‘I thought my university course would open doors for me, but all it gave me was mountains of debt’

·4-min read
Valentina Valentini
Valentina Valentini

It was my first time back at university in over a decade but the changing leaves and crisp September air made it feel as though I’d never left. I was 34 when I enrolled in a two-year, full-time master’s programme for creative writing at a London university. I excitedly anticipated the prospect of advancing my skills as a writer and meeting new people who would, hopefully, broaden my horizons.

It was 2017 and, though I had a successful career as an entertainment and travel journalist in Los Angeles, I wanted to write the memoir I’d been mentally sitting on for about a decade. And this programme sounded perfect. I would have two years to complete my manuscript and be given connections within the literary industry along the way. I gladly took the US Department of Education loans upwards of £20,000 (closer to £30,000 by the time I pay them off) because I felt confident the education I was about to receive would help to advance my career and bring higher wages – something higher education has promised its cohorts for decades.

Our entire first term was spent on two lecture series that were so elementary, I thought I might have mistakenly signed up for the wrong course. Writing 101, essentially; far below what I’d expected at the master’s level. But I stuck with it, thinking surely it would get better, that we would go deeper.

But the classes were impersonal and rote, lecturers seemed to be phoning it in and, by the beginning of second term, half of the dozen students in our module were either dozing or had dropped out. I felt just as demoralised, but kept convincing myself that the good part was just around the corner. Besides, if I’d dropped out, I would have had to leave the United Kingdom within three months as my student visa depended on full-time enrolment.

I had always been a dedicated student, reaching for high marks and wanting to make my teachers proud of me. By the end of my second MA term, I felt inadequate and intimidated. The creative writing MA felt more like where creativity went to die. My life and education seemed to be less important than procedure. The lecturers were so hands-off when it came to our development, opting for a slideshow of national libraries as an entire class and outdated printouts that they read out verbatim. They led workshops where “I liked it” was an acceptable comment from a fellow student, never encouraging us into deeper conversation. During those same workshops, when we read our personal writings out loud, lecturers seemed unenthusiastic and would often dismiss vulnerable moments in mine and my classmates’ writings, apparently unable to connect with the stories we were telling.

But, when it came to making sure the programme looked good with deadlines and administrative benchmarks, they were micromanagers. Once, I turned in a paper to our online portal nine minutes late. Marks were docked for this and it took me a year to be allowed to appeal, only to be told when I did that rules are rules.

Towards the middle of the second term, university strikes occurred across the country – including at mine. While other students in modules at my very own school were being supplemented with video lectures, additional learning materials and online classes, I didn’t hear anything from my lecturers. Our course directors didn’t offer to send us additional learning materials for our cancelled classes – classes that would never be made up, despite us asking for as much. Other lecturers took their classes to the picket lines or coffee shops or caught up online; they showed up for their students. To make matters worse, the international students still paid for classes that didn’t exist while also being threatened by the university that if we didn’t physically go to the school to sign a paper to prove we were still enrolled, our student visa status would be revoked. It was beyond comprehension.

After turning in my final manuscript, I waited nearly a month to receive my feedback. Unsurprisingly by this point, the comments didn’t really affect me. Some were even encouraging, but my trust in the people reading my writing and my trust in myself as a creative writer had been badly bruised. It felt like a waste of time, energy and money. I thought my university course would open doors for me, but all I was left with was mountains of debt, no new skills and a draft of a manuscript that should never see the light of day.

Though to this day I still have a hard time sitting down to write something creative, my journalism career was, thankfully, not harmed by my two-year hiatus. It was a bit slow getting back into it, and I continue to write mostly for US publications, but I do wonder when I'll be ready to open that manuscript again and begin the difficult process of a second draft.

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