Why I’m glad I didn’t go to university - Victoria Shepherd
01 Dec 2011
When Victoria Shepherd, an MCR engineer at Arqiva , was 17, she chose an apprenticeship over a place at university. She has never looked back since
Victoria Shepherd made a choice, against everyone's apparent better judgement – and one that, despite crippling university fees and no promise of jobs at the end of long courses, still seems out of the ordinary.
"Two years on, as a result of that choice and a great deal of effort, I'm the first woman broadcast engineer to work in the satellite master control room (MCR) at Arqiva's head office near Winchester, When you watch satellite television, I'm one of the people ensuring that the show reaches your TV set.
I've never really done, or felt the need to do, what people might expect. As a child, while my friends dreamt of being supermodels or popstars, I wanted to go into IT and build computers.
I've never learnt particularly well from being talked at, so, by the time I came to make my choices in my first year of sixth form, I'd already made up my mind that I didn't want to spend another three years staring at a whiteboard. This decision didn't sit well with my teachers. And it's easy to see why I was rocking the boat.
My sixth-form college sends a large number of students to Oxford and Cambridge each year and it's very proud of that fact. So, when I announced that I was looking for a company in order to do an apprenticeship, I was accused of ruining the school's figures and was pleaded with to reconsider. Even our apparently unbiased careers advisor said that I'd only ever work in PC World without a degree. My school was entirely devoid of the mindset that nowadays there are many other just as valid options for young people looking to enter the world of work.
Yet, despite almost unbearable pressure from both my teachers and my friends, I stood my ground. My parents really helped – they gave me the choice to make myself and didn't try to push me either way. They had no desire to see me waste three years of my life that I could spend applying real skills to a real job.
I've since been asked why I even bothered with 'A' levels – why not go straight into an apprenticeship then? I'll be first to admit that my 'A' levels in General Studies, IT, Drama and History don't exactly scream 'engineer', but perhaps that's another argument against schools limiting choice to overly-academic subjects. What my 'A' levels did teach me, however, was the importance of being able to think for myself. At GCSE level you're spoon-fed everything – the texts you need to read, the questions to explore. At 'A' Level a lot more of this is left up to you to identify and research, and that's the most important lesson to learn, whatever subjects you study. I don't think I'd have got as far as I have now without that crash course in thinking for myself!
Strengths and weaknesses
My first week was a little unnerving – after being shown the control rooms at Arqiva, which supervise the transmission of television channels all over the country, I couldn't believe I'd ever learn how to operate it all! However, I surprised myself – and my new colleagues – with how quickly I picked everything up. I made sure to spend time with the various departments and work out where my strengths and weaknesses were.
The key for me was getting that invaluable hands-on time with everything and finding out that the theory doesn't always match up with the practice. That's what I worry about most – eager new engineering graduates spilling out of universities, believing that every little bit of theory they've been told will work in practice because "the book" says so!
Many of my friends who went to University and begged me to do the same for the sake of my career are now coming to the final year of their courses, and are now only just starting to look for jobs and begin their careers. Meanwhile, I'm already well into mine, and wouldn't change that for the world.
Putting in the effort
I've been at Arqiva for three years now and I couldn't be happier. The job isn't for everyone – you expect your TV to work all night, so the graveyard shift comes with the territory. I'll even go out and work with other departments on my days off to make the most of the opportunities I've been presented with. If you're willing to put in the effort, there's no reason why you can't go as far, if not further, than anyone leaving university.
I'm now a STEM ambassador – which means I go into schools to promote my skills to young learners, actively encouraging them to enjoy their subjects and inform them about the unique career opportunities that are available to them. I'd like to think I'm making up for the sort of advice I was given when I decided to do an apprenticeship; the reality is now that thousands can't afford to go to university, and the emotional protests we saw earlier this year demonstrate just how important going to uni still is to many 16-18 year olds. I would urge them, however, to look beyond the pressure that still remains in many schools to apply for university and embrace the wide range of other options that are available to them. I did – and I haven't looked back since.
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