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The things we wished we’d known at uni... five Northern Ireland faces recall their student days

Five well-known NI faces recall their student days and pass on their hard-earned advice to those taking the same path

BBC news presenter Declan Harvey
BBC news presenter Declan Harvey
Jordan Humphries at university
Jordan Humphries
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

BBC news presenter Declan Harvey (36), who attended drama school in London, says the intensity of university forged life-long friendships for him.

I went to drama school in England, Rose Bruford College in London," Declan says. "It was where Gary Oldman trained. My degree is technically from the University of Manchester and it was a First Class Honours degree in acting.

"I lived in shared accommodation in Plumstead in south-east London with my friends. I ended up being there for 15 years. I am still mates with the people who I lived with there.

"We didn't have the normal student experience, in that some students get six hours of lectures a week and that is that. We had five full days a week and not turning up was not an option. You turned up and you studied everything from Stanislavski and acting techniques to running around in black tights in movement classes for four hours a day.

"I think, in second year, we were all delighted that, finally, we got to be trees, which is like the classic drama school thing. It was movement, voice and acting technique and theatre history and all that kind of stuff.

"But turning up was absolutely mandatory. And when you are 19 years old and you've just moved away from home, you have lots of excuses to go out at night. But we were always in class at eight or nine o'clock in the morning. The thing about drama school is that there is a huge amount of psychology involved in acting. On a simple basis, it's about why characters do what they do. So, what you end up with is three years of pseudotherapy almost, you learn why people do what they do and why they react in certain ways and you apply that to characters."

Declan says he will channel his father's words of wisdom to help guide today's students: "I am loath to pass on advice that my dad gave me, but it was good advice. He said if going out at night stops you from getting up in the morning, stop going out at night. That was something that his dad told him. The net result of that was that I always went out at night, but I always got up in the morning.

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"The best bit about going to university was the friends I made, who are still my closest friends. When you're 19, moving to London and being able to spread your wings and find your feet was amazing. People say that your childhood is the best days of your life, but it's absolutely not true. My drama school days were, without doubt, the most intense, fun, stimulating time of my life, both personally and professionally. I didn't end up being an actor - I just didn't love it enough. But I would go back to drama in a heartbeat.

"I think the worst bit about it is you move from home and you're in your 20s, you think you should have it all worked out and I didn't. You are really just a grown-up teenager. Life becomes more exciting, but the worst bit is that you are still trying to find yourself and figure out what kind of person you are going to be. I found that a bit stressful.

"I would say to my 18-year-old self to be less obedient. I would like to say to myself not to worry about it all so much. I'm not saying be an anarchist, just don't be afraid to push and shove."

Jordan Humphries, who presents the morning show on Q Radio with Ryan A, studied Primary Education at Stranmillis University College.

She says she was a very sociable student, although she felt it wasn't the right course for her.

I lived in the halls on campus," Jordan says. "I was a very sociable student. I was in loads of clubs and societies, including Stran FM, involved in every possible event and social outing and always liked to be in the hub of whatever was going on.

Jordan Humphries at university

"I learned that university isn't for everyone and had to summon courage when I knew I wanted to leave. I picked primary teaching on a total whim, having never wanted to be a teacher before applying, because I was very academic at school and thought I 'should' go to uni. I dropped out in my second year after much turmoil."

She says she has this advice for current students:

"Enjoy every moment and get involved in all that you can, but if you realise/already know you're not on the right path, don't be afraid to drop out and start something else - another course, employment, an internship, travel, whatever.

Jordan Humphries

"It will allow you to focus on something you enjoy sooner, plus reduce your dreaded student loan for a degree you'll potentially never use. Paying it back is no fun.

"I think the best bit of uni, for me, was the socialising and living in halls. It was always great craic. And the worst bit was the course itself, because it just wasn't the right one for me.

"If I could go back and talk to 18-year-old me, I would say: 'Don't stress yourself out, everything works itself out in the end, eventually!'"

Cool FM’s Pete Snodden (39) went to Ulster University to study International Business Studies. He says he realised early on that you had to work hard to get results.

“I lived in Portstewart when I went to university and the area in which we lived was full of students and was great craic,” Pete says. “The taxi drivers used to call it ‘the village of sin’.

“I made the most of my student life. I worked hard both inside and outside university. I also made the most of the social element, too, but I realised early on that if you’re going to spend the money on education, you need to get an education.

