Friday 9 September 2016

Vodka at the ready, it's time for a new set of Freshers...

It’s that time of the year again when excited teenagers are raiding the homeware department of Wilkinsons, stocking up on vodka and waving goodbye to their parents for the next three years of their lives. For most of them it’s their first time living away from home and embarking on the experience of a lifetime can be quite an exciting, if not daunting, prospect. It’s been 10 years since I went on that journey – but is university really worth it?

I made the decision to go to uni slightly later in life. I’d gone to college straight after high school but not known what to do with myself; I knew I loved to write but wasn’t sure whether it was more of a hobby than a career. With the lack of direction, I under-achieved: mediocre grades followed – and so did a career in retail. Not that working in retail is a bad thing. For the first couple of years I loved it: I met so many friends and the job itself was fun and sociable. But I began to wonder if this was it for the rest of my life.

My parents said the same. I was still indulging in creative writing as a hobby when my Mum suggested going to university for study for a degree in what I loved to do. At this point I’d written on and off for the Manchester City fanzine ‘King of the Kippax’ for a number of years and was building up a portfolio of work. I worked voluntary for BBC Radio Manchester and had actually applied for a few trainee media jobs – and always received the same generic ‘sorry but you need a degree at the very least to be remotely considered.’

Could I do it? Could I go to university at the age of 24, surrounded by hundreds of 18 year olds who were all there to party? For six years I’d worked full time, so to go from that to the infamous university lifestyle would be quite a change. But Mum was right: would I rather be left to rue the day or go for it and at least say I tried? Mum had even found the perfect course for me at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston studying Sports Journalism: I’d read through the syllabus and it was everything I wanted and more. The only sticking point was my dodgy college grades. Would I even be considered for a place? I completed the UCAS application, aided unequivocally by a sparkling reference from my English teacher, Mike Gregory, sat back and waited.

By this point I’d really got my head around going. I wanted to live in halls and embrace the lifestyle. I’d become disinterested in my retail job- all my hopes hinged on the verdict from UCAS. When that day arrived, I was petrified. I was shaking when I logged into the site. There it was in black and white- unsuccessful. My heart sank .The dream was over before it had begun. But there she was again – Mum. Fresh from a devastating break-up from my Dad, her husband of 29 years, she was going through the hardest period of her life. But she was urging me not to give up on my dreams. Telling me to phone the university up and beg for a place.

‘Tell them Emily, tell them it’s now or never for you. Tell them how much you want it.’

So I did. I phoned them up and spoke to a lovely man called Andy Dickinson. I poured my heart out to him: I didn’t cry, I remained positive and determined, telling him how I’d realised how much I wanted this, how hard I’d work if given the chance, how my college grades were no fair reflection on the life experience I had gained since. He put me on hold to go and ask the Head of Journalism. When he came back, the answer was still no. This poor guy wasn’t prepared to hear my sob story on a Thursday afternoon but he had to. He was my only chance and there was no way I wasn’t giving my final shot my all. After 15 minutes of basically begging, he put me on hold and went and asked the question- again. It was heart in mouth time, this really was it.

‘Well Emily, this must be your lucky day,’ Andy said. ‘We are prepared to give you a chance and offer you a place.’

With that, I was in. Sneaked in through the back door, but I was off to university. After raiding several homeware stores for my uni essentials and doing a substantial food shop, I was ready to spread my wings and move into halls. September had come round so quickly and the hardest part was saying goodbye to Mum, particularly when she was going through such a difficult time. I assured her I’d be home at weekends – and off I went.

The living situation

The whole moving into halls and meeting my new room-mates process was so daunting. It was a lot like I imagined Big Brother to be: it was a matter of waiting to see the door go and seeing who walked through it. Whether you liked them or not you had to live with them. I chose private halls as I needed a bathroom (imagine the state of shared bathrooms though!) and waited to meet the boys and girls I’d be sharing living quarters with for the next nine months.

In Squires 'VIP' with flat mates Ashleigh and Caz (and a barmaid)

Girl-wise, I was lucky. I loved Ashleigh and Caz to bits. Still do. But the boys were an absolute nightmare. Noisy, messy and smelly didn’t even begin to cover it. Living with them was how I imagined hell to be and we’d regularly encounter girl v boy arguments. Sometimes it was all-out war. The management of our halls had to get involved at times it was that bad and it did put a cloud over the first year at times. They’d cook fry ups at 3am, set fire extinguishers off, run in banging on the doors on purpose when you had a 9am lecture and walk round with their cocks out. No girls, not what you want to see from a fat, hairy Irish guy. At one stage we had to hide our plates and cups from the front room because they’d use it all and not wash it – or they’d eat our food. 

