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How our time at university was a great lesson for life


As many young people from NI just starting their degrees, Kerry McKittrick talks to some of our best-known faces about their lives at university.

‘By the time I qualify I will be almost £50k in debt ... but it’s an investment’

Anthony Miller (39) is a freelance radio and TV presenter originally from Armagh, currently living in Birmingham. He gained a law degree at Staffordshire University. He says:

I went to Staffordshire University at 35 to study for a law degree. It was a big change for me as I had no formal qualifications so the entire world of academia was new to me.

I had always wanted to pursue a career in law but a family tragedy made me rethink my life.

I thought higher education wasn't an option for me but was surprised to receive offers when I applied to various universities.

It was all very exciting but when I found myself standing outside the law school on my first day I was petrified and seriously questioned what I had done.

University was a very different experience for me. I've gone through my life mostly on my personality - a smile and a wink has served me well.

But on an academic course you can't do that, you can't get good grades just because people like you.

I had almost no experience on how to actually study - the first essay I handed in looked like the short stories I had written in primary school.

The lecturer was quite quick to point out my mistakes.

But law isn't the kind of thing you do for the sake of doing a degree. It's a dry subject, so you need to have a passion for it - which I had.

One of the lovely things about it, is that it gives you a real glimpse into what's happening in people's lives and a chance to change them for the better.

That first term I lived in halls because I wanted the full university experience. I have to say I didn't do too well there - I was used to my comforts and my own space. I moved out after that first term into a rented house, where I still am.

I made a beeline for the mature students when I first arrived, but then I entered a mock law competition and won it.

After that lots of the younger students wanted to be in my gang. I became one of the cool guys and ended up as president of the law society.

I graduated with a first-class law degree.

Law man: Anthony Miller on graduation day

Now I've just started my barrister training as well as studying for a master of law, but I have to do all that at weekends so I can work during the week.

Studying these days is hugely expensive because there aren't grants anymore. By the time I qualify as a barrister I'll be a couple of pence short of £50,000 in debt.

Despite that I don't regret it. There have been ups and downs with finance as well as getting to grips with the subject.

I have had so many opportunities to walk away from the whole thing but I know this is where I'm supposed to be now. It's a lot of money but it's an investment in the rest of my life - there's no such thing as too much. If I were to do it all over again I would get my education when I was younger. Having said that nobody should be put off becoming a mature student because there are bills to pay, as everything falls into place for you."

‘I didn’t live it up but I met great people’

Miss Northern Ireland Anna Henry (23), lives in Portglenone: She says:

I studied renewable energy engineering at Ulster University's Magee College in Londonderry. I always knew I wanted to study engineering because I loved the maths and science aspects of it. The course was perfect for me and I believe it's an industry which will grow in the future.

I lived at home while I was at university. My best friend Catherine went to UU too so we travelled up and down together every day. Before I started I was scared and I didn't know what to expect. It was as daunting as the first day at school.

To my relief I met a girl from my old school in one of my classes so I had someone to walk in with.

The class was small so we all got to know each other quickly and make friends.

I'm the youngest of four in my family and the first one to go to university.

Everyone else has gone into the family property business but I was a bit more independent and wanted to do my own thing.

At university I was self-motivated - no-one had pushed me to go.

Good memories: Miss Northern Ireland Anna Henry

My family wanted me to do well but they weren't going to check up to see if I was studying or not.

University is expensive now but getting a degree should enable you to get a good job and pay off that debt.

Of course you should work hard at university but it's important to enjoy it too - although there is very little time for fun in the final year.

I loved my university experience, though.

While I didn't live it up and go out partying every night I did meet some wonderful people."

‘I played sport and made great friends’

Sports journalist and presenter Denise Watson (45) lives in Holywood with her husband, David Scott, and their daughters, Beth (8) and Samantha (12). She says:

I went to Queen's University, Belfast, to study English Literature. That's all I ever wanted to study and Queen's is where I always wanted to go. I never had any notions about going to England. It's a beautiful and fascinating building steeped in history.

I lived at home during my university days even though there were grants.

I got a partial grant which gave me enough to get the train or bus into Belfast from Lisburn every day.

I made lots of friends who had digs around the Holyland area and I would stay with them on big nights out.

Despite the fact that I was still living at home, the first term at university was really daunting. You're sent notes telling you where to go to register for each course and where to get your student card, and the real worry on the first day is not getting lost.

