If you’ve been keeping up with my instagram @livinglifefree__ then you will know that I finally got to wear a graduation gown! I still haven’t had a ceremony (thanks covid…) but putting on that gown and standing infront of Newcastle University’s iconic arches made it feel a bit more offical: I’m a graduate!!!
Graduating in general is huge! But as a spoonie?
Graduating whilst having a chronic illness is a legendary achievement and I will damn well toot my own horn for managing to do it.
Hours lost from lectures, study time, practice (I did a music degree), and my social life often made me wonder if it was all worth it. My Chronic Fatigue Sydrome started around the start of my second year and had a huge impact on my studies all throughout my that year, my year abroad, and my final year.
I remember crying constantly because all my friends were going out and I couldn’t keep up and worrying that they would forget about me (which also did wonders for my social anxiety…). But then when I did have the energy to go out, I had to justify whether that energy should be spent on socialising, or on catching up on the hours of uni work I’ve missed.
Overall, I think you can guess that my uni experience was probably quite different to most peoples. But, even with all of this, I managed to graduate with an amazing grade: a high 2:1! (1 mark off a first too!) It makes me think, imagine what I could have achieved if I was healthy?
This is without even mentioning the pandemic!
So… How did I do it?
Want to know how I made it through uni as a spoonie? I’m going to share my tips and tricks with you and hopefully I can make your life a little easier!
Just a quick note: everything here is based on my own university experience. I know that everyone’s uni and course will be different!
Get to know your lecturers
I was super lucky in that some of the lecturers around the music department (shout out to Paul Fleet, Ian Biddle and Jane Nolan!) who were really supportive.
Whenever I had an issue, I knew I could go and talk to them. Whether I needed an extension on my assignments, or just to vent about life, I was very lucky to have lecturers who cared.
I know that most courses are a lot larger than mine, so here is how I got to know my lecturers:
I had an assigned personal tutor. When I joined the uni, I was assigned Dr. Paul Fleet as my port of call for any issues that I had. We had regularly scheduled check-ins to make sure everything was going ok, not just academically, but also how my general well being was. We bonded over our mutual love of Star Wars and sarcasm so when the time came when I started to get ill, I felt comfortable going to him to ask for his advice.
I also got to know other lecturers by going to speak to them after the lecture is over. No matter if you have 50 or 500 people in lecture, you can always go up to your lecturer to ask a question or make a comment when your lectures are over. Even if you just go up to say thank you, showing your face will get you on their radar.
You can also make an appointment to go and see your lecturers 1-on-1. Dr. Ian Biddle and Dr. Jane Nolan were both people I would arrange to see 1-on-1 quite frequently. Ian was one of my lecturers and was also one of the people who supported me the most in terms of going through the university wellbeing and extension system during my final year. Jane was my major project supervisor and was a key player in me actually getting work complete and submitted. Jane, along with Paul, Ian and the rest of the music department staff all knew of my condition.
By being on constant communication with my department staff, I developed relationships with lecturers who helped me academically and with my overall wellbeing.
Get Consideration from the University
During my third year, I had something called an SSP. Essentially, this was something that put a note on my file saying ‘hello extensions people, this gal has Chronic Fatigue and so if she asks for an extension, chances are she needs it so give it to her ok?’ (or words to that affect 🤣).
I had to jump through a few hoops to get it done, (thanks again Ian!) including getting offical medial evidence. Which leads me onto my next point…
Get Medical Evidence of your Condition
This might be easier said than done for alot of spoonies as getting an official diagnosis of our conditions in the first place is a nightmare.
Whether you’re applying for an SSP or SSP-equivalent, or for an extension/consideration, having medical evidence will always make things alot easier. Infact, sometimes it will be required. Whether this is right or wrong (as some people may not have an official diagnosis or may have a negative mental experience that does not require a long-term label), it is often requested by universities to back up your claims.
You can get evidence by contacting your GP or Specialist and asking them to write you an official letter stating your medical condition(s).
Live close to your University Campus
Imagine this: you’ve made it to bed at a good time and are excited because you think you might actually be able to make the 9am you’ve missed for the past 3 weeks. You get up feeling pretty good the next morning but then you think: It’s a 45 minute walk to university! By the time you get there, you’re not going to have the energy to get through the lecture, let alone the rest of the day!
Thats why I would recommened living no further than a 20 minute walk from your campus/main building. Yes, even 20 minutes can be HUGE for people, I know when I was having a bad day I couldn’t hack the walk home at times. (Uber became my best friend! My bank account did not…)
Be honest with your friends
The social side of university plays a huge part in someone’s experience. My social experience was definitely affected by my chronic fatigue. There were so many missed nights out, cancelled coffee dates and parties that I never got to go to because I was feeling awful alone in bed.
Luckily, I had some fantastic friends that were really understanding when I explained my condition to them. I’ve never been made to feel less than by any of them because of it and they did keep making an effort to involve me.
I know that I was very lucky in that scenario- not everyone is as supportive and open about people’s illnesses but on my end, it was important for me to be honest with them. Alot of times, people do care but don’t know what to do or how to handle these situations.
By talking to our friends, we can tell our them how to handle our dips/flares, what to do to best support us ect.
Be nice to yourself!
Possibly the hardest tip of all: BE KIND TO YOURSELF!
Comparing yourself to the other students around you who are at full health can be really hurtful because we think we should be at the same level as them. But its OK to give yourself a break!
If you need an extension, ask for it. If you need to miss a party- do it! You are just as capable as anyone else, but sometimes us spoonies just need a little extra time.
There was no greater feeling than receiving the news that I had graduated after such a rough time. With everything my CFS put me through, as well as all the stuff that Covid messed with, there really were moments when I didn’t think I would finish the year.
But, one year after I received my certificate, I got to wear the gown, the hood, and the cap (I brought my own- Newcastle doesn’t have them). I stook infront of the iconic uni arches, where everyone gets their pictures taken and felt powerful!
I had made it. I graduated with a fantastic grade and had a great experience! Uni for a spoonie is definitely possible 😀
I hope this can help you get through uni as a spoonie!