As a working-class student, nothing is more daunting than Durham University’s relentlessly ‘posh’ reputation. However, arriving during a pandemic seemingly muted this issue for me at first. I was happily nested in a hill college with a relatively high state school population, blissfully unaware that the inequities I had heard of truly did exist outside of my insular accommodation block. It wasn’t until we were permitted to attend one of the very few in-person classes we had last year that the Durham stereotype finally came to fruition.
It was as though the students in front of me had been given a secret playbook I never had access to. They were using words I had never heard of, employing a vast knowledge of texts I had never thought to read, and, more importantly, were somehow entirely aware of how to write academically at a university standard. I was bewildered. I, admittedly, had not attended the most well-funded of state schools, but I had believed myself to be intelligent before I stepped foot in that room. Within a mere hour, that illusion was destroyed for me.
I realised just how far behind I was, through no fault of my own, but as a mere result of my education, region, and income. This was only solidified by the comment I have held closest to my heart since coming here: the comment that someone knew I had to be from Manchester because the way I had said ‘love’ was ‘chavvy’. At home, my accent is an outlier. I somehow do not possess the same heavy accent my peers, family, and colleagues have. Instead, I was cast in every school production as a narrator, simply due to my ‘neutral’ voice. This ‘neutrality’, however, alienates me from my heritage and prevents me from truly fitting in at home. Yet here I am alienated from my fellow students through that very same accent they deem ‘chavvy’.
It is as though there is nowhere to truly belong – accent bias is provenly very real, and something I have witnessed others struggle against, too. Take my first year flatmate for instance – one of the most intelligent people I have met, capable of doing maths beyond my dizziest daydreams, and simultaneously able to craft a wonderful essay. He was consistently underestimated by others all because of his North-western accent, mocked even for being a ‘chav’, too.
By the end of first term, I was certain that I didn’t belong here. How could I when my peers were made up of students from some of the most prestigious private schools, known for their cultivation of intellect? How could I when comments were made consistently about the A-Level mishap being the only reason for state school students to have made it to this institution?
All of a sudden, I became embarrassed of my home, my social class, and my education. Responding “Blank Community College” to the question of where I was educated, after hearing others cite Harrow or Eton had felt impossibly upsetting. I remember returning home at Christmas only to cry over where I had returned to. I refused to FaceTime university friends, terrified of being outed as the anomaly – the person that didn’t belong in a Russell Group University.
Looking back now, I am disappointed in myself. I love my hometown; it contains the people I love most in the world: my family – the people who have gone to the ends of the earth to ensure that I have every opportunity to succeed in this world. It breaks my heart that I was ever embarrassed of my social class, when, in reality, I would not change it for the world. My school may have been underfunded, but it had teachers who sparked my love of academia, and more importantly, cared for me during some of the toughest times of my life. For them, I am forever thankful.
Unfortunately, there is no secret recipe to fix the imposter syndrome that comes with entering a university populated by highly educated, wealthy students. The only thing you can do is learn to accept, embrace, and use the state school, working-class experience: it has got you this far. Learning to be proud of who you are when it is consistently looked down upon is difficult, but I can promise you that once you master that, you will feel free to be wholly you, which is more empowering than people often imagine. So, embrace your accent and your background, they are both impressively you.
Illustration: Verity Laycock