First in your family to go to university


Episode #9: Katie’s story

Being the first in your family to go to university

In this episode, Caroline talks to Katie Watson about being the first person in her family to go to university, why she’s not worried about student debt and how hard 2020 has been for graduates trying to find jobs.


Hello everyone, I hope you are all well. Today I’m joined by Katie Watson. Katie is a Londoner in her early twenties, navigating adulthood and if that isn’t hard enough she is doing it during a pandemic. After graduating university in 2020, she created Hey It Gets Better, a podcast and growing community that recognises that whilst life can throw you a lot of curve balls things do get better. When she isn’t growing Hey It Gets Better or bingeing a new Netflix series, Katie works as a freelance social media manager and strategist. You can contact Katie here.

Caroline 0:00
Hi, Katie, how are you doing? Welcome to Money and Me.

Katie 0:03
Hi. Yeah, I’m doing really good. Thank you so much for having me on.

Caroline 0:07
Oh, it’s a complete pleasure. So I wanted to chat to you because you’ve recently graduated from university. Tell me what you studied and where.

Katie 0:15
So I studied History at the University of Nottingham. And this is quite funny, when I first like started picking universities, because I was a first generation, I really did not have any clue what I was looking for. I literally like, I think I was like, “I want to go to Aberdeen” at one point, and my Dad was like, no. And he did actually drive me all the way to Lancaster, because I’m from London for an open day. I think he was a bit like annoyed, and I was like, “yeah, I don’t want to go”. But um, Nottingham is like such a lovely city. It’s like a campus uni, which is really nice. But then you also have the city which you could go into town in five minutes. Yeah, it was great. I’ve met some really amazing people, some great friends. I just feel a bit weird talking about it now, like, I don’t go!

Caroline 1:00
So you’ve just mentioned that you were first generation of going to university. What did that feel like?

Katie 1:07
I was very academic in school, I would study quite a lot. And for me, university was always a way to kind of, not escape, but kind of like, move up in the world. It’s a way to make connections, to meet new people, but make those connections with future life and job. I’m not from a very like, you know, we’re not hard done by my family, we you know, my Dad has a job my Mum works. But we’re not super well off either, we’re like that middle ground. And so we don’t, you know, we don’t have loads of money. But we have money to you know, do some nice things and things like that. So for me university, really, the way I looked at it was kind of just like, it’s a way to move up the social hierarchy really, and being the first to go there’s lot of mixture of emotions, there’s the, you know, excitement, the sense of achievement, that you’re the first to do it. But then there’s also a lot of nerves. And like, you don’t know what it’s going to be like.

For me the first year of university was rubbish. And I think it’s really important to say, because it was not at all what I was looking for. I was working so hard to get to university and I thought I would get there and all my problems would be solved. And it all fell through. I got diagnosed with anxiety in my first year, with OCD. I went to therapy. Like this was not the freshers partying lifestyle you see at all! It was just really a year of learning about myself. It’s great, I spent like £9000 to learn I had anxiety and struggle through that. When you’re the first generation of going to university, you don’t know what to expect. More, I had a pressure that I felt like I need to do this right. And you do feel the pressure as well to put up a front. I remember, my Mum and Dad will be always like, “oh Katie’s fine, she’s so excited to go to uni”, and my boyfriend knew I was really nervous. And he would just look at me like, “Katie, come on, like, you know you’re not that excited”. And I was like, yeah.

Caroline 3:20
There are a couple of points in there that I’d like to unpick a little bit more. You talked about feeling some pressure, how much of that pressure was self created? You said that you’re a super high achiever, very academic. And I think that when you come from that background, there is a natural pressure that you put on yourself to excel when you get to university, particularly if you see it as your route to a better life. And how much of it was you trying to live up to whatever expectations you thought were there from family and friends?

Katie 3:54
A lot of it was kind of self inflicted pressure on myself, because I’d had this sort of logic that this was the only way to like achieve, and a lot of my self worth that I put on myself came from my academic ability. And if something, well, you know, when you stopped doing uni, and you stop getting grades and stuff, it’s like, how do you measure your self worth? And, like now thinking about it, it’s like, I put so much pressure on getting good grades to feel like I was valuable, that I was special, you know? Learning about that was a side of me that I did- and like becoming aware of it allowed me to kind of see, there’s so much more to me than just getting a grade and when you dissect that and you see like, okay well actually it’s, you know, the hard work that goes into it, the dedication and making your like self worth kind of come from, not the act itself, but the qualities in you that make the act possible.

