Ask 8-year-old me and my twin sister what we wanted to be when we grew up, and the answer was simple. She, her nose always buried in a book and pages of scribbled stories stashed under her bed, was going to read English at Oxford University, whereas I, reigning queen of our primary school numeracy lessons, would study Mathematics at Cambridge. It was perfect – we even lived almost exactly halfway between the two. As we grew older, we started looking at other options, thanks to our evolving interests and the sheer unlikelihood of getting that coveted Oxbridge place. But there was no doubt in my mind: it was what I believed I wanted.
To 8-year-old me, getting a good degree was a mark of achievement and, to be honest, it was what was expected of the pair of us. We were both smart, hard-working kids – there was no reason why we wouldn’t get into a top university. I got full marks in the Year 6 Maths SATs exam, whilst my sister racked up prize money from writing competitions. We left secondary school with the top GCSE grades in our year. Even if it wasn’t Oxford or Cambridge, there was no doubt about it – somewhere out there were prestigious university places for us.
Skip to A-level results day 2021, and our childhood dreams were fulfilled almost perfectly. My sister’s letter confirmed her place reading PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) at Magdalen College, Oxford; mine told me I was off to study Natural Sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge. Whilst the degrees weren’t quite the same as those we had first envisioned, they were close enough to be laughable. Our parents hugged us tightly, pride gleaming in their eyes. It almost seemed too good to be true. For me, it was.
University became more than just a place of academic success; I wholly believed it would solve my other problems, too
If I was honest, the dream had been crumbling for some time. My first mental health struggles started with an eating disorder diagnosis at age 9, and though I’d had better periods, I’d been fighting a bad relapse for a few years now. The summer post A-levels coincided with my 18th birthday and the transition to an adult mental health team. After many tears and pleading arguments, I reluctantly agreed with their decision to put university on hold for a year and take the time to work on recovery.
Even then, I clung tight to the future I’d imagined for myself. University became more than just a place of academic success; I wholly believed it would solve my other problems, too. I thought it would bring me friendship, happiness, a joy for life that had been missing for too long. Each picture of my old schoolmates posing inside their fairy-light clad student rooms, or laughing at club nights with new friends, only strengthened my resolve – that would be me. All I had to do was get through the year, right?
Even my mother agreed. “You’ll thrive at university, dear. Just hold on tight; this blip will be over soon,” she whispered into my hair as I cried in those long, lonely evenings. And so I did, taking up a part-time job alongside studying for two additional A-levels, doing all I could to keep myself busy until next year came about. I got a little better, took a few tentative steps forward, naively believing it would be enough for university life. I thought that I’d be fine.
I felt lost. Lost and ashamed. My life-long dream was in splinters; I felt like I had failed
September came. As my sister left for her second year at Oxford, I packed for my first at Cambridge. I’d made it: to a world-leading institute, an abundance of academia, new experiences, clubs and societies and formal dinners. A place of freedom. After all these years, I believed my dream had finally come true.
I held on for the first term. But it became clear after only a couple of weeks that the fantastical student world of my dreams was not the best for me. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t thrive at university, and my mental and physical health quickly fell into a tumbling descent. Over the Christmas holidays, I agreed with my parents and tutor to pause my studies for at least another year.
At first, I felt lost. Lost and ashamed. My life-long dream was in splinters; I felt like I had failed. Yes, I could return to halls one day, but my brief stint at university had shown that I needed more help than I realised, and I knew that recovery would take time. I’d no idea what to do next. For perhaps the first time in my life, I had to look into a future without university - and it terrified me.
The road I had my heart set on may have been blocked, but I can now see that there are other destinations out there
Since then, I’ve developed hope. The road I had my heart set on may have been blocked, but I can now see that there are other destinations out there, and in fact, they might be better suited to me. I wanted that university place because I thought it made me ‘successful’ and because I thought it would bring me happiness - I’d be engrossed in a subject I loved, surrounded by like-minded people, finally free. In reality, I didn’t achieve any of those things at all. I was lonely, anxious, obsessive, and miserable.
Yet in the nine months since leaving halls and moving back home, I’ve realised that I can find them here instead. I found passion in computer coding, which has now become what I wanted my degree to be - something I wholeheartedly love, that lights me up from the inside. I also started volunteering, both online and in person, which has given me the social connection I yearned for. Contribution, purpose, contentment – to me, they are greater successes than any top degree. And whilst I was initially ashamed that I struggled with the isolation and responsibility of independent student life, I now accept the extra support I get since moving back home – because without it, the genuine happiness I’m finally experiencing would not be possible.
Fast-forward another two years. It is now almost September 2023. My sister, like so many others from my school year, is soon to pack up her bags for her third year of university. I, on the other hand, am staying at home. University won’t be for me any time soon, if even at all. To be honest, I don’t think I mind. Yes, my eating disorder destroyed the future I’d craved since childhood - but I’m beginning to like this new one instead.
-Contributed by Anna
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