I failed at University. Why?

I remember much of my first day at junior school like it was just yesterday. It was quite an introduction to formal education: the disappointment of discovering that my only friend was in a different class to me; the excitement of meeting up with him at break time; the bravado involved in asking the boy 2 years my senior (his name was Ben) whether we could join in with his game of football; the resultant ecstasy when he granted us permission, and the humiliating lesson in football that followed. I loved every minute of that day, and did not have a care in the world.

Now it’s time for me to be brutally honest, both with myself and with you.

Almost 16 years later, the education system has chewed me up and spat me out in the cruelest of fashions. Yesterday, on the 4th of July 2014, I was granted an unexpected and thoroughly unwanted independence. In an email received from the University of Portsmouth, I was told in no uncertain terms that my failure to make significant academic progress over the last year had left the relevant authorities with no choice but to exclude me from my course (English Literature & American Studies, for those not in-the-know) with ‘immediate effect’.

It was all rather callous, rather cold. It felt strange to not receive a message saying ‘We hope you enjoyed your four years at Portsmouth’, or even a simple ‘Thank you for your £14,000’. Not that I was expecting words of that nature, of course, but it still hurt. There was merely a short paragraph comprising of 4 sentences which spelled the end of my academic career that started all that time ago on that busy playground. I was pretty torn up.

Anyway, I’m lying in bed at 1.30am (it’ll probably be much later by the time I’ve finished this post)* and the rain is hammering against my window. I don’t think I’m going to get to sleep any time soon, so I want to get to the bottom of how this all happened. How did my time at university end with just a meaningless piece of paper as reward?

Academically, I struggle. In fact, since the age of about 13, I always have done. As a child, my parents and teachers agreed that I showed a lot of promise. I won an academic scholarship to my senior school, King’s Worcester, and immediately my every move became heavily scrutinised. Academic scholars were expected to set an example for others in their behaviour, work ethic and exam results. The truth was, I had never achieved proficiency in any of those three disciplines. I secured my scholarship through an aptitude for mental mathematics, a relatively good understanding of the English language and a decent grasp on the logic behind verbal reasoning.

My behaviourial record throughout school was poor. I recall a 5-day period in year 5 when, partners-in-crime in-tow, I appeared in the headmaster’s office every day. Even at an age when I would have been expected to be showing signs of maturity, I regularly found myself sitting in detention on a Wednesday afternoon while all my friends skipped merrily home. I actually bagged myself a Saturday morning detention for snapping a clothes peg off a changing room wall, but thankfully that particular punishment was cut short by an hour due to rugby commitments.

Maybe I’m exaggerating for effect. I wasn’t a rebel, and nor was I a notorious attention seeker. I was just a bored child who was completely disillusioned with the very concept of education.

My teachers were excellent, and must have despaired at my total lack of enthusiasm for their subject (ex-teachers, if you’re reading this – you were all great, thank you). Still, my academic performance was becoming a cause for serious concern. My distinctly average GCSE grades – 5 A’s, 3 B’s, 2 C’s – set in motion a drastic plan to rescue my university prospects.

Before long, an educational psychologist had been called in; I’d been instructed to spend all of my free periods in the library, I was assigned a personal mentor in the form of the (lovely) deputy headmaster Richard Chapman and I was required to collect weekly progress reports from all of my teachers.

No pressure then, Jonny.

Spending my school years in the shadow of Worcester Cathedral was an immense privilege.

Sixth form was a difficult time for me. Halfway through fifth form (year 11), I sustained a serious knee injury during a rugby match which ruled me out of all sport for a year. This came at a time when I was heavily involved in rugby, football, basketball and tennis.

When the physician broke the news to me, I wanted to cry for days on end. Confined to the library, it was heartbreaking to watch all my friends traipse happily off to the playing fields every Monday and Wednesday afternoon to enjoy the sports that I loved so much.

