Portrait of the Academic as a Student: Amy Lilwall
This is me in my second year at Kent. I’m having breakfast at my best friend’s flat, as far as I can tell. She lived in Canterbury High Street, in a rickety studio flat with a sloping floor that made me feel dizzy when I woke in the night to get a glass of water or go to the bathroom. There is a cigarette in my right hand which I have cropped out of the frame. I do not consider this to be a healthy breakfast, in fact, even looking at this photo now revolts me a little. That said, it also makes me smile. It reminds me of friendship, of that little flat, of deciding to go to the pub instead of revising.
I studied Cultural Studies with French and Spanish at undergrad. I had a job at a small hotel in Canterbury and that took up at least fifteen hours of my week. At that time the university experience was predominantly about subsidising my student loan, hanging out with my housemates and figuring out the best places to have coffee on campus. ‘Studying’ was blended into that somewhere, although at the time I considered myself to be a serious student.
Looking back now, I was very blinkered and very daunted by almost everything that happened at university. I hated public speaking. I hated being asked questions. I hated working in groups where I’d have to speak a foreign language (everyone was better than me). I liked understanding what was expected of me and working independently towards ticking that box. An essay: tick. A portfolio: tick. A presentation: big shaky tick.
I did what many students do in the first and second year of university: I worried too much about the assessment, the coursework and making sure that I learned only what was on the syllabus. A three-thousand-word essay seemed infinite and insurmountable. Getting it done and out of the way was always a big achievement and, for me, the most important part of my course. Everything else came second to that in this order: my part-time job, having fun, attending seminars.
I’m not proud of this. If I could do it all again, I’d immerse myself in my studies. I’d attend every session. I’d realise that the seminars only touch on certain themes and that reading around those themes, weaving them into my learning, would allow me a more rounded view of a given subject rather than merely the means to pass a module.
I spent my third year in France, surrounded myself with people who were intimidatingly clever, and grew as a person, I think. France went on strike for the whole of the second semester, so I used my Erasmus grant to live in Spain for a few weeks. I came back to Kent feeling more confident about speaking in my seminars and with a better understanding of how to apply languages to a context. I worked really hard during my third year and, at some point, I started to think about an MA. My Cultural Studies teacher said it was a good idea to get one as everybody had BAs. ‘Stand out,’ he told us, but the thought of pouring a whole year into a dissertation, the referencing, the research, made my mind retch a little.
Happily, I stumbled across the blurb for an MRes in Creative Writing. That was the point in my life when university began to sparkle. I’d never written a story before, but I had a few ideas. I wrote a sample piece and sent off my application. Awaiting the decision from the Head of Creative Writing frequently made my stomach shrivel up and hide. I thought that nothing else in the world would suit me more than that course. When I was accepted onto the course, I accelerated. I wrote far more than was expected of me, devoured the books on my reading list, listened to my supervisor as if she were the font of all knowledge (to some extent, she is). I did well. I passed. I moved onto a PhD, something I’d never have dreamed about in that little flat four years before.
by Amy Lilwall