Twenty-five years ago this week (5th October) I arrived at Keele University as a 21 year-old fresher registered for a four year foundation course. I knew nothing about my new home having never experienced an open or visits day, in fact I’d spent about an hour in the area before I arrived. As a mature student I had won my place through an interview in May of 91, which turned out well with having to work three months notice from my job in the Clydesdale Bank.
My 5ft 2 inch eight stone frame hauled a thirty inch wheeled collapsible suitcase and a twenty inch rigid case, with duvet strapped to the side, off the 85 bus from Crewe. As I staggered into the students’ union building I heard a deep monotone voice boom out “boys”, and immediately I had assistance with my bags. I had come upon a Keele institution in the form of Neil Baldwin, the first person I met on my first day. His “boys” were his football team members, who he had marshalled to help ease the arrival of new students. Neil helpfully pointed me in the direction of where I collected my keys, assured me my bags would be safe, and that he would be waiting for my return. Discovering I was to be housed in the Hawthorns residence in the village, Neil said I’d just missed the mini bus and had half an hour wait for its return. I’d noticed Neil wearing around his neck a wooden cross pendant on a leather braid. As my eyes glanced at that simple but distinct sign of faith Neil asked “so are you a Christian then?” I replied “I’d like to think so” and mentioned I hoped to join the Chapel Choir. At that Neil promptly whisked me toward the Chapel, introduced me to the chaplains, gave me a quick tour of the building and made sure I knew where and when to go for the first choir practice. This was all before the mini bus arrived and I departed for the Hawthorns to see my room!!!
After I had unpacked, I remember sitting on my bed and giving myself a good talking too. I knew I carried two massive Grand Canyon chips on my shoulders called “Mam and Dad hang-ups”. I asked myself if I was going to be the person that had left Cleland OR the person I thought I could be, given a chance. I decided on the latter choice, realising no one knew me here, it was a clean slate. So psychologically I began filling in those shoulder chips as I strode out into my new surroundings. Oddly for two days I never saw another woman, only guys wandering the beautiful vast campus area. It wasn’t until the Friday night as I left my room to attend a residence reception party; I came upon a gang of women gathering in the hallway of Hawthorns H block, with the same party in mind. It transpired that in the all female blocks everyone congregated in the kitchen to get to know each other, whilst the all male blocks did not have such a ritual, hence why they tramped around campus instead like me. My wanderings did give me a head start when it came to registration and finding buildings when term officially began, but I also heard the odd misguided mutter about “starting early with the fellas” as I waved/said hello to various chaps heading to class.
My lifetime ambition was to attend university, but I had no chance of applying directly from school with the spectre of “parental contributions” being a factor in the financial process. So I discovered if I could prove my independence from my parents for a minimum of four years, then I could apply without fear of them being a consideration. My Dad had never let my Mum know how much he earned, so there wasn’t the remotest chance he would tell me anything. Both parents were dead set against me leaving a pensionable job on a “bloody whim”, and the fact that over 800 people were made redundant from the bank within a month of my departure, made little difference to their disdain. Without a doubt I would have been one of the redundant, but my defence for my actions fell on deaf ears and my Mammy barely spoke a word to me for a whole year, she just cut me dead most of the time when I attempted a conversation. Later “small talk” was restored, but anything to do with Keele was NEVER mentioned by her at all.
Throughout my school years where I had shown reasonable ability, neither parent had shown much of an interest. So all the decision making on subjects, worry of making the grade, terror of exams, dealing with the onslaught of bullying, as well as the growing pains of trying to fit into a confusing world, fell onto my solitary shoulders. I had absolutely no emotional support whatsoever from “family” in school, and it was abundantly clear that this state of affairs would continue at university. My sole support team consisted of three old school teachers I had stayed in touch with, and my Cleland Baptist pastor Archie Ferguson and his wife Agnes. In fact it was Archie and Agnes who gave me the confidence to get the ball rolling, by encouraging me to fill in the UCCA form. But my relationship with the support team was from a distance, not the sort where I could “chew the fat” over numerous cups of tea and late night pizza, with a reassuring hug at the end.
Being used to dealing with most things on my own meant I was a solitary kind of person with few friends at school or work. When I left the only home I’d known in Parkside Cleland, no one considered waving me off at the local railway station. As I went by train to Glasgow and onto Crewe before catching the bus to Keele, I was literally in every sense completely alone as I made my leap of faith into tertiary education. Arriving at the university I met Neil Baldwin, who in his amiable way put a proverbial arm around me and welcomed me to my new home. His simple helpful gestures paved the way for me to start my new life in Keele, as the university student I had always wanted to be.