Being working class at uni is a massive culture shock and we need to talk about it

Sticking out because of your upbringing is jarring

I am a 20-year-old undergraduate student from a working class background and started at the University of York in September 2020. It’s fair to say that the culture shock I received when I started uni has shaped a lot of my experiences further down the line and is definitely something that people need to talk about more.

I think the biggest thing for me was the fact that I had never before been exposed to the class divide and the differences between the social norms for working class people in comparison to those who are middle or upper class. I grew up in an area and attended schools where everyone was predominantly working class and wealth was never a topic of discussion. This meant that all of my friends had similar upbringings to me, and I never felt like the childhood I had was particularly out of the ordinary or vastly different to anyone else.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love uni and the majority of people I meet would never dream of deliberately isolating someone due to their class. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that the initial shock of going from blending in perfectly with everyone around you to sticking out a bit because of your upbringing is pretty jarring.

I think the exposure to the middle class lifestyle came to me slowly but surely as I began to learn more about people’s families and lives before coming to uni. Inevitably one of the first conversations you have with anyone you meet in your first year of uni revolves around what A-Levels you took and what other universities you were thinking of going to. This was pretty similar across the board but a few comments of people discussing where their parents went to uni did shock me a little as no one in my family had ever been before and I genuinely didn’t realise that lots of people’s families had attended higher education. I was the first in my family to ever go through the UCAS process and my parents were very supportive and helped me where they could but they had no experience with university and did not know how it worked.

I remember being emailed by the uni’s First Generation Network which was an organisation that supported the students who were the first in their family to attend university. Even the existence of this network made me realise how it was a bit of a rarity to be a first generation uni student and this was definitely reflected in the attitudes and knowledge that people around me had towards things such as societies, grading systems and general university life, which I didn’t really have any idea about. I often felt that everyone around me seemed to have an inherent understanding of uni life that I hadn’t been exposed to before. I had no idea that societies cost so much money to join and that a lot of them are just simply inaccessible if you were not given certain opportunities as a child. Clubs such as rowing and equestrian hold very expensive yearly membership fees and even things like music are difficult to access if you didn’t take lessons when growing up.

The financial side of university is something that I had very little knowledge of but was luckily taught a bit about at sixth form through tutorials that helped with budgeting and managing our money. Talking about money with anyone is never going to be that enjoyable but when it does come up with people at uni I find it kind of shocking that there are so many people out there who are critical of people who get the maximum maintenance loan and one girl I once met even used the phrase “they have it so easy”. This complete lack of self-awareness around your own privilege does come up a lot and people often take their family’s wealth and ability to fully support them for granted; the student loan system is there to make uni accessible for everyone, not fund your expensive habits with money you don’t need.

This tweet about believing that boarding schools were kind of fictional really resonated with me because not going to lie I though there were about 20 in the UK and I didn’t realise that people actually went to them. It turns out that there are approximately 500 boarding schools in the UK. It took me a while to realise that people knew of a lot of these schools and expected you to recognise the name of it when they told you. This is definitely something you can laugh about but it is kind of hilariously annoying that people make these assumptions.

It’s the exact same with holidays. I had loads of great holidays when I was younger but my experience of an all-inclusive week in Spain just wasn’t really relatable to people who actually went skiing or touring around South America for a month with their families.

My feelings surrounding this issue are not meant to make anyone feel attacked or guilty for their privilege. I just think that it is vital for everyone to acknowledge that culture shock because of the class divide can be daunting for people who have never been exposed to it before. Please just think twice before commenting on someone’s finances or groaning when they tell you where they are from because uni is open to everyone for a reason.

Related articles recommended by this writer:

• ‘You’re actually pretty intelligent’: Students share their experiences of classism at uni 

• As an English lit student, I’m sick of my degree being labelled ‘low value’

• ‘I’m making fun of you because you’re poor’: Northern students on classism at Durham