Big day: Denise and parents Sabina and Ian at graduation

I remember thinking that I didn't know anyone, where anything was or who my lecturers were.

But the first person I met was a girl called Amanda who had just got the train up from Bangor and felt exactly the same way. We're still best friends today.

Sport was a massive part of my time at university so one of the first things I did was go to the PEC (Physical Education Centre) to find out about the netball club. In the end I was actually recruited on to the basketball club.

I got so involved in it that at one point my mum asked if I was studying English or basketball, because most of my time was spent training.

I loved my time at university and I feel so privileged to have had that experience and not have had to pay for it.

I can't believe some of the stories I hear from people about how much debt they have to pay off from university now.

I don't know if my girls will go to university or if they've even thought about it yet, but education is very important to us.

If we can give them any kind of chance to go to university then we will. I had three brilliant years there where I played great sport and made wonderful friends."

‘I learned to manage my finances and my time’

Sara O'Neill (35) is a designer and illustrator. She lives in Portrush with her fiance, big wave surfer Al Mennie. She says:

I went to the Art College at what was the University of Ulster to study fashion and textiles. Having done a foundation year in Limavady I then moved to Belfast for my degree. A friend from Limavady and I lived in the Botanic area, sharing a house with six other people. I loved it, though, because I was really into goth and punk and there wasn't much of a scene for that in Portrush.

Being in the city was great for going to gigs and places like Giros (cafe). While the tutors in Limavady were really involved with the students, in Belfast it was different and the onus was on you to turn up for class. This required a lot more discipline - if you didn't go in for a class nobody was going to chase you. I was used to sailing through classes with a lot less effort but there were so many distractions in Belfast.

But the real shock of university life was the emphasis on completing the curriculum. However, I really enjoyed it and there were some great girls in the class.

City life: Sara O’Neill in her university days

Student loans had replaced grants when I started college in 2000. Course fees were still around £1,000 a year, which wasn't too bad - unlike now, when they are likely to cost £3,000 a year. I also waitressed to cover my living costs. Although I had left home there was always the security of my parents not being very far away. On a Friday night I would go to a gig, then head home for the rest of the weekend so I could chill out and get fed.

I wanted to be independent but it was a real comfort to know my parents were only an hour away. During my first year away from home I learned how to manage money and also learned a lot about time management. No one was micro-managing me so I had to really learn how to take responsibility for my own actions."

‘I spent my first grant cheque on a big stereo’

Belfast actor and playwright Dan Gordon (50) is married to Kathy and they have three daughters, Sarah (28), Hannah (25) and Martha (19). He says:

I went to Stranmillis College to do teacher training. I was terrified that I wouldn't get into the course if I applied for the halls of residence so I travelled in from east Belfast every day on my motorbike.

However, I actually spent my second and third year in halls, which I loved. Everyone would clear off after they played rugby on a Saturday morning. I would open the bar so the security man and myself could sit and watch Match of the Day.

Everything was paid for then. We got a grant cheque at the beginning of each term and some of the boys would actually sit down and calculate how many pints it would get them. You also automatically got the halls of residence which was paid for too. I spent my first grant cheque on a great big stereo.

I was doing secondary training in drama, English and PE so I spent half my time in rehearsals or playing rugby.

I would stay late most nights because of rehearsals and those who weren't around would let me stay in their rooms and even give me their halls card so I could go to the dining hall to get dinner.

Student life: Dan Gordon on his graduation day

It was terrible how much I got away with then because the cards had photos of the owners on them and I didn't look anything like them. If you were in early you could get a breakfast too. When I left I realised I hadn't learned anything - you can prepare all you like for teaching but getting into the classroom is a totally different experience.

Stranmillis was like a big school because of the teacher mentality. You had to go to 75% of your lectures to pass but a lot of people would have their mates sign them in.

I went to the lectures because I didn't see the point in not going. There were quite a few guest appearances on the sign-in sheet - Dougal from the Magic Roundabout, Captain Pugwash and Bill the Dog were all on there. Sometimes the lecturer would do a head count and discover that although there were 78 names on the sign-in sheet there were 62 in the room.

All my children have gone to university. My youngest has gone back to London early to show the first years around so she can make some money.

It's much harder for young people now because there's so much at stake because of the expense. But university is a great experience where you make all sorts of friends."

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