This time two years ago, I found myself behind a desk in an office with no air conditioning, on a record-breaking hot summer’s day. I was working for close to minimum wage as a PA in a building which backed onto a garlic bread factory (favourable opinions of the smell disappear within about 15 minutes) and invitations to the beer garden, where my friends were enjoying the sun, were getting harder to resist by the hour.
The reason I was stuck indoors smelling like a bad takeaway? I had decided to pass up on being a student that year and watch my career-minded friends begin their university lives without me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to university, it was the fact that I didn’t have a clue what to do if I went, and I was worried that I’d choose the wrong course if I rushed into it.
The irony is that I took a year off to decide what to do, didn’t do any of the travelling adventures or work placements with amazing companies you’re supposed to do in a gap year, and when I did go to university, realised I was on the wrong course after all.
Wasting the summer stuck in an uncomfortable office with people who were interested in little other than garlic bread motivated me to make a decision, and after several lunch hours spent trawling through university websites, looking at course after course, I decided on Public Relations at Leeds Met.
A student at last
As university was a new concept to me, I imagined it with the naïve stereotype so many others do: night after night of drinking and waking up with your shoes on, followed by days spent in the library writing essay after essay. Thankfully I escaped the first of the two as I wasn’t living in Leeds full time, and more to the point couldn’t think of anything worse than a night involving dressing up as a cartoon character and drinking concoctions of alcohol that always appear to be a shade of dark brown.
The second stereotype of essay writing, however, I was quite prepared for. I had achieved my highest graded A-Level in Communication Studies as a result of the course content being mostly focussed on individual writing projects and enjoyed it above any other subject.
So when people said PR wasn’t what they were expecting and I said it wasn’t either, we weren’t always on the same wavelength when they were referring to the Sex and the City box set as their only PR experience and I was referring to Communication Studies.
However, the Writing for PR module in my first semester did offer some similarities to what I was expecting, and is possibly the reason I achieved my best grade here and enjoyed it more than the others I studied that term. Come semester two, I saw my motivation and grades take a drop.
As most students will know, each semester of a degree is differnt from the previous one, presumably to keep the subject open to various angles and sectors for the many areas of interest within PR. The problem for me was that the subjects taught got further away from my interests each term, and even though I didn’t clearly know what these were, I realised I was enjoying the academic modules more than the business ones, yet the emphasis on these became more apparent each week.
Some academics say university is about preparing you for work, and admittedly it should include this, otherwise graduates would arguably be untrained, but for me the course had completely lost its academic focus and now seemed to revolve around business models and preparations for running your own company. But what if that wasn’t what you were interested in?
When I started university, everyone was asked their reasons for studying for a degree. While most people stated their belief that it would lead them to a better paid job or valuable career, my reasons were mostly for personal achievement. It turned out reasons like this also motivate studying for personal interest (something I should have realised before I started), therefore being programmed for successful business wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
What I also realised is that whatever your reasons for studying, if you don’t have the motivation to do so – or anything to motivate you – then you won’t succeed.
Another important factor contributing to motivation, I found, was the people you spent most of your working time with. Several people in the first year admitted they were only at university for the nightlife or as a way to get out of working full time (most of these weren’t still there by the second year).
‘Typical’ students are one of the few stereotypes I did see at university, though few of them ever showed up. What are you supposed to do when you’re ready to gain good grades by producing quality work when you’re told you have to work with others like this?
The visions of mountains of essays were quickly replaced with mountains of other’s work when it became apparent most modules required the same element of group work.
The benefits of this are obvious and are there for everybody: the students are able to distribute work between them, playing on individual’s strengths and weaknesses to create a strong team, while tutors are able to save themselves valuable time in marking four or more students work at once in roughly 20 minutes, rather than the long process of reading through individual essays.
However, the benefits which students gain are only viable when you have a good team, similar to a business working well with the right people to work within it. And when 75% of your team doesn’t show up, or worse, when you’ve never heard of them they attend so little, it results in one of two scenarios. The first is simple: you fail, or else do very badly and get judged for being unable to work as part of a team by your tutors. Or second, you do four people’s work and when you do receive the grade you aimed for, so does everyone else who had very little input.
The other downfall of group work is that you need to be flexible to everyone’s working styles. Some people work best under pressure while others prefer to have a finished assignment weeks in advance of the deadline. Of course university is often not local for everyone. Group work distributed over Christmas and Easter holidays is either not thought through very well, or meant to convince everyone to stay at university for their ‘break’. How exactly is a group supposed to meet to practise a presentation when everyone in the group lives in opposite corners of the country?
With the basis of PR being focussed on communication, I wondered why the tutors weren’t communicating with each other, and realising they were all giving us exactly the same tedious work.
Not the business
In January of my second year I read the titles of that semester’s modules to myself which may as well have been ‘business, business and more business’: not totally off the subject of PR but not quite on it either. So when I said to a friend jokingly during the introduction of one module, ‘if every module is assessed by group work again I’m leaving’. I did honestly think I was joking at the time, but two weeks later I’d attended them all and genuinely not been interested in a moment of it.
When I told my friends I’d decided to change courses, one of them replied, ‘I wish I had the guts to leave’, and slowly it became apparent nobody really enjoyed PR like they had in the first year. Since then a few others have decided to leave too, for different reasons. Some feel they should broaden their areas of knowledge if they’re going to graduate in a recession, while others have just decided on a completely different direction. One thing we all had in common though, was being able to agree that communication is the key to not only successful business, but a successful degree, and that’s something that was lacking enormously.
Now I’ve chosen to study a degree focussing on more than one area, and one I had originally looked into while at college, with the ability to choose your own modules and make the programme suit you.
I had a fantastic time at Leeds Met and leant some invaluable lessons while making some great friends, but overall the most important thing you can learn at university is what you need to get out of your degree and how to make it work for yourself if you’re going to succeed.