articleThis content is more than 5 years old.

University Challenge

Rob Sullivan | 01.10.2012

Going to university for the first time can be a daunting prospect, what with moving away from home and meeting a whole new set of friends. Rob Sullivan tells us how he coped and gives advice for new freshers.

In September 2011, I intrepidly ventured into the rabbit hole of university life at the London School of Economics (LSE), 'life' being a convenient euphemism for sleeping till noon and completing essays hours before they are due. I exaggerate of course, but my roommates have sufficient anecdotal evidence to support this (the derogatory stereotype of a sloth student will sadly persist). I digress. My name is Rob Sullivan and I've been stammering throughout my educational life at various schools and now at university. With this article I hope to placate the apprehensions which plague new or prospective stammering students about university (with all that cumbersome laundry and lack of knowledge about detergents, who wouldn't be apprehensive?), and just maybe pinpoint my own experience as proof of how the psychological parameters can be shifted.

Rob Sullivan

When first arriving at LSE from Lancaster, I'll confess that I was downright daunted. The potent combination of a stammering past and the thought of confronting some of the country's most intellectual young whippersnappers and professors gave me the jitters. The first week ('Fresher's Week') of settling in at the halls of residence and socialising with an array of fearsomely smart characters was beyond tough. If Tom Cruise ever gets contracted for another Mission Impossible flick he can feel free to portray a stammering student rather than scaling buildings! I struggled to maintain conversational interest, resorted to wild gesticulation to cover blocks and collapsed at many attempts to even start talking to someone new.

Plus I was unnerved by an obnoxious girl who laughed at me like an ecstatic hyena when I tried introducing myself. This was compounded by not drinking. I don't advocate Dionysian relish often but being a teetotaller on Fresher's Week is the equivalent of being a rational human being at a Twilight screening - your chances of incorporation are diminished significantly. Gradually, as the first week elapsed, I discovered a group of people who were incredibly patient with my stammer. We got along amicably and forged a strong friendship.

Classes were a slightly different kettle of fish. I had found engaging in debates at school to be troublesome and I knew I would need to elevate my game with answering questions at LSE. Being a member of the Starfish Project, I toiled away on their phone support list, enhancing my breathing technique and learning how to adopt it for class. Subjects requiring more laconic explanation like economics are easier to adapt for, but the course on the British Empire, and another on Population I was taking were problematic due to their more extensive arguments for various social science phenomena.

The fear of speaking in class is one of the most challenging things to overcome and whilst I have not conquered it entirely yet it gets easier with the passage of time, the understanding of classmates and the ability to disregard judgemental people and to ignore the demand for compliance to their manner of speech. I found that informing a peer or professors about your stammer also helps. I contacted the disability office and they messaged all my teachers, who allowed me additional time for presentations, which are usually restricted to 10 minutes, and offered me support whenever I needed it.

Being a teetotaller on Fresher's Week is the equivalent of being a rational human being at a Twilight screening.

As you get comfortable with the classes, interacting at halls is usually facilitated too. When people weren't imbibing liquor until slipping into depraved intoxication and attempting to drunkenly discuss theosophical thought with innocuous stray cats, they were more convivial after a few weeks. I befriended many more people with an augmented confidence fortified by continued technique practice as well as an adherence to humour; a light-hearted attitude and an appreciation of the conversational ammunition which humour gives you to perforate psychosocial barricades has been a critical methodology I have used to ease myself into discussion. It doesn't transplant the breathing technique I utilise, but it works in tandem and relaxes a stranger or a friend.

To conclude, university is not immediately going to be an easy ride for anyone who stammers; like any metaphorical rollercoaster it possesses its ups and downs. Being gregarious at halls becomes easier as the weeks flow, and talking to teachers is aided by approaching them early in the year (with scrumptious caramel shortbread if you want better marks too; just don't use money if you want to avoid outright allegations of bribery!)

From the Autumn 2012 issue of 'Speaking Out', page 10