Jan and her granddaughter, Daisy, on their way to University of Leicester
It wasn’t the norm in the mid-1960s even for a grammar school girl like me.
Only one of my friends went on to higher education.
So although both my children are graduates when my daughter got tied up at work and asked me if I would take my granddaughter, Daisy, to a couple of university open days, I didn’t feel particularly well qualified to assess the options.
I’m still reeling from the shock that she is planning to study chemistry as our entire family are writers but I’m assured that Daisy knows what she wants and I am simply transport and cash dispenser.
As we head north, I tell her what I know about science, confessing that I have a bit of a crush on the large hadron collider and love the periodic table of the elements but have no idea what it means.
Big, big mistake.
For the next two days when we’re not singing aloud or looking for the next Ed’s Easy Diner on the road, she is lucidly and relentlessly explaining and then quizzing me “What element has the letter K?”
“What are the first 10 elements in the table?”
“What is Au?’ (Gold!) At Leicester she whisks off to a “chemistry showcase” while I wander around the campus and discover Jane, the dinosaur skeleton, an astrological clock and a terrific sports centre.
Back at the chemistry building, I tell a student about my fondness for the periodic table and am shown a glass model containing physical examples of the elements in the foyer.
Going to university wasn’t the norm in the mid-1960s
How wonderful just to be here and not have to worry about anyone but yourself
Daisy found me studying it, fascinated and handed me a liquid nitrogen ice cream.
At that precise moment I seriously entertained the possibility of becoming a mature chemistry student.
Laden with leaflets from the information tent we take the shuttle bus out to the student accommodation.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have to consider or look after other people – husband, children, parents – but as I sat on a student bed “with en suite” I envied Daisy her new life.
How wonderful just to be here and not have to worry about anyone but yourself.
Leicester was leafy, friendly – it even had a dog for students to cuddle – and felt like a village. Large tick.
But out with the sat-nav and on to Sheffield BIGGER, noisier, flanked by arterial roads, Daisy (born a Londoner) was quite at home.
Its students’ union has been voted the best in the country for nine years’ running with 20 places to eat or drink, a cinema and a shop where I tried to buy a morning paper and was told, “We asked the students and they said they never read newspapers.”
When Daisy returned from a tour of the chemistry labs – “I’ve done experiments!” – she announced that she had signed me up for the chemistry lecture which she thought I would enjoy. I shuffled into my seat.
Even though this was an impressive auditorium it’s still a classroom and instantly I wanted to whisper and misbehave. But where was the inkwell?
Both my children are graduates
It was fascinating – if largely unintelligible – although I did learn that enough sunshine hits the earth in 20 minutes to provide all mankind’s needs for a year – we just have to learn to harness it.
Also if you add titanium bioxide particles to the washing machine and rinse your jeans then put them on and walk through town, you create a measurable, trouser-shaped tunnel of completely clean air as you pass.
Fascinating facts to fill a dull moment at a party?
Daisy was just relieved that I didn’t put my hand up to ask a question.
I didn’t see any grandparents but many students were flanked by both parents and some had already ticked off at least eight universities and weren’t finished, eager to see everything.
Usually one parent had the spreadsheet, the apps and asked the questions, while the other wandered behind, bored to tears.
Sometimes the student trailed behind as well, apparently disinterested.
I asked one father if he thought his son would be happy at Sheffield.
He looked blank. “It’s whatever’s the best course, isn’t it?” Well, not entirely.
It was a blisteringly hot day as we stood in the long bus queue to the student accommodation so I was glad when Daisy said that she could look up the options online and was ready to leave, with her “fingerprint ” keyring, pens and notebooks.
I had my own student trophy – a laminated copy of the periodic table of the elements.
“Ask me anything on the way home ,” I told her, having skimmed through it over some coffee.
As we walked off campus, she whipped out her phone.
“Just along here is the pub where the Arctic Monkeys played their first gig,” she said.
The Grapes had a warm, Irish welcome, a room plastered with the Sheffield band’s posters and a platinum disc, plus we met someone who had been there on that first night.
Over a cold drink before the long drive home to Suffolk, we agreed that we had enjoyed this road trip together and although she was initially worried about me “talking to everyone ” she said I was “really good at finding things out”.
There are still Lancaster and Liverpool to come but I realised as the Arctic’s anthem R U Mine? blasted out from the juke box that this chemistry student was already in her element.
Even though the auditorium was impressive it is still as classroom
Study notes for parents & grandparents on open days
● Be prepared. Most students will have checked out everything and probably booked a lecture or two. But go online yourself and find out exactly where you are going, what to expect – and where to park.
● Wear comfortable walking shoes and a cross body bag. If you have come by train with luggage, leave it at the station.
● Travel light around the campus.
● Split up and wander separately, arranging a meeting place. Get a feel of the place. What is the students’ union like? Are there inviting places in which to eat, sit and read? Are there green spaces? Trees? Is there a reasonably priced food shop?
● Your student won’t but you can talk to “student ambassadors ”. Yes, they are “selling” the university but they know a lot. Ask them things like: “What is the town/city like for entertainment/access/food?”; “What are the sports facilities and price of membership? ”; “Do you need a bike/car? ”; “How far is it to walk?”; “What is the cost of transport from accommodation to lecture hall? ”; “Which are the best clubs or societies? ”; “Is there a mentoring scheme for students? ”
● Talk to other parents and or grandparents. They may have found out useful things or have an opinion on other universities they have visited.
● Don’t stay on campus for the whole day. Checking out the chosen course and its facilities is vital but visiting student accommodation means bus queues and crowds – and can be done online. Go and see the city – the theatres, cafés and bars . University life is not only spent just on campus.
● Don’t say, “That girl over there looks nice. Why don’t you go and talk to her? ” It was the only time in two days that I received The Stare.