Three down, one to go

It’s strange to think that it was only three years ago that I’d finished my A levels and was, teeth gritted, fingers mashing the “refresh” button, to find out what university I would end up going to. Four years ago, I didn’t even think I would go to any university – purely because I didn’t want to. I’m writing this to simply make a point that whatever happens, things can get better.

Quite a few people will know that I had a rough time through secondary school. My parents divorced when I was in year 9, which (strangely) led to bullying from the railway community. I fell severely ill later in the year, meaning I ended up leaving the mainstream secondary education system until I started at college.

The illness is called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME. CFS is a condition that is widely misunderstood. Everyone who has it is affected differently. Despite the way it may seem mysterious, make no mistake: it can be incredibly debilitating.

It still affects me today. It controls what I can and can’t do. I still go out and try and enjoy my life to the full extent possible. Quite frankly, if I didn’t, and I let CFS control me completely, I’d never leave the house: I get that tired.

The support systems for kids my age back then was appalling. I was assumed to be truanting on several occasions when I needed to be out getting fresh air instead of being stuck in bed all day. It’s never a good experience being told that you are doing something wrong, especially because I was never visibly ill (other than being severely underweight.)

In June 2008, I formally left secondary school with four GCSEs to my name: English Literature, English Language, Maths and Physics. Three Bs and one Cs. Up until the point I left, I had been a nominally straight A student. I’d won several awards in primary school for being the best performing student each year. I still haven’t recovered enough to be able to manage that again.

In that September, I joined Brockenhurst College. This turned out to be one of the best, most life-changing moves I have ever taken. I walked in not knowing how far I’d end up going, where I’d end up at the end of it, and, more importantly, how long I’d even last.

I needn’t have worried. The pastoral care was amazing. If it wasn’t for my tutor I don’t think I’d have managed two weeks. Brock were really supportive the entire time – and if I was ill for a couple of days, I’d have to catch up but they didn’t get on my back (too much) for it.

At Brock, I did Computing, Physics and Maths. It was a bit of a challenge, given I was re-entering ‘traditional’ education after a long while – it certainly showed in my results! The first batch, generally, fell from D to U (apart from Computing, which I got an A in – I think!) Things gradually improved over the first year, and I ended with AS levels in Computing (B), Physics (C) and Maths (D). To me, these results were nothing like what I’d have wanted, or even expected, before. I couldn’t really see myself going to a university.

As we came into the A2 year, and my tutor, and others, had encouraged me to pursue a course in Computer Science. So I did. Regardless of what happened, I knew that I’d have to do something about my grades. To go to a university, you generally need 5 GCSEs. I had 4. Helpfully, the college provided a crash course in GCSE Astronomy to second year Physics students, which was tremendous fun.

There was, however, one more stumbling block. My grade in Maths was a very low D, something I knew that I would need to significantly improve. Fortunately, the college were flexible with my module choices. They let me choose my second option module of Decision Maths – something that, if you know me, comes naturally to me! A tough couple of months of revision followed, leading into a final exam session of 5 Maths exams, 2 Computing exams and 3 Physics exams (that’s including retakes). I finished at Brock with A2s in Computing (A), Maths (B – three marks off an A, dammit!) and Physics (B).

In spite of all of this, I ended up at a university with a significantly higher entry requirement than what I could attain due to my health issues. I have to thank the University of Southampton and Brockenhurst College for having agreements in these sort of circumstances – but more importantly, for my tutor pointing it out to ECS that it even existed (I was rejected initially) and supporting me.

ECS is an amazing department to be a student in, with some of the best minds in the world. I’m exceptionally glad to have had the opportunity to be there. Conveniently, there were also plenty of people I already knew from Brock: I’ve never been one to make friends quickly, for other reasons.

During my time at ECS so far, I’ve learnt a lot, and grown as a person (although definitely not in maturity that much – live as young as you can be for as long as you can be!) I finished my third year with a first in my project and, overall, currently hold a 2:1 with my progress so far. I’ll try and take that up to a 1st in the fourth year. That’s all for another post, though.

(Oh, and I wrote a little website called Realtime Trains. It now gets 350,000 visits a month – thank you, all!)

Outside of my educational life, I’ve been able to build my work portfolio with consultancy for various companies. I’ve also been able to feed my travel habit – I love to go abroad to make up for lost time before.

This combination of doing what I love, hard work, sheer kindness and blind luck (plus incredible support from my family and friends) is why I keep going. I could not have imagined myself being in this position seven years ago ago. Things *did* get better for me.

This is valuable knowledge. If you’re young, like I was, and feel like life is doing its level best to kick you while you’re down and then jump on the remains, know this. A run of bad luck isn’t the end of the world. It can get better, and it does.

With thanks to Jonathan Rothwell for editing.