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Doing it by degrees... our memories of university


Hundreds of students from across Northern Ireland will enjoy one of those 'coming of age' moments over the next few weeks
Hundreds of students from across Northern Ireland will enjoy one of those 'coming of age' moments over the next few weeks
Weather presenter Barra Best at Edge Hill
Novelist Anne Dunlop graduating from QUB
Journalist Linda Stewart graduating from Oxford

By Linda Stewart

Hundreds of students from across Northern Ireland will enjoy one of those 'coming of age' moments over the next few weeks as they celebrate their graduations. Linda Stewart recalls that key time in her life, and also asks BBC NI's Barra Best and author Anne Dunlop about their memories.

‘I had a severe case of imposter syndrome at Uni’

Freelance journalist Linda Stewart (47) graduated in 1992 from St Anne's College, Oxford with a 2:2 in Pure & Applied Biology, then completed an MSc in Conservation at UCL in 1993 and an MA in Newspaper Journalism at the University of Ulster in 2001. She is married to Lee (37) and has one daughter, Neve (8)

When I started at St Anne's College, Oxford, I couldn't quite believe I was there. I was absolutely terrified when I arrived, to the point where I could hardly even speak to anyone. It did take a couple of days before I came out of my shell and started to realise my fellow students weren't aliens - they weren't exactly like me, but they weren't a million miles away, either.

I chose Pure & Applied Biology not because I had a career path in mind but because I was fascinated with the subject - in particular the evolutionary aspect which was a hot topic at the time following the publication of the Selfish Gene by Oxford lecturer Richard Dawkins. It was challenging - the whirlwind eight-week terms, each coming to a close just as you were starting to get to grips with taxonomy, or cell biology, or biological production.

Journalist Linda Stewart graduating from Oxford

And I found our school syllabus hadn't really prepared me for the Oxford way of writing essays on everything - I had never written an essay in my life. First I produced inept three-page essays in huge handwriting, then I swung to densely scribed 20-page all-nighter extravaganzas.

For a while, I had a severe case of imposter syndrome, convinced that I'd only been admitted by accident. But the famous one-to-one tutorial system did me a lot of good - there was nowhere to hide and finally, somewhere midway through the three-year degree, I got the hang of the essay.

There was still the odd essay crisis or worse, no essay at all - I remember giving up and failing to meet the deadline for an animal behaviour essay one night in 1991 after Iraq bombed Israel and we were unable to tear ourselves away from the CNN footage on our tiny TV. But it was an absolute privilege to be studying Pure & Applied Biology at Oxford at a time when there was so much going on in the realms of evolution and animal behaviour. I was bowled over by lectures by the wonderful paleontologist and science communicator Stephen Jay Gould and the environmentalist James Lovelock, whose Gaia hypothesis is more relevant now than ever - virtually rock stars in the field I was studying.

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As for the pomp and ceremony, I managed to escape most of it as a student at one of the more down-to-earth colleges, St Anne's. Occasionally, when there was a formal dinner we did have to wear the monochrome uniform of sub fusc - black skirt, white blouse, black shoes, short black gown and mortar board. We had to wear sub fusc, too, as we trooped into the exam halls for our finals, with staff inspecting the uniform as we walked in. One of my friends was apprehended for wearing brown shoes instead of black.

I got through most of the exams fairly unscathed, but there was one disastrous paper on evolution and taxonomy when my failure to complete some of my essays two years previously caught up with me. I remember hopelessly wondering what Sisyphian fitness was, before leaving and walking through the centre of Oxford with tears running down my face, convinced that hundreds of tourists were staring at me.

Even after finals, the ordeals weren't over. I was called to a viva, a gruelling experience in which you're quizzed on your exam essays by a panel of the great and the good - including, in my case, Sir Richard Dawkins. But somehow or other, I came out with a respectable 2:2, an acceptance into a Master's in Conservation at University College London (UCL) and a new regard for deadlines that was to stand me in good stead as a newspaper journalist. It was up to the students themselves to book their graduation event and most of my friends weren't there. One of my closest friends didn't get round to booking his graduation until seven years later.

We filed into the Sheldonian Theatre gallery, a neoclassical building next to the Bodleian Library, only to discover that the ceremony was to be conducted entirely in Latin.

There wasn't much strategy to what I did next - I completed a Master's in Conservation at UCL because I loved the subject but at the time there were very few paid jobs in conservation. After a few years with Conservation Volunteers NI, I made the leap to journalism and completed an MA with the University of Ulster - and I thought that was the end of my environmental career. But years later, life was to come full circle when I was lucky enough to become the Belfast Telegraph's environment correspondent, my dream job and one that combined my two great passions - writing and the environment. These days, as a freelance journalist, the environment is more of a personal passion but I'm overjoyed that the sector has blossomed from such small beginnings back in those days and that I've met so many amazing people along the way.

I have to admit I did struggle to keep in touch with my friends in the years after college, but the arrival of social media has been an absolute godsend and has made it easy to reconnect and catch up again.

