Paul Howell, BA 1998

Anne-Marie, Johanna and Paul (just after our finals in 1998)

Anne-Marie, Johanna and Paul (just after our finals in 1998)

With my hand on my heart I can say 100 per cent that those three years (1995-1998) spent at Essex University were the best of my life. I continually reminisce about them.

Prior to Essex, I had been an anxious, withdrawn and rather isolated teenager. I had grown up in Bexhill-on-Sea (a small seaside town on the South East Coast of England) knowing I was gay and to say I was not at all comfortable in my own skin is a definite understatement.

Entering the welcoming Sociology Department in October 1995 – complete with its rainbow flag – was a major awakening for me. And what a journey I was about to embark upon! I didn’t work as hard as I should have but the openness of the department, its inspiring academics (many of whom “out and proud”) and the tolerance which was abounding did so much for me personally. I made some amazing friends, with whom I am still in contact  almost twenty years later (Anne-Marie Kowacs, Susie Scott, Viki Grainger, Johanna Brophy, Loretta El Sadat, Daniel Harris, Agnes Skamballis, Michael Chittenden…). Often I wonder what happened to those acquaintances I met throughout the duration of the course (I’d love to hear from anyone who remembers me!). Everyone was just so upbeat, enthusiastic, friendly and kind. There was a real camaraderie between us all and we were all interested in each other’s welfare. There was never a feeling of competition.

I could go on and on about my very happy memories. I look back with particular fondness on those first term core course lectures conducted by legendary Professor Ken Plummer – especially the last one just before Christmas in 1995. Ken put up a slide on the projector and to our amusement Father Christmas hats were drawn on to the heads of Marx, Weber and Durkheim! I am sure they would have approved! Well, maybe…! This lecture was rounded off with a clip from “It’s A Wonderful Life”!  It certainly set me up for the Christmas holidays! I also had a superb first year core course tutor in Jean Duncombe who was encouraging and good fun. Those Friday morning 9am classes were a joy to attend. As were those second year core course classes taken by the lovely Rob Stones. I was also taught by a lot of student tutors and it’s great that many of them, then starting their careers, are now established Sociologists.

During my three years I was a Resource Room volunteer (so much hilarity took place in that small room and what a delight Helen Hannick was with her endless encouragement!), I attended all the Sociology parties (!!) and the quiz nights. I helped out on the stall at the Freshers’ Fayres in 1996 and 1997. I also took part in helping the department raise money for the Women’s Refuge in Colchester and, in early 1997, participated in Project Sigma. I was also a brief member of Viki Grainger’s Feminist Action Group, which took place weekly in the Resource Room, ending up with quite a few members.

Just before the summer vacation of 1996, Ken Plummer introduced me to the work of novelist Edmund White. I was dreading a return to my seaside town. Yes, I was excited about seeing my family, but I was going to miss my new-found friends. I dived into Edmund White’s “A Boy’s Own Story” and, some ten years later, I was lucky enough to go out to lunch with this author following an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I raised a thankful glass to Ken!

Even though there was a lot of serious work being conducted by those very eminent, pioneering and busy Sociologists with research findings “hot off the press”, the department was never short on laughs and it didn’t take itself too seriously. I mean, what other academic department would hold an evening debate on whether or not the Spice Girls were the “new” feminists?! Sadly I can’t remember now what the overall consensus was. But I do remember that the debate got quite heated!

Another fond memory is of the late Mary McIntosh, on the point of retirement, selling many of her books on a big trestle table in the centre of the Reading Room. Despite being a high profile Sociologist, she was humble and very generous.

What I found particularly inspiring was coming across those Sociologists I had encountered in text books while doing my Sociology GCSE and A Level.

There was always support on hand in the department – from the academic staff right down to those who worked in the office, such as Brenda Corti, Mary Girling, and Diane and Sue. You were made to feel welcome – and I did feel completely at home. It really was a breath of fresh air and a safe haven. I had never had as much fun as I did at Essex. If you like quirky people and eccentrics, then you are never to be disappointed studying Sociology at Essex University! It was a very liberal, nurturing and understanding environment.

After my degree I trained as a journalist and later, on a whim, I moved up to Edinburgh, getting a job in the civil service. While in Scotland I was constantly reminded that I was English and naturally certain theories from Sociology lectures came flooding back to me…!

Leaving Essex upon graduation in 1998 was a real wrench and it took me a long time to adjust to post-university life. Even now I can’t think about the experience without getting misty-eyed. Without a doubt I would gladly do it all again. Even better would be to do it all again knowing what I know now! I would say that as well as passing on valuable academic skills and very relevant insights, the department helped us to develop a sense of self and to be the best we possibly could for both society – and for ourselves.

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