A rare moment of harmony between the first year flat mates

The next two years had their ups and downs accommodation-wise, ironically more so because of living with just girls. It was great because you could choose who you wanted to live with, but if you didn’t know anybody too well living with them would always expose any personality clashes and ultimately led to disharmony. It can be a wonderful thing living with your best friends, but it can be downright biblical if you encounter a detrimental fall out along the way. This happened in both the second and final years and it was awful: looking back you know the petty arguments were ridiculous, but at the time they seemed colossal and added unnecessary tension and friction to what was supposed to be an enjoyable experience.

Just your average Monday night in Squires with Sarah and Frankie

But when it was great it was amazing. The time of our lives: we thought we were the bloody Spice Girls. Whether we were lazing around in our nightwear and sweats or dolled up to the nines in thigh boots and bum-skimming dresses, it was always a laugh. We could talk to each other about anything and everything and always had each other’s backs. Some nights we’d just go to Blockbuster (remember that place?!) and grab a DVD and ice cream, others we’d actually stay in and study. Most nights we would start drinking in the flat at 6pm, head to a club then finish drinking back at the flat at 4am.

Thursday nights in 53 Degrees

I think what I struggled the most with living-wise was the first year and having to co-habit with total strangers. Perhaps this is where the age divide came into play: don’t get me wrong, I could (and did) act more immature than some of the 18 year olds, but some of them just didn’t care. Mostly the boys, but a couple of the girls too – first time living away from Mum and Dad, cutting loose, doing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. It was a lot to get my head around.

That notorious lifestyle

Nothing quite prepared me for the uni lifestyle. This is going to sound pathetic, but for the first couple of days during Fresher’s Week, I seriously came close to packing it all in and going home. I’d not even been on a night out – I’d stayed in with my flatmate Ashleigh, who was also quite homesick at the time. It was just so different to anything I’d experienced before; I didn’t know if I could adjust myself that much to a point where people stayed up all night and slept most of the day. It was a culture shock.

Embracing the lifestyle head on

I suppose in the end I adopted a mentality of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and threw myself in at the deep end. I embraced every aspect of uni head-on: the booze, the raving and the misbehaving. My decline into debauchery didn’t take long. Some days we’d only have a lecture for an hour so we’d scrape ourselves out of bed, lie on the sofa recovering before heading to one of the local pubs (The Adelphi, The Ship and Roper Hall) for hangover food. Then do it all over again that night.

Just an average Wednesday night

I suppose in the end I adopted a mentality of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and threw myself in at the deep end. I embraced every aspect of uni head-on: the booze, the raving and the misbehaving. My decline into debauchery didn’t take long. Some days we’d only have a lecture for an hour so we’d scrape ourselves out of bed, lie on the sofa recovering before heading to one of the local pubs (The Adelphi, The Ship and Roper Hall) for hangover food. Then do it all over again that night.

A state of 'man down'

But it was super fun getting dressed up with the girls all the time – getting ready for nights out with your music on, dancing in your underwear is always fun. Most nights would have themes, which offered an ideal excuse for dressing up – something that happened all too often. I look back now and wonder how I got away with some of my outfits: schoolgirl, sailor and cat-woman all seem pretty tame compared to the ‘pimps and hoes’ night where my outfit consisted of stockings, suspenders, heels, tiny black PVC hot-pants and a pink vest that said ‘sexpert’ on the front with names and accompanying scores of ex-lovers on the back. That was my standout ‘what was I thinking’ moment! But on the most part, getting glammed up, heading out in tiny skirts and wearing Ann Summers costumes in the nightclubs was all part of it – coupled with sambuca shots and double vodka red bulls.

One of the outfit regrets - what was I thinking?

Some of our most memorable (through the alcohol haze) nights out were: the back to school night with Pat Sharp at Lava (I always wanted to be on Funhouse!), chav night at 53 degrees, Fresher’s Week in the second and third years, my Barbie birthday where everybody had to wear pink and glitter and, of course, every Hallowe’en. Hallowe’en was by far the busiest night of the year: where you were witness to the most weird and wonderful costumes going. Everybody made an effort and it was always a quality evening – even if it was a bit sweaty under the spotlights in a catsuit.

Chav night and Hallowe'en

As for the boys…well, I started uni in a relationship that had already run its course. By the time we returned after Christmas in the first year, I was single. I remember our first night back on the Monday in Squires and it was fantastic. Not a care in the world, just on the dance-floor throwing shapes with the girls and acting daft. I ended up dancing with one of the lads from my course – who I’d never looked at in any way apart from as a friend – and so began a dalliance that only ended a few months before we finished uni. In fact we kept in touch up until I met Adam, but that’s when the contact ended. He had a girlfriend back at home (at the time I didn’t care, mortifying) and together we had a lot of fun. He’s now marrying that same girl – if only she knew!