‘I thought I’d design an app and become a millionaire by 25’

BBC journalist and weather forecaster Barra Best (37), from Belfast, graduated with a degree in Information Systems with Media and Communications at Edge Hill University near Liverpool in 2003, followed by an MA in Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in 2006. His dad Aidan (58) is a social worker, his mum Catherine (59) is retired from catering and his sister Bronach (33) is a nurse

When I was a child, I wanted to be an airline pilot, and that lasted for a few years. And then I wanted to be a vet. I loved animals growing up and I had every kind of pet you could imagine - rabbits, cats, dogs.

Then when I was at La Salle, I wanted to be an accountant and I stuck with that until A-levels. But when I was planning to go to university, I decided to do IT. I went to Edge Hill University in Liverpool and did Information Systems with Media and Communications and I ended up with a 2:1.

After that I came back and worked in Belfast for Allstate, working in software, but I decided a 9-5 job was not for me and an IT job was not for me.

Weather presenter Barra Best at Edge Hill

But I was talking to a friend who told me she was going back to university to do an MA in Journalism and I started thinking about it myself. I ended up doing a course in the same year, only it was at the University of Central Lancashire - and the rest is history.

It was great when I was an undergraduate because I managed to talk a friend into going to Edge Hill with me so I had someone to go with. I got there and it was great - it was a change of scenery, going from living with my mum to being a student scrimping and scraping around.

I didn't realise it was a joint honours degree so I didn't have to do a dissertation in the third year, much to the disgust of my friends.

The exams were fine - there were some tough ones thrown into the mix, but all in all it wasn't too bad, from what I can remember.

At the time I graduated, Edge Hill was part of the University of Lancaster, so my parents came over for the big day and I remember sitting in the big gymnasium where we were all called up one by one to get our certificates, then we threw our hats in the air with our friends and I went out to dinner with my family.

Last year, one of my friends was getting married so we had a 15-year reunion - it was a two-in-one celebration. It was crazy how 15 years have flown.

When I was a student I thought I'd end up going into software, designing an app and becoming a millionaire by the age of 25 - unfortunately that didn't happen. But I'm not complaining because I've got the best job I ever had.

I've spent almost 10 years reporting and doing the weather. Ask me again when I'm coming in at 5am in the middle of winter - but it's still a job that I look forward to coming in to do.

‘There are photos of me sulking in a hat and gown’

Castlewellan-born novelist Anne Dunlop (50) graduated from her degree in Agricultural Science at UCD in 1991, followed by a postgraduate diploma in Agricultural Communication Studies in 1992 at Queen's. She is married to Nick (58), has four children, Maud (19), Rex (18), Florence (17) and Beatrice (16), and is currently living in Belfast

I have a degree in Agricultural Science but I wrote my first novel when I was in my final year, so I was already diverting from farming. I was from a farm and I had science A-levels, so it seemed like the obvious thing to do.

My parents had a great career plan for me: I was going to join the Department of Agriculture and lecture at agricultural college.

Going to Dublin in the 1980s was like going anywhere else in the 1930s - it was the land that time forgot. I was living on Palmerston Road and Garret FitzGerald lived four doors up from me, but there was no drama about it. Dublin was like something that had been left over from the 1950s in those days.

I also did a postgraduate diploma in Agricultural Communications Studies at Queen's, based at Loughry, and it taught me how to teach. It basically taught us a lot of useful skills with the intention of sending us into something like the Department of Agriculture to be an adviser.

Novelist Anne Dunlop graduating from QUB

I was writing at that time and my first three novels had come out by that stage, so I was offered other things to do as well - I was offered various writer-in-residence roles. The Department of Agriculture seemed like a long-term steady career and I am just not that person.

When I graduated from UCD, we drove down - it was a beautiful day and very hot. I gave my parents a list of instructions about what was supposed to happen throughout the day and they didn't follow any of it. They didn't do what they were supposed to do - my parents don't follow the script. So there are photos of me looking sulky in a hat and gown.

I didn't even know I'd passed my degree until they sent us the invitation to the graduation. It was only when we got there that I found out where I had come in the class. They said, 'You came eighth in the class so you sit there'.

It was nice to see everyone; I knew there were a lot of people who I was never going to see again. I knew my career would be in the north and they were all from the south of Ireland. I remember we had a dance afterwards. It was very much an old-fashioned experience - I remember dancing with all these guys and having a chat with them.

It was nice to see my close friends. We had competed wildly with each other all through those five years. Nothing spurs you on better than your friend doing better than you.

I had two good girlfriends I shared a house with - Maeve is in Bonn today, she's now a professor and her job title is head of department of agrifood business and spatial analysis. Apparently this means she leads a research group concerned with innovation in the agri-food sector. Pauline is in Turkmenistan with work: she has just taken over as CEO of Early Years, a company which focuses on quality early childhood development opportunities.

Needless to say, my ambitions on graduation were a great deal more modest. I aspired to a 9-to-5 job with the Department of Agriculture, lecturing in agricultural college, and a husband with 500 acres. It didn't take me long to realise that was never going to work for me.

I bolted to Bahrain and flew long haul with a Middle East airline, met and married an expat and spent 15 years as his 'trailing spouse'. I'm home now until the children finish their A-levels, then I'll go back to Nick and the sunshine.

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