Belfast Telegraph

GMTV reporter Emma Louise Johnston (28), graduated from Queen's University Belfast in 1999. She says:

I spent three years studying at Queen's for a degree in politics and then went on to the University of Ulster to study for a Masters in European law.

When I was 18 and leaving school I knew I wasn't ready for the world of work. It wasn't that I wasn't mature enough, but I definitely think doing a general degree helped me develop important skills like time management, leadership and being to work under my own steam.

When I was 18 and leaving school I knew I wasn't ready for the world of work. It wasn't that I wasn't mature enough, but I definitely think doing a general degree helped me develop important skills like time management, leadership and being to work under my own steam.

Queen's and the University of Ulster are both brilliant universities. I always feel a bit nostalgic whenever I go past Queen's. I had some friends over from America recently and I felt quite proud when I pointed it out and told them it was my old university.

I did A level politics and was very passionate back then about it so it was either a degree in that or law. I think maybe career advice when I was at school wasn't as good as it is now, so I wasn't sure exactly what my degree would lead to.

I decided I wanted to stay at home because I was very close to my parents - who were very sound and allowed me to have parties! - and also because of financial reasons.

A lot of my friends from school went to Queen's and the friendships I made there are the ones I still have today.

When I first started uni, I joined about 10 different clubs and societies - rallying, horse riding, debating, rowing ¿ but the only one I ever went to was the drama society!

One of the biggest memories for me is the nights we spent at the Belfast night club Shine. Shine was just starting up then and it was great getting all glammed up and heading out, only to have your tights laddered on the old wooden chairs they used to have.

It was great to be part of that dance scene and be able to say, "I was there when all that started."

Television presenter Joe Lindsay (35) graduated from the University of Ulster in 1992. He says:

My degree was so Mickey Mouse it should have been signed by Walt Disney when they gave it to me. I wanted to go to art college but my portfolio wasn't good enough and I didn't get in, so I ended up doing a degree in theatre, media and philosophy at the University of Ulster at Coleraine.

For three months I lived in an eight-berth caravan at the bottom of a garden in Portstewart. It was an amazing place for parties and I had it for £12 a week so long as I didn't go mad wasting the electricity. I got a black and white TV to watch Twin Peaks on and everything was great.

The love affair ended in early January when I woke up to find the door frozen shut and had to boil kettles to steam my way out.

The Coleraine campus might look like a power station but Portstewart is gorgeous and I loved living there. After the caravan I shared a house with a load of lads who I ended up living with for about eight years. That's one thing I miss about university life - the camaraderie of living with your mates.

In one house there was a guy, Andy, who moved in for a week and ended up staying for two years, just sleeping on the sofa.

We lived for weeks on cornflakes and spent our money on nights out - it was brilliant but looking back, I can't believe the way I lived.

I'd say my time was probably divided 20/80 between studying and socialising. But I think a lot of that was because I was doing the wrong degree.

I wanted to be doing set design but instead I had to do a lot of practical acting - I remember one class where we had to pretend to be chocolates. That sort of thing just left me cold.

I wish now I'd taken a year out and done my portfolio properly and gone to art college.

In some ways I think going to university is the most enlightening thing you'll ever do. It gives you great independence and it's a great laugh, but I don't think it's for everyone.

When I went to university, I worked at the weekends in a chip shop and still came out with three and a half grand of debt. Now students are leaving with 18 grand of debt after spending a fortune to live in a hovel - that's no way to start off in the world, so it's a decision you need to think carefully about.

It was a practical course that I did at the BBC that got me started in my career. It's difficult when you're 17, but you really need to think about what is going to get you the job you want - and that might not be going to university and getting a degree.

Actress Alexandra Ford (32) graduated from the University of Ulster in 1996. She says:

I graduated from the University of Ulster at Coleraine with a first in English and theatre. I really enjoyed getting my degree and I'm glad I have it, but I don't think it really prepared me for my career.

Some of my employers like to see I have a degree, but to be honest it really does come quite far down my CV.

Practical experience from a course I did at RADA had a lot more relevance.