This is why I feel like I’m really old talking about this and it’s not even that long ago! But back then I didn’t understand why I put so much pressure on myself. I just did. Like, it’s really easy for me to talk about this stuff now, because time has passed. But when you’re in the moment, it does feel like the be all and end all, you know, “if I don’t get this first”. In uni I didn’t get first straight away, no one gets a first straight away, unless you’re like, super smart. And but I was like, “oh, why didn’t I get a first?” and I was beating myself up over this. And it’s like, that doesn’t mean I’m set for failure, it doesn’t mean that I, you know, can’t achieve anything. It’s a learning curve. But when I first went to uni, I didn’t know that. So I put loads of pressure on myself. And to be fair, like, I don’t think a lot of it came from friends and family. Because my family weren’t like, from an academic background. My dad used to joke about how he barely went to school. And they just couldn’t see like why I would get in such a state over it. But that was because of all the ways I viewed it and understood it.

Caroline 6:04
So being first generation, saying that you don’t come from a particularly well-off background, did you have any doubts about going to uni or any worries about it from a financial perspective? I know I did – I mean, a long, long time ago. Did you?

Katie 6:18
Yeah, I think there’s definitely like a financial side that does cause worry. So a little bit kind of like, of background about me is that I started working as soon as I turned 16. So summer I finished high school, got my CV, my mum printed it off, and it was off to get a job. This was before everything was kind of all online. I would literally go into shops and hand my CV in. So I’d earned money from 16, and that was like basically how I like financed my social life and things like that. So I’d learned having savings and things like that. So when I went to uni, I did, like I understood a bit about money management. But there was still this stress, like, “what if I run out of money?”. And this kind of comes back to me as a person, and how I think about money, like I always have savings. My dad always loves to joke that I’m secretly rich, because I have savings but I say I don’t have any money. So I did have savings, but I didn’t- I was always anxious about like, what if I have no money in my bank account. And that thought terrified me.

I’m really grateful that my mum and dad were able to pay for my accommodation at uni. And that’s how they helped me out, because my student loan was not enough to cover my rent. And my granddad, who is so lovely, he would give me £250 every month. And at first I was like, that also adds to the pressure of you know, wanting to do well because it’s an investment. But the reason he did it was because he’d worked hard his whole life. And he wanted to make sure that I didn’t have to work while I was studying, because he probably knew how much of a stress case I would be. And that he gives his like grandchildren, you know, a better kind of start in life and helps them that way. And he’s done it for my brother, he’ll do it for my sister and all of my cousins and stuff. I had financial worries, but I also had people that were willing to support me. Talking about it, having honest conversations with my parents, like sitting down with my dad and being like, “I’m super stressed, I don’t even know how I’m going to afford this”. And having those conversations is so important to alleviate those financial worries.

If you don’t have parents who you know, I understand that not everyone’s parents can afford. There are services in universities that do help. There are grants or bursaries, and it’s definitely worth looking into those things. I would definitely say don’t write off uni because of the cost. Because I’ve already, I’ve heard it a few times with people who are like 16 or 17, like “oh, it’s too expensive”. And this is the thing I’ll say: it’s not real money. It’s written off in 30 years. And with the interest rate, and you have to pay now I think it’s like over £27,000, like, I’m not going to pay back what I owe. And there’s no point stressing about it. When you start to think of it like that. It’s much easier to think, okay, so yes, I will have to pay off a bit when I start earning, but it will help you earn. And it’s also a great way to you know, it’s a great experience that you shouldn’t write off just because of the cost. I think that the people most likely to write off university, and just like that’s not a possibility because of the cost, are the people who will gain the most from it. But no one’s having these conversations about the fear of this big chunk of money. And it is a big chunk.

