My Experience as a Poor Student at a Top University

“Her bag isn’t even real leather” I’d hear as I walked past. “I bet she can’t even afford a fake Louis Vuitton”

These were just some of the daily jibes I had to endure while studying at the University of St Andrews.

I was so excited to get a place at such a prestigious university – I remember jumping for joy when I opened my acceptance letter. St Andrews was one of the top universities in the UK, and even Prince William studied there. My family were so proud I was going to be mingling with royalty!

Once we settled into classes I became very close with one of my housemates. We walked to class together, then went out to student nights at the weekends. I hadn’t really made many other friends yet, just a handful of acquaintances. I didn’t really care, as long as I had Emily.* However Emily decided to change courses and she moved away to a different college after only a few months.

The first incident occurred during the first few weeks of class. I was sitting next to a girl who asked which accommodation I was staying in. When I answered “Fife Park” she turned away and started talking to someone else. Fife Park was the cheapest accommodation where mostly foreign students lived, but also working class students who couldn’t afford the rent elsewhere.

Another time I was talking to someone at a bar when he asked what my Dad’s job was. I thought it was a bit of an odd question, but I replied that he worked in the local council.

“What do you mean like a politician?” He asked.

“No, he just works in the depot and drives a forklift truck,” I said. He immediately turned and walked away. I realised I was being judged on what sort of job my Dad has, and what sort of accommodation I could afford.

I knew I had to try to make more friends, so I joined the student magazine. We had the first two meetings where everything seemed great. I was getting involved in the discussions and sharing loads of great ideas. Everyone else seemed enthusiastic too. Then one day I got a call from the editor. She said that due to funding the magazine was shutting down. I was gutted.

I was even more upset when I saw the magazine had been printed a few weeks later. I flicked through it and saw that one of my ideas had been written by someone else. The magazine hadn’t shut down at all, they just didn’t want me to be a part of it.

I went through all the emotions – anger, upset, rage – I couldn’t believe that they had lied to me. Why couldn’t they have just told me to my face that I was no longer required, instead of going behind my back? I was completely devastated.

I’d never felt more alone. The magazine incident had shattered my confidence. After that, I didn’t really go out much, apart from classes. I think the other students must have picked up on the fact that I was a loner, and I was picked on even more as a result.

Most of the bullying revolved around money. I couldn’t afford the designer clothes that everyone else dressed in. My outfits were usually made up of thrift-store and vintage, with a couple of bargain items thrown in – a hipster before my time! I didn’t have anyone to talk to, and I just felt as though I didn’t belong there.

After two years at St Andrews, I decided to drop out. I could go for weeks at a time without speaking to anyone else, and not having any interaction at all apart from rude remarks from other students. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I’d urge prospective students to think hard about the type of college that you choose, especially those from poorer or ethnic backgrounds. While the top universities and colleges may look fantastic on your resume, what price do you pay? I wanted desperately to be able to say I studied at the same place as Prince William, yet my grades and my mental health suffered as a result. The top colleges would like to think they welcome people from all backgrounds, but the reality I found was nothing like that at all. The whole experience was nothing like I’d hoped. I went in full of confidence, and I left an empty shell.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t apply to places like Harvard, Cambridge or St Andrews. On the contrary I think these types of college should be more accessible to people from less affluent backgrounds. If you do apply, though, you’ll have to have an incredibly thick skin. The top colleges are so competitive, you’ll have to be able to handle yourself. I couldn’t.

Just as an endnote I want to add that I did go back to study at a different college, which was a totally different experience. I eventually completed my MA in History – it just took a bit longer than expected!

Revisiting St Andrews twelve years later

*Emily isn’t her real name.

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