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What I Really Learnt at Durham

Bill Bryson Lilbrary

As an English Literature student, it’s a fairly logical leap to assume that I’ve spent the last three years learning about novels, plays, and poems. That was exactly what I came to Durham University expecting to learn and by now I have many essays to prove that that’s exactly what happened. But as is often the case, expectations and reality have an interesting relationship, where they never seem to be thinking quite the same thing. This is certainly true for my experience of university, where the most important lessons I learnt didn’t take place in a classroom.

I almost didn’t apply to Durham. It seemed to be a place for people with better grades than I thought I was capable of and it was only at the reassurance of others that it was possible, that my journey with Durham officially began. This captures exactly who I was before university: someone with remarkably little confidence who made decisions at the urging of others. Confidence and decisiveness both being characteristics that are fairly essential for someone who wants to become President of a society, run fundraising events, or direct a musical. All things I’ve done in the last three years.

It’s not all about your degree

In the first term of my first year, I applied to be a part of one of my college’s outreach programmes, the ‘Young Persons’ Project,’ where volunteers work with young people from local schools to develop their confidence and show that university can be for everyone. After an extraordinarily nervous interview (with fourth years who were working it out as they went along, just the same as I was) I had become a YPP volunteer.

The pivotal part of the project is the four-day residential held at Van Mildert College at the beginning of the Easter holiday. Volunteers are divided into teams with groups of young people to help them complete a wide range of activities, from a Dragon’s Den style pitch to solving a murder mystery. It was during those four days that something clicked into place for me. I could convince other people that their friends were as nervous as they were and that the more they were willing to try things the more they’d get out of the experience, but I hadn’t had that conversation with myself! I learnt as many lessons as the students I was working with that weekend. Watching them develop their confidence and make friends with new people, as I did exactly the same.

A change of approach

After that weekend I changed my approach to university, realising that it wasn’t just my degree I was supposed to be learning but what else I was capable of doing too. From then on, I was inviting my friends to formals I’d helped to plan as the Fundraising Director for YPP, the stage productions I’d been involved with as part of the MildArts exec committee. I wasn’t someone who had to ask what to do anymore but someone who was confident enough to do the answering.

I dreaded my first YPP interview but have since interviewed more people for committee positions and production team roles than I’d care to count. I’ve learnt not only how to be interviewed but how to interview – I promise you, they want you to do well! I attended events and planned them too – budgets, risk assessments, and a lot of printing. I realised that it’s possible to make your own opportunities if you have the confidence to ask for them. I’ve spent three years writing about novels, plays, and poems, but learning that there’s nothing to lose by asking, showed me that subjects can take you much further than I first assumed when I applied. I have a dissertation about musicals to prove it.

Durham could be for you

Be it volunteering, theatre, music, sports or any other activity you could possibly think of, I don’t know a single person at Durham who doesn’t owe part of the person they are now to something they’ve done during their degree. Durham isn’t simply a place for people with grades I thought would be better than mine, but for people who don’t want learning to end with their subject. University doesn’t have to mean reinventing yourself, in my case, it was just discovering what was already there.

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Jenny Pavitt

Hi, I’m Jenny, a third year English Literature student from Van Mildert College. You can usually find me either reading, writing, thinking about reading and writing, or working out how to fit more theatre into my degree.
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