Caroline 9:52
You’re absolutely right. So I was the last year that got a government grant at uni and it’s the only reason I went to university. Because there were no tuition fees. I mean, it sounds like the glory days, no tuition fees, and that I got a grant of a few thousand pounds. And now when I talk to people, and I talk to them about things like wanting to buy a home, or starting a family, and the thing that comes up time and time again, is that they feel really anxious about having a tonne of student debt. It feels like a real weight around their neck. And they feel like they’re carrying this enormous, or dragging this enormous debt with them as they go through life. But as you’re saying, you just treat it as some extra tax that you’re going to pay off throughout your life.

Katie 10:40
You’re not going to pay back the whole thing. You won’t! I think I’m like 50 grand, this is like my big scary number that I see when I log on. And I remember the first time I logged on, cuz I’m starting to get letters about it now in the post, and I’m like, hang on, mate, I’m not even earning that much like, go away! But I look on and I see and I just think, okay, let’s be realistic. Am I going to pay this off? No. Can I do anything to change it? No. Is it going to get written off? Yeah. And kind of like putting yourself in that thought process. And really like looking at that number and think you know what, this number doesn’t have power over me. Because what makes the number scary, is your thought process behind it. When you look at that number and you give it power, that will help mean it will kind of restrict your life, you won’t do certain things because of that number. But when you think about that power, the number actually has over you, it’s not as much as you think. And don’t fall into this scare tactic that you need to pay it off. I think one of the bad things to do is to like you know, put a big sum of money towards it to pay it all off. And that is not something that you should do. Like where they have changed the layout of the screen, so as soon as you log on, bang, that number hits you. I’m really annoyed by that, because that is a fear tactic to make you think you should pay it all off. When you see that number, don’t let the power of the number and the size of it like kind of make you feel small. Because really, you are the one in control.

Caroline 12:12
I think it’s terrible that student loans has changed the screen that you see when you log in, because it’s completely a scare tactic. So you’re first generation uni and you took that path. But I know that your boyfriend of four years, took a different route. He’s an apprentice. So that means that you’ve paid for uni, Katie, and your boyfriend has been paid to study. How did that feel for you both?

Unknown Speaker 12:42

Katie 12:43
Yeah. And it did feel like I remember at one point, it really felt like that, but this was when I was in sixth form and I remember like doing my A-level homework and like studying super hard for my exams. And he went to college for two weeks to his like, he’s an electrician, so he went to college for two weeks, got out early half the time and was being paid to actually go to college. And I was doing the exact same things, my A-levels, and I was like, “I want to be paid!”.

But it’s something that I thought a lot about after our conversation, I was like, I’m so grateful for it. And because obviously we did long distance for uni, I was in Nottingham, and he was in London. And the way it was kind of feasible was because he had some money. And it meant that we did have to be quite, like open with each other about money. And we had to have conversations about money, especially because I wasn’t earning. And I would get stressed every summer, because I would have to find a job, I’d have to earn enough money to support myself throughout uni. And then he’d come along and have to, like calm me down. Like, “we’ll be fine”, you know. And it’s something I was really grateful for, because that was what helped us make long distance work and we used to pay, I would pay a third and he would pay two thirds. And I’m definitely like, you know, I’m a feminist, I believe, you know, in like equal rights and things like that. And, you know, it was like having my boyfriend pay two thirds and me a third was a bit like, you know, I want to pay half but it wasn’t possible. But it’s okay, because that was the situation we’re in. I mean, when I did get a job, I was there, I was like, “don’t worry, this is on me” like I was super rich!

Caroline 14:37
I confess that I don’t know much about apprenticeships. So what are we talking about in terms of the amount of money that you earn whilst you’re studying? Does it vary depending on what it is that you’re training for?

Katie 14:52
Yeah, so I think- I don’t even know, I can’t remember how much he earns a week. It isn’t big money. Like, I remember when I was in sixth form and I had this, like I had a new boyfriend. I was telling my friends like, “oh, he works, you know, he’s got money!” – it’s not that much money. But now I’m like, I’m 21 going on 22 and I see it and I’m like, that really was not a lot of money, especially when, you know, he obviously pays rent with his parents and things like that like that comes in. It really is like, the way I think about it now is like, you get your student loan and that comes as one big sum. He gets paid weekly, but much less. And also, he has to work his ass off for it. He gets up at five o’clock in the morning sometimes, because it’s a trade job, they start early. When I first was there and he got up that early, oh my days, I thought he was good, I thought he should get a medal. I was so confused as to why he was getting up and going out in the winter cold to work.