“I learned many lessons at university, mostly that you have got to work for everything you get, that nothing comes easy.

“Academic skills are brilliant but no good if you can’t use them in a social environment, and you need to be a good communicator. Standing up, making a presentation in front of 300 students in Lecture Theatre One made me realise that I could speak in public. And that was a necessity for me to go on and do a job I had wanted to do from when I was a child, to be a radio presenter.”

Pete has this advice for students beginning today.

“Try to get a good balance,” he says. “Work hard, play hard — within reason. All work and no play is no fun. Make the most of all uni experiences — the students’ union, clubs, societies and the like. Make new friends, spend time with different people. University is much more reflective of what society is like in the real world.

“The fun, parties, nights out and friends were all great, but nothing beats the satisfaction of completing a project, or a dissertation, or nailing a presentation, or getting the result you wanted.

“I think the worst part of university, for me, was pulling all-nighters to get work done and racing to have that project handed in on time. If I could tell my 18-year-old self something about university, I would say have fun, make the most of it, have an open mind, but be sure what you study will help you achieve what career you would like to be doing in 10 years’ time.

“Uni days were great, but if they were the best days of my life, what would be the point in carrying on?

“I believe my best days are still in front of me.”

Best-selling Londonderry author Claire Allan (43) studied Modern Studies in the Humanities at Ulster University, which she says was “a very fancy way of combining politics, history, literature and philosophy”. She says university taught her to fend for herself.

“In my first year I lived in the halls of residence, which were named alphabetically,” Claire says. “I lived in the unfortunately named ‘H’ block. After that, I house-shared in a very cold, very brown house in Whiteabbey.

“I was a very committed student. I didn’t live in the library but I was very dedicated to my studies. I did manage to have some fun as well — myself and my room-mate, Elaine, would go out a lot to see her boyfriend’s band. The lead singer was the now-famous Foy Vance.

“At university, I learned to fend for myself. I really grew up in those few years. Studying philosophy also really allowed me to open my eyes to different viewpoints.”

Claire has this advice for those enrolling today.

“It can be quite scary at first, especially if you’re going somewhere where you don’t know people,” she says. “The change in workload is a shock to the system. I wanted to quit after the first few weeks, but made my parents a promise to stay until Christmas and if I still hated it, I could leave. By Christmas I was loving it, so give yourself a chance to settle in.

“The best bits about university, for me, were the camaraderie and friendships and finding a new confidence in myself. Also, some of the very quirky lecturers, including our American Studies lecturers, who had been arrested by the FBI in the 1960s.

“The worst bit was that our student house had no heating, bar a coal fire in the living room. The bathroom was ice-cold. It was not fun.

“If I could tell my 18-year-old self something about university days, I would say to keep your mind open to new experiences, but keep yourself safe. Great marks are important, but learning who you are is just as important, so enjoy it.”

Former UTV news presenter, U105 reporter and current NSPCC Press officer Aideen Kennedy (41) went to Ulster University at Jordanstown and studied Communications, Advertising and Marketing. She said she had the best of both worlds during her student days, living at home while partaking in a lively student social life.

“I lived at home while at university, which was great because the house was always tidy and the fridge full,” Aideen says. “My family say I was a complete nerd at university as I only missed one day during my time there. However, I did manage to go out, a lot!

“University was a brilliant experience for me. I did have lots of fun, but I also studied really hard because I was determined to get a First. I learned just to get my head down, work hard and the rest would follow.

“My course involved a year out and I worked in NIE’s Press office, that introduced me into a very exciting world and gave me a great insight into the media, communications and lobbying industries. In terms of life lessons, I learned how important it was to take all the different opportunities available to you. I worked for the university magazine, I played hockey for the university, I met so many people and made some really brilliant friends.”

Aideen has this advice for students: “I would say to students heading to university to enjoy every moment, both your course and your social life.

“The first couple of weeks will be daunting, but once you get into the swing of it, the world’s your oyster.

“My best bit at university was getting onto the Washington-Ireland Program and going to work for a lobbying firm. I got to meet some amazing people, some of whom are my best friends. The best bit was meeting Bill Clinton. I will never forget that. I think the worst bit about university is always being broke.

“If I could talk to my 18-year-old self, I would say to not be so self-doubting and that black flares were not a good look for me. They were some of the best days of my life and my experiences there have definitely shaped my life.”

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