My University Experience: went for the degree, found a home.

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I’m on the left, and Hannah and Ellie are two of my best friends

I don’t know where three years have gone, but I have finished my English Literature with Creative Writing degree at Newcastle University- and I would go back and do it all over again tomorrow without a second thought. My title is no joke: reading numerous books, writing on them, and writing poetry for three years straight in a beautiful city was absolute paradise. I love my family, but Newcastle definitely provided me with a sense of being at home that I have never had before- I think because I chose it for myself and built what I would go as far as to call my ideal life there. When I finally settle in one place, I plan on it being Newcastle.  Obviously if you have found this post you are probably considering going to university, or you have applied and been offered a place. Congratulations if you have (especially if you’re headed to Ncl). You’re in for what could potentially be some of the best years of your life. My own degree is what I’m focusing on here, as I know a few universities offer it, and I am of course a huge advocate for Newcastle, as one of their alumni. I’m certain that I’m going to forget something in this post, because how do I cram three years into one piece of writing? I’ve tried to cover some of the bits I think you’ll want to know, but if you have any more questions please do contact me via the form filling in thing on this blog, and I’ll get back to you right away.

Modules

The literature side of the degree really helped inspire some of my creative writing pieces in my final year (I write poetry). As you get further along the degree you can choose your own modules, and shape your degree to your own interests. First year all your modules are chosen for you, in order to prepare you for the next two years ahead. If you’re looking at Newcastle these were the best modules I took over the three years:

  • Revolutionary Britain
  • Enlightened Romantics
  • Victorian Dreamworlds
  • Independent Research Project (also known as the IRP- it’s a mini dissertation where you choose your own topic. It’s a pre-requisite to the dissertation. I took it even though as a writer I didn’t do a dissertation, but instead wrote a collection of poems and an essay on my creative process. The volume of work is the same for both the diss, and the portfolio)
  • Murder Mystery Mayhem

With the creative writing you divide into three strands after your first year, picking the strand you want for yourself. The options are poetry, prose, and script. One of the best things about doing creative writing at university is that you try every one of the modes of writing above. I went in thinking I would write prose, and discovered I was actually much better at poetry, and pretty crap at long pieces of prose (I’m good with short prose, as it is kind of like a poem). On the literature side of the degree one thing I loved about Newcastle was that they begin the first semester of first year with Intro to Lit I, starting with Jane Eyre and moving forwards in time to Huckleberry Finn. In your second semester you do Intro to Lit II, and this is the Old English modules. Yep, you move back in time. The idea is that these latter modules are more complex, and put some people off, so by beginning with Jane Eyre most people are a lot more comfortable as they learn the ropes of writing an essay (these are different to A-level essays. SO different, but you’ll get the hang of it as they provide a handy guide to writing and referencing). Many other universities I looked at were beginning with the Old English, and many of them were quite heavy on it, which I personally wasn’t keen on (Nottingham, I’m looking at you).

Lecturing style

Whilst I was at uni I quickly learnt that the relationship between student and lecturer is very different to how it is in high school. Seminars and workshops are much more of a discussion than “being taught”, and some people find this very hard to get used to. For me, I think it was one of the highlights. I’ve heard from friends at other universities that they had a completely different experience, but at Newcastle we were always welcome to visit staff to discuss essays or ask for help (they set up office hours to visit in, and open extra ones around exam time). By my third year I was just dropping in on some lecturers for a chat now and again, and I hope to remain in contact with my favourite lecturer Jenn now that I’ve left. So, yeah, I found some of my best friends in the student body, but I also found friends and mentors in the staff. Sometimes I was taught by recently graduated, or PHD students, and so they were very close to my own age. On the creative writing side I was taught by publishes poets, including Bill Herbert, Jacob Polley, and Sean O’Brien. This really shaped my writing in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and I finished my degree feeling like I had come further than I could’ve imagined with my poetry.

Invaluable Creative Writing Tips I Received

  • Go after inspiration with a club, don’t wait for it to come to you.
  • There is no such thing as complete originality: only an original spin.
  • You have fewer contact hours (aka. being taught) because you need to go look for inspiration. At Newcastle you’re encouraged to find what works for you with writing: they really understand people write at different paces, at different times etc. and give you as much space as they can to do so.
  • Your study group is incredibly important for bouncing ideas around and editing, especially in third year.
  • Get yourself a notebook. This is your creative journal. Take it EVERYWHERE.
  • Find the time and place you write best. I loved writing really early in a coffee shop overlooking the main street. This may change from time to time, but try have somewhere you like to go to write.

 

Essay Tips

I feel like I just got the hang of this, and then I finished, so here is all the wisdom I have for you:

  • Re-read your text again and again, with a highlighter and pen.
  • Plan. Thoroughly. Brainstorm all the things you like or that stand out to you about the text (or even characters and event that you hate, think about why you feel this way), and then look at your essay question options. See if any of them go together.
  • Don’t forget: you can look at images that accompany a text if applicable.
  • Speak to your lecturers. This is SO important. Its not a formal thing, its an informal chat about your ideas. My lecturers went out of their way to help me.
  • Read your critics. My lecturers included plenty of jumping off points for reading around texts, but the more you can find your own sources as well, the better. Read them alongside the text of the week for each module; it gives you more thinking space before essay questions are released.
  • Be original, and don’t be afraid to be a bit out there. Originality in third year = massive brownie points.