Caroline 15:57
I think it’s important that people understand that there are different routes.

Katie 16:01

Caroline 16:02
I’ve definitely noticed over the last sort of 10 or 20 years, that there’s been this definite push that there’s a single route, and it’s university and everyone should go to university. And I’m not convinced that it’s the right route for everybody. So I’m glad that there are other routes that are being promoted, particularly for subjects which are more vocational. So for example, I had my sister Alex on the podcast in season one, and she’s just qualified as a radiotherapist. And so she did a three year degree where at least half of her degree was spent on placement in hospitals. And now they’ve actually introduced an apprenticeship route to do the same thing. Because most of it is on the job training. And so you can just flip the model where you learn as an apprentice, you get paid through that route, and you’re learning in the hospital. And then you can study some of the theory alongside it.

Katie 17:03
Definitely and there’s things like marketing and digital marketing, you get digital marketing apprenticeships. And so that’s what I do now, I do social media management and marketing. And I remember in the second year of uni, we went to like an insight day at an agency. And I was talking to these girls and they were like, really young, they seemed like my age. They were my age, they had just gone through an apprenticeship route. And it’s definitely worth considering.

Caroline 17:29
I’m gonna switch tack a little bit, and I don’t want to bring the vibes down, but let’s talk about what it was like to graduate in 2020.

Katie 17:40
Oh, did I even graduate? I literally submitted my dissertation in my pyjamas in bed. It was definitely tough. I think there’s like no, there’s not really been like a full pit stop. Like, I think that’s why I’m always like, I feel like I still go to uni. Because I’ve not had that end and I guess the hardest part as well was not saying goodbye to my friends and like my housemates and my course mates because you weren’t allowed to like move out the house together you had to do it on separate days and things like that. And there was no closure. And I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. I think, I didn’t even get my nice campus photos! I remember dropping off my library books. And I lived on the third floor of my house so I was running up and down, I looked awful. And I just got like, such an awful photo of me outside the library with my thumbs up like “yay, I did it!”. And that was kind of like graduating in 2020. Very messy.

Caroline 18:39
Like you say it’s a massive anticlimax after several years of hard work. I think the whole point of graduation is that you have something to market.

Katie 18:47
Definitely! I actually was super, I was so excited for the photo of me in my cap and my gown. I was fully like looking at dresses. And this is the thing for me, it wasn’t just a photo. For me, this was like something I had dreamed off. Like, I remember I used to walk around on campus in second year and see like all the graduation tents. And that was my motivation to work hard. This is you know, I’m getting annoyed about now, I still haven’t got it I was like, but that is what I wanted. I wanted the photo. You know, I wanted a photo with my mum and dad. I was trying to coax them to bringing our dog up so we could have a photo with the dog as well. And that didn’t happen and it’s definitely like anticlimactic and it’s a bit- it is rubbish! And that there’s nothing you can really do and you’ve got to- a big part of what I like to think about now is like control the controllables and I can’t do anything about it. But what I can do is control my attitude about it. So I just make jokes about it and maybe I’ll hire a graduation cap and gown and do that.

Caroline 19:55
I think you should! So for my sister we did a graduation in the garden. My boyfriend wore a bright blue slanket. Have you seen those? One of those blankets with sleeves. And that turned him into the Chancellor or the Provost or whatever it was supposed to be. And he had to give my sister her degree certificate. And I think Al wore one of my coats as a gown, and our lovely neighbours upstairs made her a mortarboard hat. And so yeah, we did the ceremony in the garden.

Katie 20:31
Yeah, cuz I did have a graduation. My grandparents, my nan and granddad, came over and we had to like socially distance. That was a tough thing as well, you couldn’t see people either. And it was so funny, they had like a thing on Microsoft Teams. Oh my days, and I made everyone sit in front of it and watch it. It was awful! I appreciate the effort. But like it literally was like, they left as well. And then we were like, “is it over? Is it not over?”, like, what, what was it? My nan and granddad were like, “what’s going on?” and I’m like, “I don’t know”.

