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Graduating- A W For The Working Class

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

Myself tipping my mortarboard hat to the Vice Chancellor of the university, thus accepting my degree.


Completing a degree in itself is not only an achievement for me, but an achievement for my family and the wider working class. At the height of poverty, my family struggled to pay the mortgage, buy food or have access to electricity and water. My dad regularly took toilet paper from work to use at home. I ate as much free fruit at school as I could get away with. I put myself through university and, despite these past and present hardships, I still came out with the best degree that academia can offer at bachelor's level.


Although I was classed as 'gifted and talented' in primary and secondary school (a subject that I could write a whole other essay on with great contempt), my grades fell to an average of B-C level during my GCSEs and A-Levels. It was purely due to my personal circumstances rather than my lack of studying or knowledge, mostly due to bullying and suffering under my then-undiagnosed illnesses and conditions. I was not supported at all by my school or college in either of those aspects. They knew the bullying was occurring, it happened right in front of them. They should have also spotted at least one of my conditions. The kicker thought was that I was told by one of my English Literature teachers in Sixth-Form that I would not succeed in that subject at university. Now, I’m not particularly fond of showing off to those who never believed in me, but I’m afraid I cannot help it.

Suck my overly-eloquent dick, Mrs. Bake.


Myself throwing my mortarboard hat in the air, a tradition for new graduates.


I am a first-generation graduate, meaning that I am the first person ever in my family to get a degree. Two years after me, my mother and aunt received their bachelor's degrees, in History and Child Psychology respectively. My sister is due to graduate with an English Literature and Theatre degree next year and will have her master’s a year later. My aunt will have her master’s next year. One day, I will have my master's and maybe a PhD in Early Modern Literature. It is not just me that is succeeding academically, so are all the working-class women. We are accessing a new way of life that has been cut off from our family and class ever since universities came about. We do not have to be the farmers, blacksmiths anymore if we do not want to. We can be experts in our field. We can be academics. That is what I intend to be.


According to a study conducted by UCAS in 2020, only 23.3% of UK university students in that year came from ’low participation neighbourhoods’. Merely 5% of all students came from white, working-class families. [1] The new generation of the working class is pressured by their families and the government to ’learn a trade’, start working from 16 and abandon education to support our ever-suffering families. Many choose that route as a preference, while others regret leaving education so early.



The Future of English Literature


In late June, Sheffield Hallam University announced that it was suspending its English Literature course. The general consensus of this plan was that it was terrible. It comes from ever-growing pressure from the government on universities to produce students who can gain full-time jobs immediately after graduating.

“Under proposed new rules under consultation, universities could face penalties if fewer than 75% of undergraduates complete their courses and fewer than 60% are in professional jobs or studying for a further degree within 15 months of graduating. About 70% of graduates of Sheffield Hallam’s English literature degree gain graduate jobs.”[2]

These proposed rules are highly problematic because it does not consider the context of each individual English Literature graduate. Many graduates cannot immediately go into their chosen career due to a very competitive base. We do not always take on ‘highly skilled’ work immediately, as we need to make ends meet with 'unskilled’ jobs while applying for our 'skilled' ones. In my circumstances, I am entirely funding my master’s by myself, meaning that I have had to take 3 years out of education to work full-time and save up the £11,000 needed for the course. I need even more money if I am to move away from home. While it takes academics like us much longer than those who get funding through STEM, employers or parents, the government does not see prolonged success as success. We, the poor, are deemed as failures for needing to take longer.


UK ministers have called the study of English Literature ‘low-value’ because it does not create an instantaneous product to sell. The British government is only interested in what makes money and what makes produce, which right now is industry and science. Rishi Sunak says that if he were to become the next Prime Minister, he would “take a tougher approach to university degrees that saddle students with debt, without improving their earning potential”, [3] i.e, force the working class into industry. Good job we got Liz Truss instead, right?


Scholars of the arts know that we are not going to make millions in our chosen field, and yet we choose to study them anyway. This is because we love our art, and we favour being happy over money making. Of course, we cannot expect one of the UK’s richest people whose wife has been swindling taxes for years to understand that.

“learning has been stripped of everything but the most utilitarian aims, designed to form minds into nothing but cogs in the capitalist machine. It’s dismal and dehumanising”- Sarah Perry [4]

We have seen this reduction of arts studying not just in universities, but in primary and secondary schools too. My own Sixth Form took away Drama A-Level right before I was due to start it, and they also took away Art A-Level that same year. This reduction, of course, does not apply to the top schools and universities in the UK, only to the ones that tend to open their doors to the poorest of society. They want to turn the lower classes into industry machines, designed to make a profit quickly. You cannot make a profit quickly in the arts- that is not how it works.


My existence has always been a protest. I am working-class, disabled, queer woman from the north. Now, I may add 'educated in the arts' to these protests, as striving to go against this elitist, utilitarian government who thinks I’m only good for the mines that their beloved Thatcher closed is the opposite of what they want. My applying for not just a bachelor’s in English Literature, but a master’s and PhD is a massive middle finger to the Tories. I refuse to be part of their utilitarian future.

My partner, sister and I, wherein my sister and I, the English students, raise middle fingers at the camera.


Final Thoughts


The pandemic has changed the world in ways in which I am still discovering. The two and a half years between rushing back home on a moment’s notice the day before lockdowns began, to returning to my university one last time meant that Reading changed while I was away. The saddest part of all was the amount of academics that had left the University and were not present at my graduation. The very people who inspired me to become a Literature academic just like them, were gone. I graduated in front of a sea of red robe-wearing strangers.


When I stepped onto campus, I expected to be overcome with emotion. I thought that I would have trouble leaving Reading and have a crying fit as we left. In reality, when we pulled out of Reading station for the final time... I did not look up. I did not even click that we had even left the station until 10 minutes to London.


Leaving university in the middle of my third year was so, so painful. Now, here I was barely noticing that my life there had ended. I think that meant that I am ready to move onto life’s next big adventure, i.e., my next university. I am grateful for what Reading provided me with, and I learned a lot about life and myself there. But it has nothing left to teach.


My time at university taught me that everything has value, no matter what anyone else says. But it also taught me that, as that arts educated, working class, disabled, queer woman, I must work harder. I have big aspirations. Despite finally deciding that I do not want to study at Oxford or Cambridge (their English master’s are shite ngl lol), I am applying to the top universities in the world. It is going to be incredibly competitive. I am also applying for scholarships, which are going to be even more competitive. But to achieve these horrifically huge goals, I must study harder. I must plan better. But I'm up for the challenge. And I will succeed.

My official graduation, I hold my degree that represents the W for the working class.




References


[1] unknown, Higher education in numbers (2022) <https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/latest/insights-and-analysis/higher-education-numbers> [accessed 11/09/2022]


[2] Sally Weale, Philip Pullman leads outcry after Sheffield Hallam withdraws English lit degree, (2022), <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/jun/27/sheffield-hallam-university-suspends-low-value-english-literature-degree> [accessed 11/09/2022]


[3] Gergana Krasteva, Rishi Sunak to crack down on degrees that don’t make students lots of money (2022) <https://metro.co.uk/2022/08/07/rishi-sunak-to-crack-down-on-degrees-that-dont-make-students-money-17140823/> [accessed 11/09/2022]


[4] Sally Weale, Philip Pullman leads outcry after Sheffield Hallam withdraws English lit degree, (2022), <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/jun/27/sheffield-hallam-university-suspends-low-value-english-literature-degree> [accessed 11/09/2022]



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Special thanks to Tasha Ford and Mr Mercer for proofreading.


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