If you can't beat them...

It’s safe to say I definitely had my share of fun boy and girl wise at uni, like most. I can’t share some of the stories because they are either a) too explicit or b) illegal. Far from being the only one, we would sit around the next morning in equal states of disarray and disbelief at our exploits the night before. Shout-outs go to Paul, Shaun, Ashley and Tom. Some of the tales of alcohol, drugs and sex will remain very fond dirty little secrets – probably the best place for them. All of that ended in the third year when a very old friend got back in touch with me. His name was Chris; he came along at a point in my life when I needed a bit of stability and calming down. Six years later, Chris became the father of my child. The rest, as they say, is history.

Out for a meal with Frankie

Money-wise it was never really that much of a struggle. Student loans coupled with grants and bursaries all helped and I worked a few part time jobs along the way to help fund my lifestyle. Spells at Subway, Carphone Warehouse and working the breakfast buffet at a Premier Inn all brought the extra pennies in to help pay for food, toiletries, booze and clothes. The day the loan came in was always special – we’d nearly all go on a mad shopping spree to buy new outfits and make up.

Casual Pizza Hut

Sometimes we’d do our food shopping together and cook for each other and sometimes we’d all go for meals out. We’d go on trips out to Blackpool, Manchester, Southport and even London. I don’t think I ever lived off beans on toast – and I was a stickler for drinking decent wine! You just learn to cut your cloth accordingly – working part time definitely helped make life slightly more comfortable for me.

The education

I should really get round to talking about the reason I went to uni – the education! Yes for me an education did actually happen. For others who weren’t overly bothered about getting a degree and who were all about the party, it didn’t. It’s true that you get out of it what you put in. I loved some of my modules – some I didn’t really find relevant to what we wanted to do, but the core journalism modules were fantastic.

Just some of the boys off my course

I remember on the first day of uni walking into a room full of males. With our course being Sports Journalism, it was dominated by teenage boys. I’d say the ratio was around 45 boys to four girls. It would’ve been easy to be intimidated by that situation, but I used it to my advantage. I wanted to prove that my gender wasn’t an excuse and that I could be equally as good as the males, if not better. I became the very best of friends with Frankie, one of my female course mates, and we stuck together through any episodes of chauvinism and misogyny (despite us knowing more about football than most of them).

With my Frankie

Perhaps I’m being sexist, but I relished the gender divide: often when put into groups I’d plan quality projects with excellent contacts and the boys would just be along for the ride and contribute minimally. That always provided some level of personal satisfaction – I was merely preparing myself for battle amongst a male-dominated industry. I had to say some of the males on the course were fantastic and treated you as an equal, but some couldn’t look past the fact you had breasts and knew more about certain sports than them. They’d scoff and look down their nose at you – more fool them. Thanks go to Sam, Dean, SVG, Chris, Andy, John and Ali for being the good guys.

Charlie's speech at our final meal together

It was also a privilege to be taught by some of the best in the business. Our course leader, Charlie Lambert, was nothing short of phenomenal. He’s since retired, which is a great shame, but he brought years of industry experience and infinite wisdom throughout our three years and really guided us all on our way. One of our modules was taught by Peter Stevenson, who continues to report for Sky Sports News to this day. I know gaining a degree is an expensive task, but you can’t put a price on that experience. We even had a guest lecture from Janet Street-Porter – one of my industry idols. Lecturers like that bring not only their expertise but they inspire you even further to gain your degree to aid you towards your chosen career path.

Presenter Jake Humphrey invited me to London to interview him

I opted for a tricky approach during uni. I kept up with my voluntary work and even applied for more. I figured that the more unpaid work on my CV and the more media companies and contacts I knew, the better shot I had at a career post-uni. I worked for all four mediums: online, print, television and radio. I did my work experience at FourFourTwo magazine in London and I never once rested on my laurels. I always adopted the approach of doing the very best I could. I’d be on air on Key 103 Manchester radio Sunday nights contributing briefly to a sports segment, Nuts TV would phone me in the week to contribute to football debates, I’d be writing content for and keeping up with writing for King of the Kippax too. Sheer determination kept pushing me to take on more and more.