Caroline 21:06
Yeah, not quite what you had in mind. And what has it meant for you in terms of being able to get a job?

Katie 21:13
I was lucky, where I was able to find a job in an agency doing PR and marketing, it was a brand new role. And I was like, super over the moon with that. I was really happy about it, I started, I actually went and bought something from Oliver Bonas. Because that was my thing, I love Oliver Bonas, and it’s so cute. I just love all of their stuff, and I went and when I’d got the job, just before I started, I went to like one of the ones in a train station and I bought a reed diffuser because I was an adult now. And I had a job and I was treating myself. I like, you know, was motivating friends like “come on, you know, you can get a job to, like we can all do it”. Because it is tough. And then I lost my job. And yeah, so it was a new role. And then it became apparent that what they needed was a designer more than they needed someone to do their social media. Then I was like, “okay, what do I do now?” You know, I thought I had it. Like I thought I’d kind of been very lucky and missed that really hard point, which a lot of students are still experiencing. I mean, I know people who’ve had to go on to Universal Credit. And that is a massive blow not only to kind of like their expectations, but also their mentality because you think I’ve worked all this time to get a job and then you can’t get anything.

Caroline 22:37
Do you think people feel ashamed of going from university to Universal Credit?

Katie 22:43
I think there definitely is some, like, shame around it. I mean, I’m definitely like, when this whole thing was coming on the news, my mum said like “you might need to go on Universal Credit”. And my reaction was, I was so offended, I was like, what, no, I will get a job, you know, I will find something. But when this stuff isn’t in your control, like a pandemic, you can’t control a global pandemic, can’t control the economy. So I think that we really need to work around, kind of removing that shame from going on things like Universal Credit, because you do need money to survive. That’s a basic principle. You need money to buy food, you need money to pay, like rent and things like that. I think that’s you know, there’s definitely like a stigma around it that needs to be dissected and removed. And you know what, I was part of that stigma when I had my reaction. I was like, “what? no!”, but looking at it now it’s like, you know what, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Caroline 23:45
In the last financial crisis, I went on Jobseeker’s allowance. So now they’ve combined all of the benefits into Universal Credit. But in those days, you had lots of different benefits and Jobseeker’s were for people who’d lost their jobs. And I didn’t have any shame about it whatsoever. Because I just told myself that I’d paid tax, you know, I’d contributed, I’d paid into the system whilst I was working. And now that I was out of work, the system was designed to support that situation. So it wasn’t really anything about me, it was just the situation that I found myself in. I would hate anyone listening to this to feel any kind of shame or stigma, about taking any kind of grants or any type of benefits that you need, because you have to do whatever you can to make sure that you’re financially okay. It’s not necessarily going to feel nice. In fact, often when you have to do these things, it feels pretty crappy. But the safety net is there for a reason. It’s there to help you when there are situations that are outside of your control. So you absolutely have to take whatever is available to you.

Anyone listening who’s debating whether or not to apply for benefits or a grant, please find out what you’re eligible for. We’ve got a series of Coronavirus money apps that can help you work out what you can get. I’ll put the links in the show notes. But please don’t feel any kind of shame or stigma around it.

Katie 25:20
As well, part of it is that people aren’t having these conversations. And they aren’t saying like, actually, I had to go onto Universal Credit. Like, I have seriously looked, since losing my job I’ve looked into it all. And I’m like, okay, this might actually be the option that I have to go for.

Caroline 25:37
Yeah, no big deal.

Katie 25:39
Because things have to be paid. And I’m very fortunate that I live with my parents and bless my dad, he let me off my first paycheck, paying rent. And then I got- the second paycheck was when I’d lost my job. So he didn’t really feel like asking me for rent then. So I’m lucky that I haven’t had to pay rent, but if you’ve got to pay rent, you know that’s what Universal Credit is for.

Caroline 26:02
Where are you now? So I’m really sorry that you had the excitement of feeling like “I’ve got my job, I’m going somewhere, I’ve got my reed diffuser, so I’m really on my way to making it”. So what now for you?