Not only did my abstinence from sport hurt me mentally, it also damaged me physically. Without regular exercise in my life, I started to put on weight pretty quickly. In my younger years, I was a decent athlete. Anyone who knows me will have heard how I came extremely close to representing my county at the 400 metres, and I regularly played A team rugby and football. On one occasion, I even snuck into the A team for cricket. It was infuriating, therefore, to lose all that hard-earned fitness in my year away from sport.

King’s was a great place to be at school, and I’ll always be inexpressibly grateful to my parents for sending me to be educated in such a pleasant environment. I still have many treasured friendships and memories from my 11 years there – it is a time that I’ll always look back upon with much fondness. Sadly, the same cannot be said regarding the decisions that I made about my future. Or, to be more specific, what influenced those decisions.

[At this point, I stopped writing and went to bed. The date is now the 1st of August, and once again I am lying in bed unable to sleep. My emotions are no longer raw, and the feeling of disappointment has subsided somewhat.]

I’d always had it drilled into me that the natural path for my life to take after school was the university one. After that, everything would just slot into place. However, as my time at school began to draw to a close, it became increasingly apparent to me that I was not cut out for academia.

Everyone kept talking about my ‘potential’, and how I wasn’t living up to it. The truth was, my potential never lay in school work. Notions of me attending one of the UK’s more prestigious universities started to dissipate as it became obvious that I wasn’t going to get the necessary grades. As a compromise, we started attending open days at (no disrespect intended) ‘less selective’ establishments – Northampton, Oxford Brookes, Salford, Aston, Lincoln and finally Portsmouth.

Through (limited) natural intelligence alone – I honestly can’t have done more than 10 hours of actual revision – I scraped three C’s at A level. It was enough to get me into my first choice of university, Portsmouth, but the overwhelming emotion felt on that day was relief, not joy.

Phew. Didn’t let anyone down.

Truly, I didn’t actually want to go to university. And if I did, it was for all the wrong reasons. I remember mulling over all the fun things that I’d miss out on if I didn’t go to Portsmouth, rather than being excited about the potential long-term benefits of gaining a degree in a subject that I supposedly enjoyed. I told my house tutor that I was considering going straight into employment after leaving King’s.
‘That sounds like a very sensible idea, Jonny’ was her reply; knowing smile and all. Maybe I should have heeded that smile.

Then again, maybe not. Whilst my time at university has come to an unsatisfactory conclusion, I can’t claim to have not developed as a person during my venture into higher education.

I’ve enjoyed four truly brilliant years at Portsmouth, and have learned many life lessons that can’t be taught in a classroom. I spent a thoroughly challenging but equally enjoyable year as President of the Christian Union, organising – and the ‘etc’ is fully justified here – a weekend away, a carol service, two weeks of events…etc! I’ve had my heart set on sports journalism for a fair while, so in more recent times I have relished the opportunity to get involved in reporting for the sports section of the university newspaper. Two of my greatest passions are sport and writing, so what better career to pursue than one that combines the two?’

The city of Portsmouth is awesome, as are the people who inhabit it. The number of wedding invitations that I’ve received for this summer serves as an apt reminder as to just how dynamic and warm the social scene is in Portsmouth, and having my Grandma 20 minutes’ walk away made for unpredictable entertainment on an all too irregular basis. Only those who have been fortunate enough to meet the aforementioned Grandma will fully appreciate my use of the word ‘unpredictable’.

However, despite all the thrills and spills of the last four years, there is no hiding from the fact that I have failed in what I set out to achieve. I’ve covered the highs and lows that I experienced at school, and you’ve heard about the positives that I’ve drawn from my prolonged and unfruitful time at university, but now it’s time for the post-mortem.

I think I lack the motivation required to complete a degree. To be more specific, I hate learning for the sake of learning. If new knowledge serves a practical purpose and provides an immediate outcome, then I’ll lap it up and wrap it up.

I could, for example, label every English county, every US state and every country in the world without looking at a map. Those things were fun to learn, and are always useful in a pub quiz. However, writing a 3,000 word essay on how African Americans turned their service in war into civil rights is not going to directly enhance my ability to write an article on Worcestershire’s latest cricketing triumph. I’m aware that this isn’t a problem for most people, but my brain just ain’t wired that way.

