One year at university

Holly Rose Welsby gained a Triple A* from Burnley College Sixth Form Centre to progress to Cambridge University. She has just completed her first year studying psychology at Churchill College. Here she tells us about her experience so far.

Coming from a deprived community is just one of several factors that have influenced my passion for psychology. I’ve always been aware of how difficult life can be for some people; of how certain social or economic environments can damage a person’s mental wellbeing. It has always therefore been important for me to think about different factors that affect mental health negatively, and about positive ways to counteract this.

This isn’t specific to where I grew up, of course – each community faces stresses and strains. Cambridge University, for example, has shown me different challenges people may face in trying to maintain good mental health. I’ve met such a vast amount of people from different backgrounds, whose trajectories are sometimes worlds apart and sometimes very similar. My experiences make me think about some of the major psychological debates (natures vs. nurture, individual vs. social, free will vs. determinism) all of the time, as I’m constantly seeing the effects of them in real-life contexts.

Before I arrived, I had no idea what to expect other than hard work. I knew it would be challenging, but the workload was still a surprise. However, as long as you’re prepared to work really hard, then you can achieve whatever goal you set yourself.

My first few lessons were really indicative of how the rest of the year would go. First, the lectures are extremely fast-paced – we covered topics that took weeks in college within a couple of hours, because we are expected to read about the subject in more depth individually. In my lectures, students are always interested and engaged, it surprised me at first how much participation from the students there was – I think this is something really important for students to practise from an earlier age, actively getting involved with lessons by being curious and asking questions. This will help to ensure that you gain a fuller understanding of whichever topic is at hand, and will also help to guide your personal research.

Because I’ve just completed my first year, I haven’t specialised yet, so I’m still figuring out where my interests lie. So far I’ve been particularly interested in neuropsychology, the psychology of emotions, and the psychology of close relationships... I’m also really looking forward to studying psychopathology in my third year. No doubt I’ll find new favourite topics along the way.

Through lectures focused on research methodology and data collection, I have formed the opinion that findings don’t need to be quantitative or considered ‘hard science’ in order to be useful to psychologists. Whilst psychology has gained credence as a discipline through being able to adopt scientific methods, in my opinion it is important to remember that our subject matter is human nature – something that need not (and sometimes can not) always be reduced to objective, numerical results.

Having said this, the lectures also taught me several factors that influence the validity and reliability of research, and so I have learnt to read psychological research critically when exploring a topic or theory. We don’t just learn straight psychology modules; as with many courses at Cambridge, students choose some supplementary modules to learn alongside their core subject. I therefore took two psychology modules, but also social anthropology and sociology. I think this approach has been useful because often I have ended up learning about the same topic (such as gender) from at least three different stances: the psychological, the sociological and the anthropological (though of course each discipline has its own further theoretical subdivisions). This has provided a more holistic view of the topics I’ve learnt, whilst also instilling the knowledge that there are several ways to look at any one construct. When forming a theory or personal opinion, one should incorporate and weigh up evidence collected from various perspectives.

I would sum up my experience so far as challenging, unique, eye-opening. I enjoy being surrounded by people who are passionate about their studies and who want to work; I enjoy the facilities such as the numerous libraries and work spaces; I enjoy being taught by individuals who are leaders in their fields, and I enjoy the beautiful buildings that I get to work in or walk past every day.

Outside of studies I just do social things with friends – nights out, walking through the beautiful central colleges, or punting down the river Cam. May week, after exams have finished, was probably my favourite time of the whole year. There are activities every day and parties or May balls every night. There are things going on all year though: most colleges there have formal meals every week or two, and some colleges have events on every week in their bars, which can be fun to go to, to meet people from other colleges.

I still adore psychology, and I’ll always want to understand the workings of human thought and behaviour. I don’t know exactly what I’ll go on to do in the future, but I know it will involve psychology.

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