Katie 26:15
So- and it’s all summarised really in what my granddad said to my dad when I lost my job was: “what’s Katie gonna do, she’s a grafter?”. I was very lucky- well, I wasn’t. I keep saying I was very lucky, but like a lot of this comes down to me working super hard. I had emergency savings and that was something that I was really grateful for, like I had emergency savings when I graduated uni and then I was like, I had like a month off. I’ve set that money, so I didn’t have to panic about finding a job. And so when I lost my job, my initial reaction was: I need to find another job. I started making a spreadsheet, I was updating my CV. This was all in the evening, same evening I’d lost my job. And then I kind of was like, okay, let’s just feel it. And I did the whole Netflix, pyjamas, I went and got some chocolates, and had my sad day. And then I, you know, I will admit, I felt very lost. And just like, really like, frustrated because this was not supposed to happen. This was not part of my plan. This was something where like, I was like, “okay, I did what I was meant to do, I graduated uni, I’ve got a first, I went, applied for a job, I got a job, I worked hard during the job”. Like that was not supposed to happen. And this is the thing with life, it can knock you over like a bowling ball hitting a bunch of pins. And it just happens.

So I actually spoke, well this is about the time that you reached out to me- Carmel reached out to me who works for you. And I had a great conversation with her about freelancing. And it was something that had been in the back of my head. And I really wasn’t sure about it. And I also got ‘Hey It Gets Better’ which I’m turning into a business and I was seeing loads of things. And I just decided, I just had like a thought about what do I want to achieve in life? And what is going to get me there? And you know, I want to in the grand scheme of things, I want to have my own business. I want to work with people, especially female founders to spread their messages. I want to have like a purpose-driven life. But I do want to house as well, so I do need to make money. And that time made me think okay, do I have to go into another agency job? Do I have to? What are my choices? And it was a lot of thinking and then I decided to go freelance. It’s not that great, like I’m not kind of girl-bossing it like you see on Instagram. Like I hate that word, but you know, that’s the image that you think. Like it’s not like that at all. But it’s an experience.

Caroline 28:58
I know what the freelance life is like, and particularly at the beginning, rollercoaster doesn’t even do it justice. Your mood can shift not just by the day, but by the hour, or by the phone call, or the response to the email that you just sent out. Whether you’re ignored or whether someone replies, it is a lot.

Katie 29:18
Yeah, I think it’s massive, especially going freelance at this time with Christmas coming up. I had to announce that everyone’s Christmas presents have just like been massively downgraded. I was like, my sister’s the only one I got before I lost my job, so I was like, you’ve got a great Christmas present. Everyone else, lower your expectations. And it is really like, what I’ve been feeling lately was the financial uncertainty. And it’s like, okay, well I don’t actually know when my next paycheck is coming. Like you said it does change hourly. Like I have times where I’m really in the groove of things. And I’m like, this is brilliant, this is gonna be so successful. And then I have like two hours a day where I’m like, but when am I going to get paid?

Caroline 29:59
And so are you really treating this as a learning experience, and you’re trying not to put too much pressure on the outcome, you’re not setting yourself too many targets in terms of, I must have this number of clients by the end of the year, I must be making X amount of money and that needs to be going up month by month?

Katie 30:19
When you freelance, obviously, like, you’re in charge of bringing in the money and finding the work. And I had literally, like two days, where I didn’t do anything. And then I was constantly beating myself up. I was like, you can’t be doing this, if you want to do this, Katie, you have to be working all the time. But that’s just a recipe for burnout. I think you know, one thing I have to say is that it’s really tough. And accept that it’s quite tough, especially in the beginning. And forgive yourself when you make mistakes, or when you need to, like you’re only human, you’re gonna need to chill out. There’s shows on Netflix to be watched, as I have found. I think I wrote something like in my monthly goals to earn £500 this month. And I’ve already been like, I’m going to give freelancing a real go and so far, like even though its ups and downs, I’ve actually really enjoyed it because I’ve got the chance to work on some really like amazing projects lined up that I really care about that I wouldn’t have if I was in an agency.

Caroline 31:16
What a brilliant point to end on. Thank you so much, Katie. It’s been quite a rollercoaster story, but I’m so pleased you’re doing well with the freelance life and I’ve really enjoyed our conversation and I’m sure everyone listening has too, so thank you.

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Katie Watson - First in my family to go to university - Money & Me Podcast - Lifetise
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