"Conkers lying on the ground, the air is cooler. And I feel like I've just started uni."
Zorbing by StornowayEvery late September I can't help but remember the autumn that I was 18. Seeing the streets of Leicester suddenly clogged with excited, fresh-faced students takes me back to the year I was one of them.
1996. I'd dyed my hair black over the summer, listened to too much gloomy indie music, and been suffering from what I now recognize as crippling anxiety attacks. I hid in my room when the phone rang; I panicked if I received any post. The world suddenly felt too big and too wide and I was about to go out into it.
I went to university in pursuit of adventure. My most fervent hope was to find my people, which at the time meant slim-hipped boys with floppy hair and eyeliner; girls in Manics t-shirts and glittery nail polish. I thought that if I could just find these people I'd finally be happy (conveniently ignoring the fact that I'd spent the previous two years hanging out with people who exactly matched that description, and it hadn't got me anything except a self-harm problem and the editorship of a mildly successful indie fanzine).
I was nothing short of devastated, then, to meet the students at Leicester University and discover that they were so far from being my people it was almost laughable. My fellow halls of residence, erm, residents were genuinely nice but, from the rugby-playing law students downstairs to the Home Counties public school girls on my corridor, I had nothing in common with them. For their part, they viewed me as something akin to an exotic animal in a zoo: something to be gazed at from afar, but not got too close to.
Having been planning my escape from Bradford since the age of ten, the reality of life at university was a disappointment to say the least. I'd sincerely hoped that, after years of being the brightest kid in class, further education would finally provide me with the challenge and intellectual debate I so sorely wished for (and yes, I do realise that makes me sound like a particularly pretentious Adrian Mole). My hope was quickly dashed against the rocks of a dull curriculum taught by indifferent lecturers. I'll readily admit that I gave up, decided not to bother trying, and emerged a few years later with a 2:2 degree that I barely deserved.
So it's with no little trepidation that, this week, I start a Masters degree in Gender Studies at the University of Leeds.
My first assignment is to write about a text that inspired me to study this course I'm struggling. I was born into a family in which political activism comes as naturally as breathing. My mum raised me as a feminist and I grew up in a house lined with books by Germaine Greer, Audre Lorde, Sheila Rowbotham and numerous other feminist luminaries. When I was at school (and later, during my undergraduate degree) I was the person who brought every discussion back to feminism or queer theory. Whether discussing the works of Charlotte Bronte or the sociology of the city, my preoccupying thought was always, "what's the feminist perspective on this?"
It's difficult, therefore, to pinpoint a single text or moment in time that made me think, "Aha! I want to study gender!" Honestly, as long as I can remember in my adult life, this course has been my dream. I still have, stashed away somewhere, the Gender Studies MA prospectus from 2001. And every few years since then I've opened the Leeds University website and idly looked through the course content thinking, "If only." But it always felt like an impossible goal - too far away from my work in Leicester, too competitive for someone with my crappy degree and, most importantly, too expensive.
As with so many things in our unfortunately couple-centric world, what seemed impossible when I was on my own became within reach once I met a partner. Since Thomas moved in I've been able to put more into savings than was possible before and, because he now has a three year contract at Loughborough University on a very decent salary, we're able to take the financial hit of me cutting my hours at work. More than anything, though, he has been my cheerleader and chief encourager, telling me that of course I should apply, that of course I'd be accepted, and that of course I'll manage the work. Whenever I have wobbles about the huge reading list or the added stress, I have an actual academic on hand to talk me down, find the journal articles I need, make me cups of tea, and remind me just what the hell Harvard referencing is.
I have no doubt that the next two years will be challenging. That at times, between the workload and the six hour weekly commutes, I'll feel like giving up. But for now, at least, I'm looking forward to being one of those excited and fresh-faced (ahem) students again. Because how many people can say that their dreams come true?