Boasting an interdisciplinary approach, field trips and placements, Sheffield was easily the best university for my Masters. I was delighted to be accepted and pursue my ambitions. The decision to attend, however, catapulted me from my comfortable London life into an unfamiliar city, institution and environment. The challenges this presented were compounded by exceptional course demands on my rusty brain that had been out of academia for four years.
On arrival to Sheffield, I felt lost and overwhelmed. As time passed, I failed to find my feet and confidence. How do I study? How do I prioritise? How do I befriend people when we have such little contact? Why does it take four hours to read each journal article? I asked myself. Though I did make friends, I didn’t settle back into student life well. Postgraduate study is solitary and self-structured and I yearned for the routine of a job, constant interaction and home. Having thrived as an undergrad, I now found myself insecure about work and tormented by my essays. Soon enough I couldn’t eat, sleep or write properly. I felt defeated and devastated.
By Christmas I was exhausted and ready to drop out. Nevertheless, despite wanting my health and happiness, my loved ones knew I had invested too much to walk away without regret. They somehow gave me the courage to persevere. I made the wise decision of alerting the university to my state of mind, which saw me diagnosed with anxiety and equipped with strategies to manage the triggers and symptoms. Still, the rollercoaster year took its toll and by May, I had arranged to complete the degree over another twelve months, easing the pressure and making learning fun again. Owning my struggle was crucial to seeking the help I needed to improve my wellbeing and stay on track.
On reflection, negotiating the jump from undergraduate study was one of the most difficult challenges. The increase in workload was accompanied by a dramatic shift in the way I needed to think and perform. I went from memorising and regurgitating to grappling with multiple perspectives, complex ideas and contested concepts. Problematically, I wanted my lecturers to tell me, from the outset, how to engage critically and became frustrated and annoyed when they didn’t. Over the year, I came to see that others can’t tell you how to achieve a sophisticated level of understanding. They can only challenge you to ask the right questions, which the academics were doing all along. I got there, eventually, but had I been more patient and mindful of the fact that learning is a gradual process, I may have experienced less angst.
Mental health problems are rife in education – a shocking 115,000 students in the UK declared one in 2015. Worryingly, over half of students who report such issues do not seek support. I know that without help, I would not have stayed the course. There is no shame in mental illness and our university is strong on welfare, offering excellent professional services. In pushing through my lowest points, I’ve enjoyed field trips to Kenya and Switzerland, am about to undertake exciting research with a well-established NGO and expect to achieve a distinction overall. I’ve met amazing, like-minded people and am well positioned for a career working to achieve social justice. Persistence, determination and self-belief pay dividends.
Mitali Sen, MSc Environmental Change and International Development