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Graduating- A W For The Working Class

Updated: Mar 31

On Thursday the 30th of June at 12:30, I officially graduated from the University of Reading with a first-class bachelor's degree in English Literature.

My family on the day of my graduation, featuring from left to right my partner, my sister, my mother, myself and my father.

My graduation ceremony took place two years late due to COVID-19. The University of Reading decided to postpone our graduation ceremony so that we could have a celebration with no restrictions- it was as normal as we could hope for in the latter stages of the pandemic. While I was excited to revisit the place I called home for three years, it was also a terrifying prospect coming back to the campus. Would my classmates and professors remember me? Would it feel like the home I used to know?

To my relief, my classmates did remember me. To my disappointment though, campus did not feel like home anymore. I had been away too long.

The beginning of my University Career

A shot of the inside of the university ceremony hall, with myself and my course-mates queueing up to receive our awards.

My university life was not normal, at least by the standards of students who do not live a life precariously balanced between the lower working class and poverty. There is a problematic expectation in the UK where, if your family are financially stable, the government expects them to give their student-child money to live on. Many of my peers who were lucky enough to come from very wealthy families (and when I say very wealthy, I do not just mean in comparison to my poverty where they did not have to choose between electricity and food on the regular, some of my peers were part of the upper class), had a big portion of their rent and bills paid for them by their parents. I, however, being poor, received a full maintenance loan from the government that assisted with my rent, expenses and bills, as well as a very generous Hardship Bursary that was gifted to me by my University as an incentive to study there. However, all these loans and financial gifts were still not enough to fully support my life in Reading.

My parents were occasionally able to send me a food shop or a train ticket home, and occasionally I would need to send some of my money back to them so that they could pay the mortgage or eat for the week. I knew that my financial situation would not be sustainable past the first few months of my degree, and so I started looking for work as soon as my place at Reading was made unconditional. I arrived at university with a job lined up as a Performing Arts teacher at a Stagecoach school just outside of Reading. There were no decent buses from my dorm to the school, so I had to walk three miles there and back on a Saturday morning and afternoon. Although the commute was difficult with a then-undiagnosed hypermobility condition, I enjoyed the work and looked forward to my weekends. Unfortunately, I lost that job after just a few months as they could not afford to keep me on. Such is the world of performing arts.

Now unemployed with only myself to rely on, I turned to working as a one-off Student Guide at the university’s summer Open Days. I was to be employed for 4 full days before the contract ended. After this contract, I applied to continue the work over the summer holidays. This position paid me enough to cover my rent and some bills for the first month of my second year of study, but at the sacrifice of not returning home to my friends and family until 6 weeks into the holidays. By the time I reached my second year of study a few months later, I had worked my way up from just a one-off Student Guide to a fully-fledged Student Ambassador and Student Mentor. After some more months, I worked up to Team Leader for Ambassadors and Graduation Marshal for graduation ceremonies- 3 separate promotions within a 12 month period is pretty good going, if I do say so myself.

Myself standing outside of the University of Reading library, where I spent much of my time as a Big Nerd.

Now I was working 3 physically demanding and well-respected jobs, and I was getting good money too. Student mentoring was the most rewarding for me, as I was working with underprivileged teens who wanted to pursue a university education. I was lending a helping hand to students who were just like me by putting them forward for university interviews, offers and scholarships. I performed mock interviews with them, helped them write their personal statements and gave them a taster as to what studying at university was like. I never got that opportunity myself, but I was glad to make life a little easier for others. I am proud to say that I did become a favourite ambassador at my university, which reassured me that I was doing an excellent job. Managers would come to me to apply for new roles within the Student Ambassador job, I got to lecture at secondary schools and attend recruitment days all over the south of England. I enjoyed all my duties so much and I knew that my work was actively helping people like me, and so I was constantly searching for shifts. But disregarding the self fulfilment I felt working these jobs for a moment, I must acknowledge that, for survivability, the more shifts I worked and the better I was at my job, the more money I got. And the more money I got, the more I could eat. I had only myself to rely on, and I pushed myself to the limit to get enough money to support myself unreservedly.

Working so much while keeping up my studies, plus a long-term long-distance relationship, long-distance friendships and theatrical/ artistic hobbies was very hard, and I was insanely busy... but these years were my happiest for that very reason. I never stopped for breath and it was so much fun. Of course, while I enjoyed the work, this amount of activity puts pressure on the body, as I soon found out.

Myself standing with a red and white lit up 3D sign that reads 'I <3 UOR'. I rest my hands on the heart.

Becoming Disabled

In the middle of my second year, I started to experience debilitating chest pains. I endured months of ECGs, blood tests, counselling sessions and more before concluding that my Generalised Anxiety Disorder was now manifesting physically, and in a dangerous way. I was put on heart medication and told to take it easy. Of course, how could I take it easy when I needed to get myself through university? I did not want to accept that I was now at a physical disadvantage and really needed to look after my body. I could not stop if I wanted to complete my degree, and I did not want to stop either. My work gave me a purpose and finances. Taking it easy was not an option.

Adjusting to this disability is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m still not fully accepting of myself 4 years on, and now I am dealing with potentially 6 different disabilities and conditions (they’re a story for another time, however). For a while, I kept going as I was, but the harder I worked, the stronger the pain and, therefore, I had to keep stopping work to lie on my front and wait for the chest pain to go away. I began to prioritise study and work over my household duties, much to the anger of my housemates. I never really told them about my declining health. I did not tell anyone for a while. Their anger was fuel to punish myself for becoming weak. Each episode took minutes or hours to recover from, which meant I was losing more time by not looking after myself. Constantly checking for stroke and heart attack symptoms was exhausting too. Eventually, I had to learn that I could not go on like this. I bit the bullet in my third year, and sought for treatment through DSA. I made the most difficult decision to help myself, and then... COVID.

University during COVID-time

The COVID lockdowns hit me hard. In just a few days, I lost so much, I lost 2 out of my 3 jobs, my DSA, my hobbies and my independence. I moved back home to be with my high-risk parents, leaving most of my belongings in my 3rd year house. I had to pay 5 months of rent for a house I was not allowed to be in. I had to re-write my dissertation, complete my essays and take remote exams from my small bedroom on a dying laptop. I could not access certain university texts because there were no digital versions provided by the library. It was incredibly stressful and did no favours for my chest. And yet, despite these challenges that I faced, I completed my education 300 miles away from my university, and was rewarded for my efforts with a first-class degree in English Literature.

A W for the Working Class