It’s fair to say that, largely inadvertently, I’ve been under a considerable amount of pressure to succeed academically. I’m not pointing the finger here. Honestly, I’m not. I am solely responsible for the course that my life has taken thus far, and I will continue to shoulder that responsibility in the future.

However, both my parents are both Oxford graduates, two of my grandparents were Cambridge graduates and my education cost over £100,000. I know these are things that would give most people an advantage in life, but I think the personality and mindset of the individual plays a large role in determining whether that supposedly advantageous position works for or against them. In my case, I think the evidence points to against.

An overwhelming expectation to succeed, married to an apprehensive fear of failure.

I think this pressure is largely self-inflicted, a direct result of poor decision-making and misplaced motivation.

The truth is, though, that through all of the failures and successes, in all of the valleys and on all the mountain-tops, there has been one constant and that is my Lord Jesus Christ. He is my rock and my shelter, and in my weaknesses and my shortcomings his perfection is magnified. The world will look at the last 4 years of my life and tell me that I’m a failure. The world will look at my future and tell me that it is uncertain.

The world will stop at nothing to make me adhere to the standards that it sets. But when I come to Jesus, I know that he has already done everything that I need to be accepted, and I know that my future is in eternal glory with him!

Jesus took my sins and failures, and made them his own when he died on the cross. He loved me so much that not only did he want an eternal relationship with me, but he was willing to die in order to make that happen.

“You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.” – Psalm 139:5

So whilst I’d have quite liked my time at university to have finished in a more positive manner, I am not afraid of what the future holds. I know that Jesus loves me more than I can possibly imagine, and I know he walks with me down every path – rocky or otherwise.

Sure, I’m going to have to learn how to manage my expectations and discover what stimulates my mind, but the one person whom I can never let down is Jesus because he already knows all of my weaknesses and stumbling blocks. In fact, he knows exactly what lies in store for me – how exciting is that?!

My plan now? I’m going to give my brain a rest. I’m taking a week’s holiday to Normandy with some friends, and when I return I’ll weigh up my options. I think the Lord is presenting me with several doors of opportunity, and I would appreciate your prayers as I seek his will in discerning which one to open.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading this testimony. I never intended for it to be this long, but once I started writing I just found I couldn’t stop.




*4 weeks later, in fact!


Go For The Hard Cell

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be a Christian at University, and how exactly I/we fit into society and the church. I have often marvelled at how the life a student leads is perpetually estranged from the “real world”, and how we as students tend to warmly embrace this unhealthy notion by pro-actively ensuring that our contact with those outside of University circles is restricted to a few words over a shop counter. The average modern day student, Christian or not, seems to have a chip in their brain which convinces them that they are the centre of the world/ are in some way different to the rest of society in terms of what they are entitled to. Admittedly the blame does not fall completely at the feet of the student – you need only walk down the High Street to see that shops and businesses have identified students as a key target market in their advertising campaigns – but It saddens me that this is a particularly common problem within Christian circles. That sounds a little harsh, I know, but please give me a couple of minutes to provoke a thought or two.

In relation to my introductory paragraph, I would like to call into question the helpfulness of the infamous “Student Cell Group.” I’m aware that they’re hardly a new phenomenon, and most churches these days seem to have adopted them into their vision, but I’m unconvinced that they hold a great deal of value [although I do appreciate that there are advantages to them].  I was having a conversation with my Pastors at the beginning of the summer about how to cater for the students at my home church, and they were quick to point out that students, of all people, do not need “catering” for. Students have the most time and energy out of everyone so surely, they reasoned, it is only logical that we are the ones doing the giving? We discussed the pros and cons of setting up a student study group at the church, and arrived at the conclusion that it was neither a biblical nor a beneficial move for the students and church alike. Why, Pastors Roy and Ryan reasoned, should students feel the need to separate themselves from the rest of the church when in Jesus’ eyes they are deemed the same as all other adults? At what age do young adults stop considering themselves to be walking the Christian faith differently to other folk in the church and instead embrace the wisdom and experience that they can glean from those who have already been through University and the world of work?

