid to ask for help or admit you’re struggling
Make use of the help your university offers
Embrace university life as much as you can
Don’t be ashamed of your disability
Most importantly, believe in yourself, you can do it!