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From communal kitchens to homesickness, lessons in student life from Northern Ireland

Going to university presents both opportunities and challenges. Here, eight people share their experiences of third level education

Mike Nesbitt
Mike Nesbitt
Leona O'Neill
Una Brankin

Mike Nesbitt: One morning in late September 1976, I mounted my Yamaha RD 400 motorcycle, exited the Liverpool docks and set off in search of Jesus. For the avoidance of doubt, that's Jesus College Cambridge, my new academic home. Ordinarily, an undergraduate like me would have visited already for an interview, but for some reason they offered me a place on the strength of my entrance exam, sight unseen. Was that wise? Certainly, there were many times over the next three years when one or other side expressed the desire for a full refund!

Three hundred miles from Liverpool, I arrived, late afternoon, in Cambridge, wet, tired and hungry. I wanted to try the then-famous English pub grub and found The Eagle, probably the most famous bar in Cambridge. But the door was locked and there was no one to be seen inside, staff or customers.

I tapped the door, then rapped it, thumped it, maybe even gave it a kick or two, but nothing. As I discovered, English licensing laws in those days stipulated pubs close in the afternoons. My first lesson that I was in a place apart from my home.

I checked into college after that, greeted by the Senior Porter, who clearly hated motorbikes, but also didn't seem fond of the Northern Irish, given his eagerness to tell me about his military service. It was a theme that ran through my student days. It wasn't that long after the Guildford, Woolwich and Birmingham bombings. Most people, especially from the south-east of England, did not know much about people from Northern Ireland, didn't care to take time to find out what "sort" we were and found us, at best, peculiar.

Unfortunately, most of the 10 English Literature undergraduates in my class at Jesus College were from the south-east of England and showed the same characteristics - they didn't like me because of where I came from, they didn't want to bother to find out about who I was, or what I stood for, and I sensed suspicion wherever I went - lecture theatre, college restaurant, sports changing rooms.

Mind you, the fact the college's full title was The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, might lead you to make some false assumptions about my background!

I visited the college bar my first night and encountered that reaction for the first time, with the noble exception of the student who was to become my best friend. His name was Nick Hornby, who became one of our generation's greatest fiction writers and, to date, twice an Oscar nominee for screenplays.

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That said, I should confess when Nick told me his chosen career was to be a successful writer, I felt I should burst his bubble as gently as possible, so suggested there was more chance of me becoming leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

That first chat with Nick took place amid a near-riot, as a tall Australian student announced the outrage that the price of a pint of beer in the college bar was now 21p, meaning, for the first time ever, it was no longer possible to get five pints for a pound.

Also, 21p disrupted your ability to build up a cache of 10p pieces, necessary when you queued up at one of the two phone boxes to call home on Sunday afternoons - no Facetime in my day.

So, what would I tell my 18-year-old self, with the benefit of 40-plus years' experience? Firstly, you are who you are. You may come from a family, community and country, but do not tolerate others labelling you on that basis. Be yourself and do not assume anyone is better than you.

Secondly, never confuse academic intelligence with common sense. I was at university with people who sat in tutorials, sounding like they had two brains. But you learned quickly that you couldn't let them loose with the shopping list in the local supermarket.

Inside every one of us is a spark of ability, creativity and talent. It might be found in academic study, but it's equally likely to emerge playing sport, singing in the choir, acting on stage, or any of the multiple ways we live our lives. Use university to explore who you are and what your future should be.

My summer job those three years at Cambridge was as a bin man in Newtownards, in the days before wheeled bins, when you lifted the bin onto your shoulder, carried it to the lorry, dumped the contents, and took the empty bin back where you found it. In certain places, there were bins you tried to avoid - let's say there was a hole in the bottom of the bin and ugly liquids might run down your back if you lifted it.

My full-time colleagues didn't have an academic qualification between them, I was studying at one of the world's top universities, but guess who lifted the leaky bin most weeks? Those "unqualified" bin men were doing practical maths every day, speeding up or slowing down, to position me where I did not want to be.

