Blogging for The Guardian: Before I had even left university I was told I may be infertile

Originally posted at http://www.theguardian.com/education/mortarboard/2015/may/11/before-i-had-even-left-university-i-was-told-i-may-be-infertile

I was 15 when I had my first period, just like my mother, my aunties and my grandma. Although the red arrival was meant to mark a watershed moment of diary-marking and tins stuffed with pads, my 28-day count soon fell by the wayside, as my periods became nothing more than an annual event. I shrugged. Noticing the cramps and moans of my peers, my absent period appeared to be a blessing of genetics.

In my final year at the University of Leeds I went to the doctor about my acne and thought I might as well ask about my lack of periods. “We’re going to get you tested for polycystic ovary syndrome, commonly known as PCOS,” my doctor explained.

“PCOS is very common. It could be the explanation for your acne and your periods,” my doctor told me. “They’re common signs and some women notice excess hair and weight gain. The cysts on the ovaries can affect fertility – but don’t panic just yet.”

I tried to decipher the medical jargon with an NHS pamphlet that explained the condition. Although seven in 100 women in the UK have PCOS, up to 70% of people who have it are undiagnosed. The condition has several variants, but it commonly involves testosterone and cysts.

The over-production of insulin in a sufferer’s body can lead to an increased level of testosterone. This can result in excessive body hair, a risk of type 2 diabetes, and increased levels of cholesterol later in life. Cysts tend to appear on the eggs of women with the condition, meaning that there is a greater risk of infertility for the women who have it.

Periods and skin complaints were irritating yet expected worries at 21, but the mention of infertility sent me into a panic. The idea of childbearing was one I had always taken for granted. Although I had always challenged my parents to correct “when” to “if” when they spoke about my having a family, the possibility, however distant, was important to me. Was I meant to tell my new partner that I might struggle to conceive? It seemed a big challenge when I was just about nailing the art of paying my rent on time.

Jenny Brown (not her real name), an English student at the University of Leeds, also discovered that she had the condition while at university. “I stopped taking the pill in first year as I wasn’t having regular sex,” she says. “My period didn’t turn up after six months so I went to the doctor who gave me a blood test. A month later I received a letter saying I’d been booked in for a hospital appointment.

“This was a shock. I went to the appointment, which was uncomfortable, as he inserted a camera up my vagina. The doctor pointed out lumps on my ovaries which he said were cysts. This was confirmed weeks later, but there was a distressing time in between where I didn’t understand the diagnosis or what it meant.”

Although the majority of PCOS symptoms are treatable, a lack of awareness surrounding the illness means that plenty of women who are diagnosed are still unaware of the implications. Anna Trotter, a Spanish and history of art student at the University of Leeds, says: “When I was diagnosed with PCOS, I panicked because I’d never heard of it, so I got upset and worried it was something more serious. I was put on the pill to regulate it and have been on it since. Apart from that I haven’t been back to the doctor and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to do anything about it.

“Occasionally I panic that it could affect my fertility but then I tell myself that it might not. Also there are other treatments with regards to fertility, so hopefully it won’t be a massive problem.”

Jan Tilley, a final-year English student at the University of Leeds, struggled with excessive hair and acne due to the condition, and found that the visible signs disrupted her day-to-day life: “I felt insecure when I first found out, and it affected my confidence. It took some time, but I came to the conclusion that the majority of it was in my head. Nobody could tell or even cared what I looked like. It’s good to know that you can exercise a certain amount of control over PCOS through lifestyle.”

For me, as I graduate this summer, I will do so with more uncertainties than the average twenty-something. At first, that thought terrified me. But it is good to know that I am not the only one with the condition and that I am not alone.

Blogging at The Guardian: Don’t rob working-class students like me of our grants

Originally posted at http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/15/working-class-students-maintenance-grant-cuts

I wear my working-class status with pride. As someone with a strong accent who was born and raised in Hull, I’m not your average university student – and last week’s news that student maintenance grants could be cut by the government reminded me of where I came from.

My family have never been affluent, and when my father was made redundant in 2010, the idea of my sister and me attending university seemed far off. But I made it to the University of Leeds with the help of government funding.

I qualified for the maximum maintenance grant available – over £3,000. This saved me from having to do another summer of 60-hour weeks at the pea factory, while many of my fellow students were on work placements or travelling around the world.

The maintenance grant, a lump sum of non-repayable funding, is essential for lower income students who want to succeed at university. Attending an academic institution as a working-class student is challenging enough already, but without a maintenance grant it would be almost impossible to survive.

University is about a lot more than just obtaining the 2:1 that makes you employable. Getting a degree introduces students to new ways of thinking, friends and connections, social activities, and directions for how to approach adulthood.

Even with maintenance grants, the system is stacked against working-class students. Students from wealthy backgrounds are 10 times more likely to receive a place at university than those from poorer backgrounds, according to education charity the Sutton Trust in 2014.

“Being working-class at university is like knowing you’re the only one tightrope-walking without a safety net,” says Heather Shaw, an English student at the University of Leeds. “Those around you seem to be able to make countless personal and financial mistakes due to nice middle- to upper-class parents willing to bail them out, but I know that if I messed up just once I’d be screwed.”

Shaw says she is less able to enjoy her university experience than many of her peers because of money worries and the need to find a secure job after graduating.

Having less money than others can cause resentment, Shaw admits. “People in seminars brag about saving up for a ‘cheeky ski trip’, while I’m scraping money together so I don’t end up homeless after my course ends.”

Rosie Ramsden, who is studying for a master’s in English at the University of Leeds, has never felt more in the minority than she has at university. “Returning to uni after a three-month stint working shifts at a fish factory, I was shocked to walk through campus and overhear tales of leisurely trips to South America and South-East Asia.”

Ramsden adds: “Apart from my small group of friends, who all spent the summer working to fund their university living, it seemed like everyone around me came from a background completely alien to me.”

Tom Dixon, a sabbatical officer at the University of Leeds who receives a maintenance loan for his politics degree, says: “I’ve spent my entire life watching people who are less deserving being handed things on a plate just because of what they were born into.

“Any move to cut or abolish maintenance grants will just mean fewer well-meaning and deserving people from poorer areas will get the opportunity to go to university and develop their passions.”

Without a maintenance grant Dougie Phillips, who studied forestry as an undergraduate at Bangor University, gained a master’s at Cardiff and is studying for a doctorate at Leeds, would never have applied to university. “The thought of doing a degree would not have crossed my mind. I’m now a PhD student with my academic success being built upon the foundations of my undergraduate degree.

“I grew up in a poor, working-class household and was the first member of my family to complete a degree. Since graduating from Bangor, I have attended two Russell Group universities and will hopefully go on to have a successful and prosperous career.”

Phillips adds: “It’s scary to think about where I am now and where I would have been without receiving the financial support of a maintenance grant.”

I am part of the first generation in my family to attend university, and this wasn’t because my older family members would have struggled with completing a degree course. They couldn’t even consider going because they had to financially support themselves and the rest of family – with the weight of potential debt a firm deterrent.

This missed opportunity made my parents determined to ensure that my sister and I would be able to attend university, whatever the cost. If we had a sibling still at school, it looks like they’d be robbed of the chance.