 

Housing, Flatmates & Friends

This is one of the things people seem to worry about the most. It really is pot luck who you  get first year, but I had a lovely flat and we all got on really well. Second year I lived with two friends and it was great; we rented a flat and were all on exactly the same page with pretty much everything. Third year we all moved; one of my friends was a medic, and so would be on placement in her third year. With no idea where she’d end up, it was easier for her to share with other medics. I ended up living with some other friends, and although I loved them we probably weren’t the best combination for living together. We were very different, and I think at many points we all got very irate with each other. My biggest piece of advice for choosing housing in your years following halls is to make sure that you know who you’re moving in with, and if there are any very obvious differences on how you like to live. On the friends front: get in there and make some! I have met the most fantastic people at uni, and I don’t know what I did without them. I love them to pieces. And the funniest thing? I met most of them in my very first week. I met my friend Phoebe in the very first introductory talk. Never stop making friends over the three years. I met one of my closest friends in my second year, and even though she has moved back to Singapore, Yvonne and I still speak regularly and plan on visiting each other in the future.

Living in Newcastle

I know Newcastle is definitely a party city, but I really fell in love with everything else going on there. Plenty of great cafés, bars, brunch spots and restaurants, lots of creative writing events hosted by the NCLA, Northern Stage theatre, university productions by NUTS, the quayside, museums and art galleries, Tynemouth just a metro ride away…I felt very safe in Newcastle too. Its a friendly city, and I felt more at home there than I have anywhere else, even the city I was born in. For a city Newcastle is very walkable, and there are many green spaces to go and relax (Exhibition Park, Leazes Park, and Jesmond Dene to name my favourites). As a student, summer is great because you can buy food and go picnic instead of eating in. Getting myself acquainted with the local market was a great move for me, and once I found my favourite fruit and veg stall on Northumberland Street I was sorted.

Working During Uni & Job Prospects

If you’re paying for a degree, job prospects is probably something fairly important to you. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I arrived, I just knew that I took phots of food, blogged, and loved reading and writing. I would recommend looking at work experience and internships from the first summer at uni. I ended up finding a placement at BBC Good Food Magazine, and in my second summer a placement at a PR company called CoCo. I waitressed, freelanced, and I also volunteered for bits of my summers (summer jobs are very hard to come across where I live). I saved part of my student loan, my parents helped me out, and Newcastle also offer a bursary for work experience travel costs as well. Without that I couldn’t have accepted my placements. I tried to work during my time at uni, at the beginning of second year, and it didn’t work out for me. I struggled to balance everything and was at the time struggling health-wise. If you want to work during uni then I would recommend finding something part-time, that you feel you can balance with studies. At the end of the day you have come to uni to complete a degree, and so this has to be your priority. Although I left with a First Class Honours and an award, my grades suffered during the time I’ve just mentioned. I wasn’t well mentally or physically, and working when I had enough money to get by on already was something I didn’t need to do to myself. I really learnt that I needed to take care of myself at this point. Its one of the biggest lessons I learnt at uni. Anyway, thanks to maintaining my blogging hobby and my work experience I have managed to land a job in Leeds, at my dream company marketing food and drink brands via social media. I suppose it goes to show that a conventional work experience and employment section on your CV isn’t essential, and I wasted a lot of time worrying I hadn’t proven myself by having one steady job over my time at uni. Just work hard at what you can do, and collect some references. Uni really helped me gain some confidence in looking for employment, and really helped me with my CV, LinkedIn profile, and job applications. My personal tutor was also amazing on the careers front, and offered me a tonne of advice. She was a film producer and real career woman, so I was very lucky in that respect.

Graduation

This was one of the happiest and saddest days of my life. I celebrated with my friends, family, and lecturers. We finally got our gowns. We didn’t get hats, because Newcastle don’t wear hats. There was free champagne. Michael Morpurgo (yes, THAT Michael Morpurgo) was awarded an honorary degree and so gave us a beautiful speech. Graduation is when you have that “Wow. I did it.” moment, and it is worth every library session you put in over the degree. Its also when you realise that you are leaving university, and that was one of the most heart-breaking moments for me. However, Newcastle isn’t too far on the train, I can visit my friends up and down the country, I have a degree I am very proud of, and I have had the three most beautiful years in my student cocoon.

There you have it, my uni experience. I would never have expected university to have changed me so much as a person.  If you know that there is a degree you really want to do, that you are incredibly passionate about, I would 100% recommend university to you. I went for the degree and my love of literature and writing, but over these three years I found something much more valuable. I found a place I feel at home.

 

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