It’s all Greek to Me: Life at Uni for a Tick-Box

Image credit: The Scream 1895/Edvard Munch

By Molly McDowell

Arriving at university was for me, as for everyone else, a very overwhelming experience. New city, new flatmates, new responsibilities, new friends, new experiences (so many Big Cheese nights), the list goes on.

No one really quite knows what they sign up for in terms of their degree until the first week but I had the added pressure of having picked a subject I knew only from reading fiction books as a young teen (take three guesses as to which American demi-god had inspired me…). Now, this was slightly more stressful than what I imagine the average uni experience for many other people looked like, who already knew the basics about the subject they chose.

However, I didn’t really notice how much I didn’t know in comparison to my peers until quite far into first semester. I took Latin 1A with a bunch of other beginners (I met my best friends and flatmates in this course) so we all knew nothing pretty much; all in the same boat. My other 2 modules were both ‘world’ courses, Greek and Roman World 1A. This is where I suddenly noticed a difference.

Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t go to private school. I should preface this with that this is not a criticism of people who do come from this background, it is just not my personal experience. I had not read the Iliad and the Odyssey (still haven’t finished the second, I’ll be honest). I didn’t have basic foundational knowledge of anything Classics related really- if it hadn’t been in Horrible Histories or Percy Jackson I was stumped.

At no point in the uni application process had it occurred to me what my teachers had warned me about would be correct- that I would be competing with people who had been learning this since they were 11. The only time this was brought up to me was almost a joke: a teacher was trying to tempt me into Oxbridge application and when I said I wanted to apply for Classics replied, ‘well you’ll be a great tick-box for them!’. This was meant in the greatest sincerity I’m sure but it didn’t affect my desire to do the subject or my lack of motivation to go through the Oxford application process (sorry Miss Bryden!), in fact I did not think about this at all until approximately two years later.

This makes it sound much more dramatic than it was, like I suddenly had an epiphany and everything stopped around me as though I was in the movies. Obviously this didn’t happen and it wasn’t that big a deal, which is precisely the point. Whilst I was aware sometimes of my knowledge deficit (not always helped by some lecturers’ implicit assumptions that if they referenced Homer, for example, we would all understand), very rarely was I actively at a genuine disadvantage in first year. You do manage to catch up pretty quickly even if, like me, you did very little of the supposedly compulsory lecture reading (not recommended!).

Don’t panic! Whilst people with private school backgrounds may seem to have this amazingly in-depth knowledge of all these stories/concepts/events you’ve never heard of, it actually matters very little in the long run. You will all be equals by the time you get to honours when you start to specialise. Although, keeping up with the language courses are another matter altogether…

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