Despite my friendship with Nick Hornby, I was miserable during my first year, to the point I wanted to transfer to Queen's University, Belfast. When I asked my tutor to make it happen, he refused to help. He told me if I wanted out, it was up to me to ask QUB if they would have me. I was shocked, but when I thought about it, I realised I had more thinking to do.

I could transfer back to Belfast and wonder, "What if I had stayed in Cambridge?" for the rest of my life. Or I could dig in, try to make the most of the remaining two years and have no regrets.

So, to my younger self, I say what I say to my ageing self: whatever you choose, give it everything.

Finally, I say to young Nessy, just because you are studying at Jesus College does not mean you have to try to look like him.

Mike Nesbitt is Ulster Unionist MLA for Strangford and a former leader of the party

Leona O’Neill: I suppose it could be said that I took the long way to university. I left school and, for some strange reason known only to 18-year-old me, started a Foundation Degree in Art. I hated it with a passion and, after I made an epic explosive mess in my parent’s kitchen while melting sage candles in saucepans to make wax willow trees, I decided it wasn’t the life for me and pursued my other passion, writing.

I was always good at English and did an NVQ Level Four in Newspaper Journalism course. I started work as a reporter in the Newry Democrat the very day I finished up, and have been working ever since.

I had always regretted not doing an English degree. I found that my niche qualification wasn’t always appreciated or recognised by those outside the newspaper industry in the same manner as a degree.

So  when my youngest of four children took the tentative steps into nursery school, at the grand old age of 38, I took the same tentative steps into Ulster University to do a BA (Hons) in English.

I was pretty terrified on the first day. The worries I had for my little girl — would she make friends, who would she sit with at lunch, would the teacher be nice to her — I had for myself as I walked into the lecture hall on that first day as a mature student.

I was the oldest person in the class, bar the lecturer, and I thought for a time some of the younger pupils were reluctant to converse with me in case they might catch ‘old’.

But  it wasn’t as bad as I had thought. The lecture was really good and the students were lovely.

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Leona O'Neill

In  fresher’s week there were bouncy castles. The journalist in me wanted to inform participants of the statistics surrounding bouncy castles injuries, but I walked on past.

I remember being handed an invitation to a beach party by a fresh-faced young lady. As I held that invitation in my hand I had visions of me at that party beach in the cold depths of September, complaining about the weather, asking people did they not think they had drunk enough beer, holding people’s hair back when they puked on the sand and telling other drunk young people to get home to their beds.

And at that point I felt precisely 90-years-old. I decided to leave the bouncy castles and beach parties to the youngsters and get what I came for — a qualification, a stomach ulcer and some student debt.

The next three years were spent in lecture halls and libraries and I absolutely loved every single minute of it.

I would spend days in the university library switching between studying Victorian literature, to conducting phone interviews in the tea room with celebrities, to nipping out of lectures to cover news stories for the radio.

I wrote essays on bumpy bus journeys to work in Omagh, sped read entire books on the train to work in Belfast, sat up until the small hours to finish essays and got up for work the next morning.

It was not without challenges. I was juggling family life, newspaper deadlines and essay deadlines and didn’t miss one, although it very nearly killed me.

In my third year, as I was pulling together my dissertation, my car was stolen with my bag with all my dissertation notes — handwritten and gathered during months spent researching in the library — and my laptop in it. It was found burnt to a black shell outside a local school, the handiwork of joyriders.

I had to start all over again. I sat in the library that day and cried, wondering what I was doing this to myself for. But my lecturer Frank Sewell encouraged me to push on, to keep going. And so I did.

I remember the exam hall. I hadn’t been in one since school and it evoked the same nervous, sick-to-the-pit-of-my-stomach, I-can’t-remember-anything-I’ve-been-taught terror.

But I did it, I got through it and I got a 2:1 degree out of it.

On graduation day, I stood there in my black gown and hat, wearing a gold locket containing a picture of my daddy — who went to Ulster University himself when I was my daughter’s age — so that he could somehow be there to see this monumental day too.

