In September 2004 I registered as an undergraduate student at the University of Leicester. This would become the single most significant decision of my life.
The impact that this opportunity has had upon me is immeasurable but I’ll mention two fondest consequences. First, the social networks of friends and acquaintances I joined in Leicester have hosted the most exhilarating, vitalising and eye-opening exchanges that I could have ever hoped for out of life; above all, I met my life-partner at uni. Second, I have been fortunate, despite changes in the higher education sector, to build a livelihood from the passion for knowledge that my academic mentors fostered with me as an undergraduate.
I didn’t go straight to university after sixth-form; I worked in my hometown. For some years during school I had been working in professional kitchens, first in an independent fusion restaurant and later in a four-star hotel. Immediately after my secondary education, I sought to continue a career in catering. I loved the artisan nature of most tasks and the camaraderie with co-workers was exciting; kitchens are the funniest workplaces I have ever experienced but they are also highly damaging.
Halloween at uni
My family held white-collar work in the highest regard (a classic case of what, in the first-year of my studies, I learnt to define as “the protestant work ethic”). So, although work in catering was often immensely satisfying I traded the chef whites for white shirts to embark upon an apprenticeship in law. In 2002/3 I was paid just over £10k a year; I lived at home and spent all my money on running a car (to commute to work), clothes (mostly for work), junk food and a holiday with my then-girlfriend – at one stage I was even moonlighting back in a commercial kitchen. My girlfriend was in the year below me at secondary school and it was while visiting campuses with her that my resolve to go to uni piqued. We broke up in the first year.
I shared a corridor in halls with these guys. After, seven of us found private accommodation together.
I wasn’t a good undergraduate, at least at first. I failed half my modules in the first year; I was too busy forging the intimate social bonds with cohabitants in halls of residence that would last, now, nearly fourteen years and together we have shared significant lifetime milestones and support through difficult times. At the end of my second-year, my personal tutor asked me if I intended to continue studying or drop out and get a job.
My partner and our friendship circle.
A turning point in the second-year of studies presented itself. In a specific module, with a focus on social theory, I accessed a really scholarly syllabus and a lecturer who embodied all the virtues that I have learnt to admire about higher education and academia. I discovered an insatiable appetite to learn more about social theory, that lecturer advised me how to pursue this, and in this way I developed a personal strategy for unlocking my studies: I exploited the extra-curricular knowledge I was accessing to augment the curriculum in other modules and this was how I turned my degree around, from failing the first-year to graduating in 2007 (one of only two people) with a first-class honours.
A proud day, joined by Mom and Dad.