This also raises the question as to where in the Bible we are instructed to slice the church into age brackets and enforce exclusivity. I would suggest that a glance at the Early Church shows us that folk from every background imaginable met together and enjoyed one another’s fellowship. I’m aware that it’s much more cosy/easy to just hide away from everyone else in our little student world and set up what I now like to call “Cell lite” [because how can we get the full meat out of a discussion if everyone involved has the same experience?], but Jesus doesn’t instruct us to seek out convenience and exclusivity. Church is about meeting under Jesus’ name with all of his family together – young, old, poor, rich, funny, annoying. Sometimes you have to put up with it, but tolerance teaches patience and patience is a fantastic Fruit of the Spirit. Can we get a more perfect example of how to do fellowship  than Jesus, who spent loads of time hanging out with some spectacularly diverse groups of people from many different walks of life? Acts 20:35 and Leviticus 19:32 also spring to mind.

You [the young adult] also have to remember that when you go to a mixed-age house group, you become an incredible blessing to the elderly folk with whom you have fellowship. Imagine yourself, if you will, at the age of 80. Do you not think it would be a little saddening to see a Christian generation growing up intent on separating themselves from you and your peers and you’re not really sure why. When the young you shows a desire to invest time and interest into sharing your Christian experiences with the unemployed man in his mid-40s or the 60 year-old cleaning lady, it is immeasurably more rewarding than discussing the quotidian nuances of University life. Although it is not always the case, most Christians tend to grow in maturity and wisdom through time. That man in his mid 40s and that 60 year old lady will have an excellent grasp of the scriptures and a wiser head upon their shoulders. Obviously I generalise somewhat, but it’s undeniably a trend. Does your church have mixed-age cell groups? If so, I encourage you to attend one of them.

I appreciate that there are a lot of stones that I’ve left unturned, some of them rather heavier than others. I hope you have felt sufficiently challenged by this article to leave a comment, drop me an email or – even better – just “Go For The Hard Cell”.


(Currently sitting in my room, cursing the bar across the road for playing ridiculous reggae music at 4000 decibels – they’re probably getting complaints from a family trying to sleep in central Kingston right now).

Eight floors and eighty feet above the world, my University life has taken flight. Eighteen flights, to be precise – of stairs, that is, to reach my flat. Yes, that’s right sports fans. Two days into my year at Portsmouth, and the halls lift has given up the ghost already. I presumed they would get on the case immediately and slave away night and day in a desperate attempt to cater for our busy lifestyles and intricate timetables, but apparently the University’s more immediate concerns include handing out numerous leaflets and getting us out of bed at 7am (!!) for a fire drill. It’s so reassuring to sleep at night in the knowledge that they have our best interests at hearts…although less reassuring is the prospect of ear-piercing emissions of tempestuous anger from the fire alarm. Heathens.

Anyway, believe it or not I have actually engaged in social activity of the mild variety – my life hasn’t been consumed by fire drills and rages against the machine. In just the first couple of days I’ve met some lovely people, both Christian and non-Christian. I’ve had someone reminisce the ups and downs of their adolescent years to me, I shared pizza and jokes with some CU kids. I’ve met freshers, third years, black, white and asian kids, girls (!!) and boys, surfers and footballers. It’s been an entertaining start to the year.

It’s also been pretty exhausting. Meeting and fraternising with unfamiliar folk is in itself a tiring and full-time occupation. The assimilation of names and faces is something I struggle with anyway, so putting me in a new environment with 20,000 strangers and asking me to learn about fifty names in the first 7 days is kinda like putting a dyslexic kid in IKEA for a week with the task of remembering the spelling of every piece of furniture. Ambitious.

So just a quick update on how things are panning out so far:

– I’ve been to two CU events already, and plan to attend the remaining two this week.

– I’ve signed up for American Football try-outs, and have also applied for a show on the student radio station, the name of which I can’t recall.

– I’ve been blessed with a Christian flat-mate, which is incredible.