Gabby Logan was one of many wonderful interviewees

When given an assignment for my course, I always tried to find the best interviewee possible for the chosen topic. Gaining interviews with television presenters, Premier League footballers and football club legends are all achievements I’m proud of and contributed significantly towards my degree. I’d spend hours researching contacting, emailing, pestering – what’s the worst anybody can say to you, no? Even when they did, I didn’t give in. It took three attempts to Gabby Logan’s agent to gain an interview with her. Eventually I was invited to London for an exclusive – persistence and determination is paramount to succeed. I worked hard on creating and running my own blog, Football Pundette, all of my interviews and articles can be found on here.

Manchester City legend Colin Bell agreed to an interview

To a certain extent, I think I stretched myself so thin I compromised my overall grade. I finished with a 2:2 and I do believe I could’ve done better. But my contacts book was impressive and I believe I left myself in the best position possible to gain a paid job in my chosen field. I look back and feel a great sense of achievement at having graduated by gaining a degree through dedication and spotting opportunities where others potentially didn’t. I gave it my best shot – you can’t do any better than that. I’m also proud of what my fellow course-mates have achieved since graduation, with a handful now working for BBC Sport, The Mirror and other significant media organisations. Well done us.

So proud that my Mum and Dad both attended my graduation

My Mum and Dad set aside their differences for a few hours to both attend my graduation and that was a special moment. Uni is a truly unique experience and I think if you have the opportunity to go then don’t even hesitate – and throw yourself into it. It helped massively for me that I knew exactly what I wanted to do – I was focused in a season of 18 year olds who weren’t too sure if the course was for them or even what they wanted to do with their lives. A handful did get their heads down and unlike the majority, didn’t just go for the piss-up.

An unforgettable experience

But the experience itself: the independence, the course, the nights out, it’s all collectively indescribable. Some of our nights out were fantastic, but I often had just as much fun watching a film in our pyjamas. The people I met, the memories we shared, will forever stay with me. It’s only with hindsight that you can appreciate just how easy a life it really was back then. Now, the petty squabbles seem minor, some of the girls I met were absolute diamonds, and as for going out every night – I can’t remember the last night out I had! I was a very special three year window of time that was daunting, challenging but ultimately amazing – times I will cherish for the rest of my life.

The legacy

The career? I guess this is where people turn round and say ‘so where did it all go wrong?’ Well, it didn’t. My life goals just shifted. I’d achieved my degree, I went on to achieve my dream job at the football club I support for a few years (all that glitters isn’t gold) then my life on its head when I lost a baby. Since then, my career took a back seat while my maternal instinct kicked in. For most of my life all I could think about was being a sport journalist - that changed to spending my life longing to be a Mum. It’s funny what life throws at you and how grief can affect you, it just turned all my aspirations on its head.

Working at City for three years during their initial trophy haul was a privilege

I’ve been blessed to now be a mother to Vincent, my beautiful little boy. He’s almost two and he’s also now going to be a big brother at Christmas time. I work part time in an administration role for a wonderful family company and I believe I have a perfect work-life balance. I couldn’t be happier. I still love to write – these days it’s just finding the time. But I’d love to keep the door open as it’s a shame to work so hard and not to keep up with that passion and a subject you are highly experienced and qualified in.

Relishing my life as a Mum to Vincent

Some might say I have under-achieved since graduating. That’s your opinion and one you should keep to yourself. It’s easy for people to judge without knowing how difficult circumstances have been. I wouldn’t have got my job at City if it wasn’t for going to uni. It was a pleasure interviewing some of the best players in the Premier League and an incredible experience: I was at the club at a very special time and the insight was surreal and fascinating. Working on BBC Radio Manchester’s Blue Tuesday show was an opportunity I would’ve been highly unlikely to gain had it not been for uni. Both Ian Cheeseman and Sarah Collins were wonderful to me and a constant inspiration: the day I left was a sad day indeed. I've known Ian for many years and he often went out of his way to help me, something I'll always be grateful for.

Working alongside Ian Cheeseman and Paul Lake at BBC Radio Manchester's 'Blue Tuesday' show

University not just about the drinking. It’s not about who you wake up with the next day. You don't necessarily need it to get certain jobs these days, but others you definitely do. It gives you not only a wonderful education, but a fantastic grounding in life. You learn life lessons along the way and, among the immaturity; it instills a level of maturity in you to continue forward with your life. You meet friends for life, Frankie is somebody I will always have in my life and who I wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for uni. It taught me the value of money: from going through a bad period in my life financially when I was a teenager, I learnt how to budget and save. It’s taught me to forgive and forget because life’s too short. It taught me to apply myself and always keep trying, never give up. Ultimately, it taught me to be eternally grateful to my Mum for urging me to follow my dreams: I just hope I’ve made her proud somewhere along the way. 

Still the best of friends with Frankie ten years later

So to all those Freshers: enjoy – they’ll never be a time in your life quite like it ever again. 

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