Alex’s story

23 years old, Stoke-on-Trent

Where did you grow up?

Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.

What did you study in higher education?

Sports Coaching at the University of Cumbria.

Why did you decide to study for a degree?

To be completely honest I had the wrong incentive to go to university – to just move away from home. I was going through personal difficulties and wanted an escape route from it all, and university seemed the only logical way to achieve this. This was a late decision; I didn’t decide to even look into it until the summer before courses started.

Why did you decide on this university?

My sixth form tutor helped me with my UCAS applications, and I was given offers from Portsmouth, Chester, Liverpool, the University of Cumbria and one more (I actually can’t remember where). I did some more research and straight away I narrowed it down to Liverpool and the University of Cumbria. One of my closest friends had studied for a year at Lancaster University and said the city is amazing, and when I was a young child the Lake District was our holiday destination, so I knew areas around Lancaster already. I decided to go on an Open Day and my mind was pretty much made up that I wanted to study there; I loved the campus and the small class sizes; I thought this was the only way I could get through university – at a university where there are hundreds on a course I would have felt like a shadow.

Has your career / education taken any unexpected turns?

Like everyone’s journey into higher education, mine was full of challenges and uncertainties. During my time at school I never considered myself to be academic, always in lower to middle sets during lessons and never achieving higher than a C (Grade 5 now). I had the perception that going to university was going to get me in loads of debt, and the fact that I thought I wasn’t clever enough to go, or people telling me I wasn’t clever enough to study at university, meant that university was never a consideration at that time. However, through lots of studying at GCSE I managed to get 5 Cs which was enough to progress to college sixth form. I looked into various courses ranging from catering to sport. In the end I chose to stay on at sixth form as I enjoyed my time at high school, I knew the teachers, and I was able to keep in touch with my friends, so it seemed a logical thing to do for two more years whilst figuring out what I wanted to do.

During sixth form I studied a Level 3 BTEC in Extended Sport and an Extended Project which was similar to how a dissertation is laid out (I didn’t know this at the time) where you can pick any topic and write an assignment on it, which was really enjoyable. I looked into how athletes use substances to enhance performance. I remember interviewing my History teacher as I found some information about soldiers using drugs to give them an edge during the Second World war, and I was told that how I collected data was similar to what you do in university. This, along with some feedback I got during my final assignment, started to give me confidence that I actually could study to a competent level. I achieved a DD* in my BTEC and a C in my Extended Project, grades I never thought I would achieve at sixth form. Yet still that final step of the typical pathway of GCSEs, college/sixth form and then university, was something I just wasn’t even considering. In the end I ended up taking a gap year to work in a supermarket (not very exciting I know) as a stop gap to hopefully find another job, possibly related to sport, possibly not, just anything really.

University is easily one of the most difficult things I have ever done; moving away from family, friends and being in a new environment. But in the first year in halls, you are all in it together! I was lucky and there was a group of five of us on my floor that really got on well and without them the living part of university wouldn’t have been the same. House sharing with the right people is a big thing and I was really lucky in all three years I was there. Have to give a shout out to my house mates and friends during my third year. I was in and out of hospital with liver and stomach issues and they were absolutely amazing, so supportive all the time. That alone just shows at university, people will be there for you during those difficult periods which we all experience.

During my first year I studied Sports Science but then switched onto Sports Coaching at the end of the year. This was a decision made by myself and my lecturers as I was really struggling to achieve anything more than a pass (which I still couldn’t believe I was getting) but I think my lecturers saw potential in me and believed Sports Coaching was possibly suited more to my strengths which really reassured me. I would be lying if I said I didn’t contemplate dropping out during my time at university, primarily because I was just really struggling to pass modules. However, in my second year I managed to get some 2:2 grades and on my final assignment of the year, I had two weeks to write one assignment with no distractions and I actually got a 2:1. I couldn’t believe it, the hard work actually seemed to be paying off. For my final year I performed a lot better and I came out of the whole experience with a 2:1 degree, something to this day I am really proud of and surprised at.

What advice would you give to someone from your area?

University is challenging for various reasons, but as an experience there really aren’t many better. It has taught me a lot about myself and how I look at things. You will have difficult assignments and exams, you might not get the grade you wanted to get. But much like life, its ups and downs structure us to be who we are. Ask for feedback, go over things multiple times, and get someone to proof read your work and you will have a foundation to succeed. Throughout my second and third year one of my closest friends kept telling me I can get a 2:1, and my lecturers and I just didn’t believe it. But I put in the hours and that’s what I did. All you need sometimes is just one person to believe in you and then suddenly something that didn’t seem possible does. You look at things differently.

I am someone who didn’t have the easiest of upbringings and it wasn’t until university where I started to find confidence in myself which is an essential skill to succeeding in life. If I can get through university, I am confident anyone can.