– I attended Kings Church on Sunday morning, a charismatic student church. I plan to visit St Jude’s this Sunday, an Anglican church based somewhere near Southsea.

– I had my hair cut by a gay guy with bad breath – it’s now about an inch long. MY HEAD IS COLD!!!

– I had a fight with a 24 stone Samoan and won. He was out cold for ten minutes afterward.

Well, that’s a brief summary. I’m praying every day that I’ll find a church where I feel comfortable with the teaching and practises that happen there, and where I get a real sense of family and belonging from the congregation. I know this isn’t a primary issue as such, but there seems to be a fairly laid-back attitude towards the allowance of women preachers in this city, and it’s a concern that’s fairly strong in my mind. I am convinced that we are clearly instructed to leave the preaching and spiritual leadership of the church to the men (see 1 Timothy 2:11-13).

Right, that’s it for me for today. I’m gonna go tell those reggae guys to shut up outside!



Those who know me will be aware of the fact that I am heading off to study English with American studies (combined hon.) at Portsmouth University. Whilst a part of me feels overwhelmingly excited at this prospect, I also feel like this ostensible eagerness ensconces an inner-feeling of melancholy.

The three years I spend at Portsmouth will represent a new chapter in my life. I’d like to label it “Chapter 3.” This would, of course, infer the existence of two previous chapters. The first chapter of my life comprises of my years at school – from ages 6 to 18. The second chapter of my life was slightly shorter, but nonetheless still a chapter in its own right. My gap year, spent working at a Christian youth centre, marked a significant step in my spiritual and adult life. 4 months ago I had been learning about the French film industry and Shakespeare’s sonnets. Now, I suddenly found myself teaching teens the message of the word of God, and helping to run camps for youth groups. Talk about role-reversal.

My gap year fast-tracked the development of many aspects of my life. I grew in confidence, in faith, in knowledge, in understanding and in stature – something I owe to the copious amounts of leftovers at mealtimes that simply had to be consumed. I did things that a younger, more worldly Jonny Wilson would never have even considered – I got baptised, led a church service and trained for ministry with prospective pastors. I hope that Chapter 2 of my life heavily influences Chapter 3.

When I leave for Portsmouth on September 18, I will be leaving behind me the friends and family that I grew up with, the church, city and home that I grew in and the comfort of familiarity that comes with all these things. It is a daunting prospect. Of course, well-nigh everyone else goes to University in the same position as I, but that provides only a small reassurance.

“What if I don’t find friends who enjoy American Football?” I ask myself.

“What if no-one in Portsmouth has a barbecue?”

These are, of course, trivialities. I look forward to three prosperous and beneficial years of education ahead of me on the south coast. My Grandma lives about 10 minutes walk from my accommodation, so I already have plans in place to domy laundry for free and sneak the occasional Sunday lunch in on the side. She’s old, vulnerable and slightly naive about modern society – so getting free stuff off of her shouldn’t pose any problems. I think she’s expecting to feed me every evening of the week, but I’ve lovingly reassured her that this won’t be the case. So what are my expectations for university? What do I expect of myself, and what do I expect from the experience? In no particular order:

– To gain a degree in English with American Studies. I guess that’s kinda obvious, but I haven’t actually mentioned (or thought about) the whole qualification-gaining aspect of university yet. Now you know.

– To become independent – from family, home comforts etc.

– To grow as a Christian. This will involve forging strong Christian friendships, finding a church that reveres and loves God and worships him in a biblical manner, enjoying healthy fellowship, creating and using opportunities to share God’s word and God’s love with those around me and, most importantly, finding time in the busy day of a student to spend time alone in God’s word and in prayer.

– To enjoy myself. Portsmouth is a beautiful city, and there is plenty going on. The student years bring a lot of fun times to the table, or so I’ve heard. Jesus came so that we may “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). The appreciation and enjoyment of our surroundings and resources are gifts from God!

This list isn’t exhaustive…well, maybe it is. Those are just a few reasons behind my decision to head to university. If I spelled them all out for you, I may exceed my word count limit (and I’m not even sure that I have one of those). In summary; ummm……?!?