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Charlotte’s University of Essex

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Charlotte did a BA in English Literature and United States Literature in the Department for Literature, Film and Theatre Studies. She graduated in 2014 with a first class honours degree and currently works as an English teacher in a secondary school in Essex, England.

My first impressions of Essex Uni

Essex has an amazing campus – modern, vibrant and unique. The extensive grounds and the lake are perfect for outdoor study and relaxing.

My first impression was that Essex was friendly and open. I asked Essex if I could come and have a look around and they said yes, the campus is open so you can just come whenever you want. When I was first thinking of enrolling, I visited the Department for Literature, Film and Theatre Studies where I talked to some tutors and realised there was just something about it that was right. I loved the campus; there’s a huge lake out by the library that is iced over in the winter with ducks skating over it, and in the summer there are people all over the campus reading books and relaxing with friends: yes, I thought, this is the best option for me.

I also liked the campus for its unique style; Essex University was designed and built in the early 60s in the so-called ‘brutalist’ style: very modern, square and concrete. They’ve got five squares that connect through, but all of the buildings are on multiple layers, so you can be in square one but still level with one further down; I liked it because it was almost like Hogwarts, you kind of have to know the tricks and navigate it. The staircases don’t move, but apart from that you feel like you’re lost a little bit sometimes, and I liked that labyrinthine feel. So, I decided to go there, and I went and registered. Before I became a student at Essex I had already experienced some of its charms and been rescued from their famous Paternoster lift.

I liked the campus for its unique style… it was almost like Hogwarts… I liked that labyrinthine feel.

There’s a huge lake out by the library that is iced over in the winter with ducks skating over it, and in the summer there are people all over the campus reading books and relaxing with friends: yes, I thought, this is the best option for me.

I asked Essex if I could come and have a look around and they said yes, the campus is open so you can just come whenever you want.

My first introduction to Essex Uni

Before I enrolled at Essex, I had a friend who was doing her law degree there and I used to go to her law lectures and help her take notes, so I had already had an introduction. Once, we got stuck in the Paternoster lift, which is famous at Essex. The Paternoster is in the Albert Sloman Library and we would stay until as long as the library was open for her to be writing essays the night before they were due, and then climb into the lift as they were ringing the bell to say that they were locking up and, of course, we got stuck one night!

We were stuck in the lift with this pile of books (we’d decided we were just going to move downstairs where there’s a study room that’s open all night); they had turned the lift off as we were descending and we weren’t level with the floor, but eventually the security guard came around and said, “What are you doing in there?” and pressed the button and rescued us. So, that was my first experience of Essex: being there with my friend and enjoying it – especially the library with its five floors of books and constant access through the reading room.

My first winter at uni

I started going to lectures and I was living nearby in the village of Frinton and getting the train in. We had really bad snow one time, but I decided to struggle in and found the lecturer waiting on her own when I arrived. I asked: “College is open today, isn’t it?” and she said, “Oh yes, we’re supposed to be here”, and as I was the only student that had turned up we went and sat and had coffee and had a sort of informal lecture that day. That was one of the things I liked about it: you could have conversations with the lecturers and they treated you like equals, even though most of them have doctorates and are completing research, and writing the books that are on your syllabus.

You could have conversations with the lecturers and they treated you like equals, even though most of them have doctorates.

International links and upholding values

Essex Uni has a consistent record of fighting for liberal values with demonstrations and protests to celebrate the Human Rights Act and the struggles to enact it around the world. Every year they paint the steps between the squares, writing the constitution on all the steps. That for me is iconic Essex Uni. They do it in different languages as well, so on one side they might have it in English, and then they’ll have it in Arabic, because Essex Uni has got a huge international student community, which really boosts your ability to interact with people from different countries. I did group projects when I was at uni with people from Israel, or people from Korea, and all over the world. Yes, they really celebrate that, and they celebrate their commitment to progress and to equality, and those sorts of values.

One of the best things about my degree was being inspired by some of the best lecturers I’ve ever come across.

Essex Uni has got a huge international student community, which really boosts your ability to interact with people from different countries.