I was proud of myself. It was the toughest three years of my life, but things worth having you have to work hard for.

Una Brankin: The cleaning lady was not impressed. “Oh God, Agnes,” she called out to her colleague in the hall. “Somebody has left half a big raw onion in the fridge. It would knock you down.”

The culprit was a chain-smoking student of medicine from Tyrone, who had the room to the right of mine in the Halls of Residence at Stranmillis College. We were opposite the communal kitchen, where the medic introduced me to the delights of cheese and onion toasted sandwiches and big bowls of sweetcorn with a chunk of butter, our staple diet throughout our first year as students at Queen’s University Belfast.

The Halls were the perfect stepping-stone from our relatively sheltered home lives, as teens in the early 1980s, to the house-sharing we took on for the rest of our studies. They eased us into life away from our mammies and, thanks to the cleaners, we didn’t even have to do any housework, beyond washing our meagre dishes.

For the first time in my life, I had a room of my own — with an in-built vanity unit and desk. I marvelled at such luxury. How grown-up was this? And it was all paid for, by the generous student grants of the time. We really didn’t appreciate how lucky we were. The Halls also provided the perfect opportunity to make friends from different walks of life. Unless we were working on an assignment or cramming for an exam, no-one sat in their room in the evenings. The internet and mobile phones had not been invented, so we talked to each other.

We’d gather in someone’s room for a cup of tea and we’d gossip in the showers at the end of the long dark shared corridor. It was the first time I’d ever met ‘born-again’ Christians. One of them tried to ‘save’ me; I even went to a church service with her (it didn’t work).

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Una Brankin

The common room was another good place to meet people. It had a TV room off it — Coronation Street was essential viewing once a week for a few dozen of us. These included law students who had yet to turn uppity.

As naïve freshers we were all the same in those early days in the Hall; in second year, many of the future solicitors and barristers became prematurely elitist and looked down on us arts students.

I don’t recall any drinking on the campus — imagine — but smoking was allowed. The bookshelves in my medic friend’s room were lined with empty packs of Marlborough, the original red branded ones, like trophies of cool.

To call home, we had to use the pay phone at the entrance to our hall — the homesick ones would be weepy. Computers were still baffling, space-age machines to most of us in the Arts faculty. As a result, we were constantly trailing back to our rooms in the evenings laden down with books from the library (I can still remember the weight of an encyclopaedic tome on the Arab Israeli conflict in my bag).

I loved every minute of it. The sense of freedom, even under Halls’ rules (no parties) was a heady experience for someone who had never lived away from home. I learned how to budget my grant and cook for myself, in my own limited way, although I did try to fry uncooked rice once, with an equally clueless friend, and couldn’t understand why it didn’t soften up.

Towards the end of that first year, I discovered sweet peppers and spices — unheard of exotics back home on the farm — and I’d treat my delighted sisters to chilli con carne and spaghetti bolognaise.

I’m afraid I did take up smoking, in an ill-advised attempt to fit in with the Marlborough medic and her cohorts, but I never even saw a spliff until third year.

At school, I hadn’t been a part of the cool gang (at Rathmore, that was a group of well-heeled pretty girls known as The Magnificent Seven). But, at Queen’s everyone was starting off, it seemed, on the same footing.

The enthusiasm was infectious; I’ll never forget a trio of excitable girls, who were the first into the Halls, charging up and down the stairs and welcoming everyone they met on that first night of term.

Those three now comprise a prominent lawyer, a senior social worker and a public relations boss.

I might never have got to know them as friends if it had been a couple of decades on and we’d all been glued to our phones or lap-tops in our rooms or the common room.

So, I suppose my advice to freshers would be to lift your heads from the screens and get to know all these new, potentially exciting people face to face. And remember, they might be feeling a little awkward in this brave new world, too, in the beginning. And, if you don’t already know, don’t forget to boil rice before you fry it.

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