I loved university, though.

My favourite module was Shakespeare; I adored it and my lecturer was fantastic, just really witty and amusing. I loved all the reading my degree involved, although sometimes I didn't want to do it when I was supposed to.

I was a bit of a night owl and hated having to drag myself out of bed for early morning lectures. I remember Friday mornings were a nightmare because I had a double lecture first thing and Thursday night was always a big student night out.

My degree schedule wasn't nine to five and in that way it was good preparation for the world of work. Because it was drama-based there was a lot of time spent in rehearsals, working through the weekends and learning lines, so I really had to be able to juggle my time to get everything done.

There was still plenty of time for having fun. There were eight of us living in a three-bed house in Portstewart - me and a crowd of girls from Cumbria who were absolutely mad! We were quite an arty crowd and had a lot of theme parties, like purple parties or lookalike parties.

Those nights in were the best craic and I remember them more than the nights out clubbing.

I'm still in touch with a lot of the people I met at university today even though we don't see each other as often as I'd like to.

I loved running for the bus in the morning with a bit of toast in my mouth and the smell of the sea in my face. Portstewart was beautiful and having all that nature on my doorstep was a real antidote to the student lifestyle.

I think everybody should experience the joy of being independent and living away from home at university. It's a great buffer zone between school and working.

You have a taste of what it's like to have to take responsibility for yourself but you're not quite in the real world.

You have to wash up after yourself and get your own meals but you can also sit up until 3am gossiping about boys.

Although the academic side is important, university is also a bit of a Big Brother situation - it's a great time to learn about yourself, other people and how to compromise and tolerate other people's behaviour.

BBC news presenter Sarah Travers (32) graduated from Nottingham and Trent University in 1995. She says:

Mine was a very vocational course focused on working on news in TV and radio, so it definitely prepared me for my career. It was a fab new course, relatively easy to get on to and we had wonderful industry-based lecturers.

I think, particularly for journalism, it's good to do a course that is very practical, because when employers look at you the first thing they want to know is, 'what have you done?'

I'm still really good friends with one of the girls I met at university and I'm actually just back from a holiday with her in the south of France. We both have daughters who are about the same age and it's nice to see a little friendship developing between them as well.

I'm still in contact with a lot of the others but it's difficult with most of them being in England and me being based in Northern Ireland.

I wanted to go away to university - mostly because I was very keen on the course at Nottingham, but also because I fancied travelling a wee bit. Nottingham was a fantastic student city and had all the big shops - it was quite a culture shock coming from Portstewart.

When you're a teenager you can't wait to get away from home but I remember getting flu during the first few weeks of term and sitting in my room in halls just wishing I was at home with my mum. I don't think you ever really appreciate your family and your home until you're away from them.

I didn't budget very well and I think that's something I would warn future students about - I know it sounds boring but budgeting is very important.

When you get your loan it seems like a lot of money but it really doesn't last like you think it will! The best thing is to talk to other people who have been to university and find out from them how much you really need for all the essentials.

I worked in a clothes shop at the same time as studying and couldn't have done without the money I earned.

Even so, expensive nights out sometimes had to be abandoned in favour of the cheaper alternative of staying in with a bottle of Liebfraumilch.

And if you're anything like me, a crash cookery course before you head off won't do any harm. I was a dreadful cook and I remember bringing friends round for meals of pasta and sauce. Tuna and pasta was my speciality, with sweetcorn if I was feeling terribly exotic.

I'd love to do the university experience again now that I have more confidence. Back then, when I went over to Nottingham, I knew absolutely no one and felt like a very small fish in a very big pond. It would be great to go back now.

Joe Brolly (37), former Derry Gaelic footballer, barrister, GAA comentator and columnist, graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1991 with a First in law. He says:

I found it very exciting going away to Dublin. I was no stranger to being away from home as I was a boarder at St Patrick's Grammar School, Armagh.

On my first day I met my best friend, Ronan Lavery, who is also a barrister, and my wife, Emma Rose. She first courted Ronan, who was my room mate, but I managed to prise her away with some underhand tactics.

