I used to be a quitter. A loser who would readily go down without a fight. I remember a time where an unconscious slight would make me burst into tears. Even as I grew up, I stayed that way. Every fight and tension that involved me during my younger years would end up with me losing and crying.
At fifteen years old, my schoolmates called me Crybaby. Bullies would make fun of me for this trait that I couldn’t seem to shake off no matter how hard I tried.
It’s still the same now.
Only, I no longer berate myself for being sensitive, no longer apologise needlessly when something isn’t my fault, no longer quietly accept the decision others make of my worth. Or I at least try not to.
Years spent recovering from different neuroses haven’t been for naught. I have recently noticed a change in myself that may look trivial to others but means the world to me.
At sixteen years old, I returned home trembling when my professors at a fashion design institute told me I still had a lot of work to do. At the time, I couldn’t concentrate during classes and my hands would shake every time I picked up a pencil. This is the result of anti-psychotics. I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t hold proper conversations because every thought would slip through my fingers like water. Those medications helped me with neither suicidal thoughts nor tendency to burst into tears at slight hardships.
Instead, they made them worse.
Four years later, I was receiving literary agents’ rejections with a tight smile on my face and the words “It’s only the beginning” on repeat in my head. I wasn’t at the best state of mind but I was better. I could credit this to time, to maturity, to hope, but the truth is I still don’t know how I came from that to this. At that point, I had thought of going to the UK to study philosophy or literature, but I found everything about UCAS to Visa Application to be tremendously daunting, so I avoided it as a loser would. Besides, I didn’t have the qualifications for a good higher education. Or that was the excuse.
I still wasn’t that ideal person I wished to be, someone who would take up a challenge with an enthusiastic “Bring it on!”.
This year, finally, I brought up enough courage to apply to seven universities in the UK and waited anxiously. University of South Wales stared at the blank years on my CV and demanded to know what I had been doing. I tried to tell them that I had been going in and out of the hospital while brushing up my writing portfolio. They demanded that I submit a letter of reference from my employer. I tried to explain to them that this wasn’t how the term freelance worked but they weren’t listening. I was suggested to withdraw my application. I did.
A few weeks later, I received a quick, solid rejection from University of Durham. They weren’t looking for anyone with alternative qualifications and believed their education couldn’t possibly benefit someone like me, as stated in their rejection letter.
Things were bleak at this point.
I became convinced that the rest of my applications would be met with the same response. A few days later, I received news from my first choice, University of East Anglia. UEA, a university that boasts of their open-mindedness to alternative qualifications, has rejected me on the basis that I didn’t have A-Levels or AP.
The irony here strikes a very low blow.
I was wounded. I had been so sure that this was the university for me!
Instead of crying about it like I would have done if this were me of the past, I decided that I had to do something about it. With the help of Pieter, the managing director at Hands On, I asked that East Anglia reconsider me. ‘At least read my portfolio first, then reject me,’ was the theme I had going here.
The road onwards was a complicated one.
Pieter Funnekotter, the director of the education consultancy contacted UEA’s international recruitment Mr Peter Ryan, who coincidentally was at UEA during that time. Mr Ryan went to the course leader and handed him my writing portfolio. However, the reply Pieter received was that the university would not read my portfolio. Instead they gave me a writing task, a close reading of the opening chapter of Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I said, “All right. I’ll do this.” Although I had no idea what I should be doing at this point, and honestly, I was starting to feel that I wasn’t qualified after all.
Once again, the self-deprecating thoughts returned to me like an old friend, and as twisted as it was, I found comfort in it. I told it to sit down and wait with me, that I had to do this first, and I’ll listen to it if things turned out really bad. So, it waited with me for a while.
Then during the time I was trying to write that close reading, I contacted Kelly, a tutor who once tried to teach me GCSEs. I remembered her because I got along well with her (she once told me she came from Surrey, and I thought she was saying sorry; I enjoy hearing her laugh). In the period of two hours, Kelly taught me PETAL (Point — Evidence — Technique — Analysis — Link). This is a writing structure that all GCSEs students have to learn, which I knew nothing about. I had a difficult time grasping the concept; I won’t blame my Asperger’s for this, although I suspect my difficulty to apply PETAL might have something to do with that.
I trudged on. I went home, took two tabs of Tylenols and got to work. I wrote my close reading, I read and reread the passage, I rewrote and agonised over it so much in the course of a single week that by the time I sent it to Pieter, I caught a cold. Still, two weeks passed by with no news from UEA. Instead, a ray of hope that infiltrated my depression cloud was a letter from Keele University. I have received a letter of acceptance from my second choice with an unconditional offer! This is great. I heard so many good things about Keele, one of them was from an anthropology professor who did his masters at Durham. Still, I waited for UEA to get back to me.
Finally, UEA replied that I had passed the first round, that now they are willing to read my portfolio. So, I submitted my portfolio through Pieter who passed it on to Mr Ryan, who passed it on to the university. We waited. Weeks passed. Still no reply. Pieter was so nice and kept following up the news for me. During this time, an Open Day at UEA was coming up. My dad and I had been planning to visit a family friend in Birmingham, so I booked a spot at UEA Open Day. And off we went.
Once there, Dad was immediately taken by the university. After one of the talks, I managed to locate the course leader (I believe his name is Jacob Huntley) and talked to him. He said some of the portfolios were still sitting on his desk. Just like the UEA website, he said that the literature course is well-known for accepting students on the basis of their writing portfolio not their other qualifications.
I bit my tongue; I knew that this wasn’t true. The reason I was talking to him in the first place was because UEA rejected me for not having AP! Instead, I stumbled over my self-introduction and told Mr Huntley about my book to show how serious I was about this literature thing. Then, my dad and I went away quietly, and I told myself that I already tried my best. UEA isn’t the only university on the planet.
A few days after we arrived home, I received a reply from UEA. They had read my writing portfolio. They offered me a place! And it’s an unconditional offer for three years at UEA for English Literature and Creative Writing! That’s an even better offer than the one from Keele, where they wanted me to do an additional year for foundation. I was elated. I fought for something and now I was rewarded. Take that self-deprecating thoughts! I’m not as weak as I thought, and more in control of my fate than I thought I was.
From this, I learned that there are many kind-hearted people out there who are willing to help me if only I ask. There are people who dedicate their lives to helping others. And that person, in this story, is Pieter. This whole life lesson wouldn’t have been possible without him (I know this, because the email I sent on my own for a reconsideration was met with silence).
In a typeset storyline, this character arc has taught me a lot about both myself and the world. I am stronger than I was in the past, and the world is a lot kinder than I had once believed.
*Uplifting Side Note: Out of all the six universities to which I applied, five universities ended up accepting me. Cheers!