Meet some of my inspirational teachers

I had lots of great lecturers and my third year United States lecturer, Owen Robinson, he was just cool! He specialised in southern literature. He was writing a book about Faulkner. He’d studied at Essex, he’d done his doctorate, he’d kept coming back; he loved the place for its ethos. It’s got quite a history of protests and standing up for things, and he was brilliant because he was so passionate. We read ‘The Naked and the Dead’ by Norman Mailer, which is the 700-page tome about the American war experience, and for some reason we’d had to cancel the seminar the week before so we did a four hour seminar on a book that I’d spent the entire previous day reading. We did a four-hour seminar, and it wasn’t boring: he asked us questions, and provoked thought. He was one of those people. He stood at the front of the room and could talk to you, or talk at you even, for an hour, and you were captivated.

Owen taught me in the third year and gave us a lot of freedom. So, after the four hour seminar on ‘The Naked and the Dead’ by Norman Mailer, I decided that I was definitely going to use that for my essay. We had a lot of creativity with it, and that essay was far and above the best essay I had ever written. His comments and understanding of it gave me the inspiration; I had been averaging a 2:1, and that was the first essay I got back that year with a first and I decided that actually, to do my best was to try and achieve the best, so I was then on course, and determined to get a first for my degree. He was an inspiration.

I was then on course and determined to get a first for my degree.

John Kant was the film lecturer, and he was amazing. His passion was incredible and something that he told me about how he marks is something that has influenced how I try to mark now as a teacher; he gave me a first on one of the essays that I’d written for him, and he said, “Now, I’ve marked this, but I don’t want you to think that it isn’t good because I’ve written all over it, but actually I’m in conversation with you and it’s just to develop your thinking.” He marked with questions, and it’s actually really inspirational because it makes you really reflect on what you’ve done. He was really good.

I studied Shakespeare with Professor John Gillies who was incredible: very knowledgeable. It was a smaller seminar; I think everybody in the Shakespeare seminars was going on to be a teacher, so they felt like they needed to do Shakespeare studies. I did  modules with him on tragedies and comedies, so I had breadth in my studies, knowing that I’d be teaching them as I went into secondary schools.

It’s actually really inspirational because it makes you really reflect on what you’ve done.

My life on and off campus

I was a bit older when I joined Essex Uni. I had my own home and lived with my boyfriend, so I was quite settled compared to the students who were arriving in Freshers’ Week and hitting the clubs on the campus, or in Colchester, but I still had a lot of good times. They’ve got a theatre called The Lakeside Theatre which puts on some amazing student-led performances. They stream the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company performances. Even as an alumna I still go back to the performances that they put on there.

They had a brilliant modern version of Romeo and Juliet in 2014, in the summer of the year I left, and so I still go back there and enjoy it. They’ve got a great café, all glass and modern, and the public can go too. In fact, there are a couple of bars and a club on campus, and there are restaurants. If I had a morning lecture, I’d get in early so that I could go into one of the restaurants, grab a coffee and a cake and sit out people-watching. They run buses so you can make it into Colchester, and they’ve got a lot of student safety support as well to make sure that if you are commuting into the town, all is good. Because it’s just outside Colchester, in the country, it’s lovely. When I was living in Frinton I was going back through Wivenhoe to get there, and there are some gorgeous pubs out on the water. You’ve also got the Wivenhoe Trail that you can walk, going through the woods, and that follows the train track at some points, so it’s very picturesque.

It’s just outside Colchester, in the country, it’s lovely.

Alumni

As an alumna, I have retained strong connections with Essex. The uni continues to support me in my career and include me in events and I still go there to socialise and study.

Obviously there are alumni events: we get email updates about events that are going on. They invite you to different things such as performances in London, so, there’s still a real community about it, and I feel like I’m still involved and still part of Essex Uni, even though I left four years ago now. I also go back to do continued professional development as a teacher; because I’m an alumna, they email me things so I’m aware and I can keep developing my career through Essex even now. There’s a really nice bar up at the university and I’ve still got friends who are academics there. So, even now, I will go there to meet people or, if I want to research something or I was looking at applying to do a master’s, I’ve got access to the library. I can still go in and look things up for teaching.

There’s still a real community about it, and I feel like I’m still involved and still part of Essex Uni.

If you enjoyed reading Charlotte’s Essex Uni story and want to see where it led her, read her full profile here.


Interviewed by Dominic Jaume

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