The thing about moving down to Trinity was that the south was a world without sectarianism. They weren't interested in what was going on in the north.

The only time we ever saw the police was when the guards came in regularly to forcibly remove the condom machine in the toilets of the Students' Union.

So we had no Troubles, but we also had no sex!

We had eight hours a week for lectures, so we didn't exactly have our noses to the grindstone. It was a progressive environment where we were encouraged to think for ourselves.

Trinity was where I first played cricket and was a right arm spin bowler for the cricket club (I have to say I was respected for my full-on doosra - in Hindi and Urdu, doosra means 'the other one').

I was immersed in Gaelic football and I remember going out one morning and kicking the ball over the bar blindfolded to improve my technique. My team were the Ryan Cup champions twice. We lost out two years in a row in the Sigerson Cup.

I was right beside all the great sports stadiums, so I could watch the Irish rugby team at Lansdowne Road and the GAA at Croke Park.

I had a very exciting social life and I met people from all walks of life. Given the vastness of Dublin, there was somewhere different to socialise every night and never meet the same person twice.

Trinity opened up a new world for me. It broadened my mind, boosted my confidence and left me with great friends and memories.

Dr Alasdair McDonnell (56), deputy leader of the SDLP and MP for South Belfast, graduated in medicine from University College Dublin. He says:

I was the eldest of 11 children and it was a complete shock to the system for me to move from the family home in Glenariff, Co Antrim, to the big city of Dublin. But, I went and I have to say it's the best thing ever I did.

I did my A levels in physics, chemistry and maths at St MacNissi's College, Garron Tower, and went on to study medicine at UCD.

One of the advantages of being so far away from home was that I had to make new friends. I didn't go home very often as the journey was too long. There were very few students from north Antrim down in Dublin, most of them having gone to Queen's University Belfast.

I joined the hurling club and was also involved in rowing, rugby and various activities that were going on.

I got very involved in politics and I suppose ended up neglecting my studies. I had a strong interest in the civil rights movement in the north and was a candidate in the Westminster elections when I was 19. I was up against Dr Ian Paisley and was defeated.

I ended up failing my exams and having to repeat a year. After some advice from my father, I had to let politics take a back seat and concentrate on my studies.

Dublin broadened my mind. It took me out of the very narrow, compressed society that the north was in the late Sixties. The city was an open cauldron of discussion and debate. It taught me a lot about dealing and negotiating with people. The relationships I built back then are still with me to this day.

Noel McAdam (49), the Belfast Telegraph's political correspondent, is currently studying part-time for a BA honours degree in Theology through Queen's University Belfast. He has already graduated with a BA honours from the Open University. He says:

It was after I was married, a couple of years after the birth of Laura, my and my wife Heather's first child, that I decided to go back to studying.

Our whole life had changed and we didn't really have a social life. Once the baby went to bed, I was sitting in watching TV. I had time on my hands that I didn't have before.

After I left school, I did a one-year course of journalism at the College of Business Studies on Brunswick Street, Belfast, which is now BIFHE. I went straight into employment after I completed it.

I always wished that I gone to university. It just wasn't possible for me to go then and I was attracted to journalism anyway.

In the mid 80s I enrolled with the Open University. It was quite a flexible way to study and it took me eight or nine years of part-time study to build up the eight credits needed to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts.

Five years ago, I decided to go back to studying part time and I'm now in my final year of a theology degree. It's run by Queen's University, but lectures are held at Edgehill Theological College on the Malone Road.

I try to keep my weekends free for family time, which means I have to do two or three hours' studying a night. I sometimes find that I open a book, fall asleep and wake up half an hour later. I definitely find it much harder to study now that I'm older.

My wife thinks that I only study as an excuse to get out of helping around the house and I'm not saying that she's right or wrong.

My second daughter Deborah is at the University of Ulster and she has the whole social life that comes with going to uni.

She jokes that I'm a nerd for studying all the time, while she skips out the door to meet her friends. My teenage son, Stuart, can't understand why I would choose to go back and study, but I think it's important to keep the brain active.


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