Parents and university – a case study

Camilla & Abigail
Camilla and Abigail: like mother, like daughter

Camilla's daughter, Abigail, managed to secure a place at the University of Cambridge where she studies Archaeology and Anthropology.

Camilla’s children were always going to go to university but with so much more pressure on results and careers these days, Camilla found that Abigail’s university experience was rather contrary to her own.

When we caught up with Camilla, Abigail was approaching the end of her third year at Cambridge:

How did you feel when your child decided a university education was something they wanted to pursue?  

I don’t recall there ever being a time when they all didn’t think they would go to university; it was the expectation at school and at home.

When it came to the application process, how did you help?

We talked a lot about options, and investigated courses and universities together. We went to all the school meetings, and Abigail’s father went with her to see Cambridge; she did other visits alone which I thought would be best for her so she could see things for herself without being influenced.

We helped with UCAS – we found it a tedious, stressful and difficult process and I don’t know how kids could do it without a lot of help from parents and teachers.

How did you support your child on A-Level results day?

I found that all of my children preferred to get their results alone and let me know how they’d done in their own time. Abigail’s results day was fine as she got better grades than she needed – but actually she wanted to celebrate mostly with friends, so we did all our congratulations then waited a few days to do a proper family celebration.

Did your child take a gap year? If so, were you happy for them to?

Yes, we were very happy; we probably encouraged it. We felt it was important to work before going to university, to gain some real understanding of 'earning a living' and money. We encouraged all our children to travel before uni.

How did you help your child prepare to go to uni?

There was the basic stuff, like helping with student finance and buying duvet covers and things. Other than that it was more a case of just being rock-steady at home with everything kept smooth, stress-free and quiet while Abigail was getting increasingly nervous and excited. When big changes happen to them, I think kids just need home to be predictable, normal and safe.

Was there anything you did to prepare yourself emotionally for your child leaving? 

She’d already travelled abroad alone for five months, so that was emotionally harder. By comparison, uni was easy as she was going to a safe place only a few hours’ drive away. I was more excited for her than anxious as I knew she was about to start a really exciting stage in her life. Her father found it harder, but he’d never been to university, so it was difficult for him to understand how exciting it would be for someone else.

What did you do on the day they left for university? How was it saying goodbye?

It was very hard leaving her at her College as she knew no one, but we knew she was never going to meet anyone while we were there. So, we left her in tears. But by the evening she’d texted to say she’d had a great afternoon and met lots of fun people.

How are things now Abigail has been at university for a while? 

Well things have been mixed: on the whole Abigail’s had an incredible time and she’s now approaching her finals. However, Abigail went to a comprehensive school, which made her something of a novelty; she got a fair amount of abuse for it at first and many people were simply rude. I think that aspect of life has settled down, but she has found the uni is very high pressure – not so much from the academics, but self-imposed. There is a fair number of eating disorders, breakdowns and other problems with mental health and Abigail has had her share of depression. So, we’ve had to give her more support in her third year. I’ve spent a lot of time with her, at uni, while she got well again.

We’ve had to help a lot financially; the loan doesn’t even cover her college fees. Abigail’s worked in the holidays as well, but it’s still not been enough money. At Cambridge you are discouraged from taking on part-time work during term time because there is simply too much academic work to do.

I’ve adjusted fine: but Abigail’s my eldest. Perhaps it’s harder when the last child goes to uni. We stay in touch regularly but I usually leave it for Abigail to contact me, unless I haven’t heard from her in a while.

What about the holidays, does it take some readjustment when they come back?

I could do without the mess and the extra work!

What’s your best advice for parents with children who are going to university in the near future?

I’ve been surprised by how many of my friends have said their children have not enjoyed university, or the numbers who have left, or have suffered depression. I would say neither of mine who are at university now have had as good a time as I had (or that my contemporaries had). We’ve spent much time talking about this, and trying to work out why.

Certainly, we were less worried about money, the future or even our degrees and very few people dropped out. We had less money, unemployment was higher then than it is now and few of us had any hopes other than to leave with a 2:2 or with a bit of luck a 2:1. Post-graduation we drifted into temp work, hospitality work (well, waiting at table or serving behind a bar) and other low-grade jobs but to be honest we didn’t fool ourselves that we deserved anything more than that and we were grateful to get any work we could. We knew we’d have to start at the bottom of the heap and work our way up, with or without a degree. Nobody had tricked us into thinking a degree was a golden key. We saw it for what it was – a great chance to learn, hang out with lots of incredible new people, get away from home for a few years and delay the inevitable world of work.

So, what would I say to parents with children going to university soon? I would say, don’t go on about university days being the best days of your life, or tell them what an amazing opportunity it is, and how they’ll have so much fun etc, etc. I think I, and many of my friends, and teachers, have been guilty of that, and it’s given our youngsters the wrong idea because they are going into higher education in a different world to the one we experienced. I think this generation have been told throughout their schooling that they have to achieve, hit the next target, be better, aim high. As young adults at uni, that pressure is still there but they are not mature enough to have the resilience to cope without their parents by their side (especially when they have the additional difficulties caused by social media when they are always comparing their own 'fun' to everyone else’s 'fun').

It is better to balance young people’s expectations by making sure they are equipped to deal with the difficult things, like making new friends, handling social pressure, coping with debt, and how to spot the signs of depression or other issues with stress. They can find out the fun stuff for themselves! But none of that is a last minute conversation before they head off; I guess it’s a process that is done gently, for as long as the whole UCAS process goes on.

On a different note, I would say that when a child is thinking of going to university it is really, really important that they study a subject they love. They are inclined to forget that they are at uni primarily to study: sitting through endless lectures that bore you to death is enough to make anyone reconsider their degree. A genuine desire to find out more about their subject makes the whole experience much more fulfilling. I would put that above the option to study something that ‘leads to a career’ because enthusiasm and deep understanding just make life more enjoyable.