All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881)

Going to university to study English Language and Literature is without doubt one of my proudest achievements. Following my eldest sister, I was part of the first generation of my family to go to university. Only a generation before, my father had been expected to leave school, forgetting any pretensions of art college, to get a job to bring some money in for the family. In contrast, I had the true privilege –  what felt like an indulgence at times – to read and write some of the best of what has been thought and written.

I can remember my first day with vivid clarity. I made the short trip to the red brick steeple of my local university. Crowds of newly minted English students huddled in the grand hall, no doubt nervous and excited in equal measure. Though I didn’t wholly realise at that moment, I felt a completely alien in that room. I’d travelled to the university once before, with my friends in 6th Form, but nearly all of my friends had no real interest in university, so we’d sat together for most of the day and drank in the university pub! It hadn’t prepared me for venturing into these rooms with bona fide university students. Exhausted from the experience, its formalities and awkward introductions, I quickly went home.

Admittedly, I made little attempt to dive into the swim of university life. I joined the English Literature society but never bothered attending. I spend endless hours in the library reading and reading and reading, but I preferred to stay in touch with my school friends. There isn’t really any need for a comforting ‘ahhh’ – or kindly taps on my shoulder. I got much of what I wanted from university and I truly loved much of my time, reading voraciously everything I could get my hands on.

It the bright light of hindsight, I can now see that my inhibitions and self-imposed distance was rooted in a lack of self-confidence and doubt. I saw much of the world through a lens of class and my own seeming deficit. I simply couldn’t reconcile that I was seemingly so different to everyone else. University, I had rationalized, was more their place than mine.

I also recognise now an implicit sense of guilt I carried around with me (being raised as a Catholic, but definitively lapsed, will do that for you). Each time I met my school friends, I had felt like I was cheating them and somehow betraying my real roots. My accent and voice would shift back and forth, but something was lost, irrevocably so.

Striding across the stage to receive my degree filled me with deep pride and something changed in my mind, but I hadn’t considered what. A validation? A valediction? I didn’t know. From then on, I knew I wanted to help propel other people across that stage who hadn’t thought it possible. I knew that doing so meant more than just academic preparation.

In my current life as a teacher, I am interested in the social confidence that sees you ‘fitting in’ at school or university. Can we better instill it? With what conditions does it grow? There is something about academic knowledge that is essential here, but also a distinct social confidence matters. I think organisations like The Sutton Trust putting on events for students to develop their personal confidence, as well as bolstering their academic competence, is on the right track, but it is a intractable problem still.

It is a problem that spans across national boundaries. In the USA, organisations have initiated a ‘College Transition Collaborative‘ that focuses upon the importance aspect of social belonging. Having the academic ability to get to university is no doubt essential, but without the mindset to survive and thrive at university, too many students will drop out or not exercise their full potential.

I was struck by simple interventions that made a difference for students tackling this tough transition. Researchers, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, have shone a light on the impact of short interventions for ‘freshman’ students – see here. The New York Times (May 15, 2014) described them:

“First-year students read brief essays by upperclassmen recalling their own experiences as freshmen. The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays…echoing the same message. The whole intervention took no more than an hour.”

Class, race, gender, age – all of these tangible differences between ourselves and our peers can initiate a subtle gap between one another. Claude Steele, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University advanced the theory of ‘stereotype threat‘. Effectively, he defined how we identify with prevailing stereotype, whether that be defined by class, race, gender or all of the above, and it can inhibit our performance.

It chimes with my personal experience: I had too many friends for whom being ‘academic’ and reading was implicitly unacceptable. Though seemingly irrational and self-destructive, it isn’t too far from the subtle feeling of guilt I experienced whilst at university. I wished some students had shared their essays with me when I was a new university student.

In my book, ‘The Confident Teacher‘, I have written a chapter on confident students and the ‘confidence gaps’ that beset their paths, particularly at points of transition, like the move from school to university, or the leap from primary to secondary school. Simply by recognising such gaps, we can help our students broach them and more regularly overleap them. Steele offers the simple strategy of ‘whistling Vivaldi‘, whilst recognising the issue is complex and rooted in our social psyche.

Quiet rightly, we focus a great deal on enhancing the academic performance of our students so that they may flourish in their future lives beyond the school gate, but the evidence suggests that we need to focus upon developing the social confidence and the emotional self-awareness of our students at the same time, including informing them how it may impact upon their academic performance. The ancient wisdom to ‘know thyself’ is fitting.

Though my experience at university was ultimately fruitful, I think too many young people fail to make the transition because of a confidence gap between who they think they are and what they can be. Perhaps we can ‘whistle Vivaldi’ and we can share our common personal stories and essays, but we can still do a great deal more still for whose longed for change still feels too far out of reach.


Related reading:

HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) have initiated a 30 million fund to help develop more outreach programmes to better help meet nearer government goals for doubling the participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, whilst increasing by 20% the number of students from ethnic minority groups in higher education by 2020. If you are interested in being involved, take a look at their invitation to apply for funding.