How to Make Education Work for You When Academia is Not Your Thing
By Rachel Symons (Guest Blogger)
I’ve struggled in school ever since the age of nine. Fourth grade marked the beginning of the slippery slope of school-induced anxiety: the class sizes grew, new students came in and out of the classrooms, and I slowly began to feel like I was losing my grasp on school.
I was a compulsive straight A student who loved the hands-on learning that Kindergarten through third grade afforded. Yet, once standardized tests and grade reports became more important than the student, and quantitative learning became more and more the norm, I was one of many who fell through the cracks.
The only place I did not struggle was in community college. I was lucky enough to enroll in two community college classes while I was in high school. I thrived in this setting, where education was less about competition and more about personal growth and exploration. I felt supported by my female professors and peers. I was welcomed into any classroom I walked into, and I never felt like I had to prove I deserved to be there.
When I transferred to university, however, I realized this sense of security and belonging was not the norm in our educational institutions. I learned immediately that I was not cut out for the pressures and structures of academia.
Classes were impacted, professors were leaving or striking, tenured professors gave easy A’s to boost their ratings, and there was no real sense of community among the student body. For many of us, going to school was like having a monotonous overworked job: we went to classes to get the grades and got out as soon as possible without stopping to enjoy the process.
What I wish I had known all those years ago in high school was that my education was for me. I could make my college experience anything I wanted it to be, and I didn’t have to follow the cookie-cutter format laid out for me in high school and junior high.
We’re told from a young age that college is the only way to move up socially and economically in life; that our system of education is the best form of education and that we must conform to this system if we want a good job, and stable income, a mortgage, a family and social security. This is how our system survives and so do we. When we don’t fit into that system, we either have to work twice as hard to grind our way through it, or we give up and drop out. And then what?
For those going through the process of applying to college or attending college for the first time, it is important to remember that you have options. You should make your education work for you, whether that’s attending a university, getting your AA at community college, or simply getting a job and learning on your own.
College costs now more than it ever has, and it takes an average of five to six years for students to finish college, not including those who take a significant time off and go back to school later in life. The certainty of finding a job after graduating is no longer the norm either.
In a way, this realization is liberating. We can detach from the assumption that college is the one and only way to make it in life.
I never regret going to college, but I might have done it differently knowing then what I do now. I might have attended community college, because the style of education suited me much better than that of the four-year university and was significantly cheaper. I also might have taken my time, even taken a semester or two off to work or take on an internship. I worked through college, but I never gained any real experience in the fields that I wanted to pursue. This left me back at square one once I graduated. I didn’t have any clear picture of what I wanted to do with my career life or how I could turn my passions into paid work.
I also would have had more fun. If you do not enjoy what you do, it’s not worth doing. And the results of your work reflect this. I didn’t make college for me, and consequently, I didn’t enjoy it. School was a huge source of anxiety for me, and it took its toll. The quality of my work decreased, and I could never push past that aching sense that I wasn’t cut out to be there. My body physically could not take any more school. The stress of trying to live up to what I should do should accomplish and should be only pushed me further and further away from my happiness.
So take away the “shoulds” of going to college. Instead, think of using it as a time to explore. Find your community, the people who are going to support you and help show you who you are. This takes a lot of time, and it means putting yourself out there and trying things you told yourself you never would or could do. It means putting aside who you thought you were, who others thought you were and being comfortable not knowing for a while. Once you have a great support system behind you, college can be that much easier and much less daunting.
Exploring yourself professionally means getting real life experience under your belt so that every once and while you can get your head out of the academic clouds and come back down to earth for a bit. Again, do something you never thought of doing or always thought you couldn’t do when you were in high school. I’m a creative person, but even I needed to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to live off of volunteer work and writing short stories. This doesn’t mean taking on a job just because it’s practical, but taking on a job because you will also learn a lot from it or because you simply need a break from school. Education comes in all forms, and not necessarily the forms you might think, so be open to opportunities you might have otherwise discounted.
Lastly, explore yourself academically. Find a mentor who will help you learn how academia is relevant to your goals, learn how you learn, and learn what kind of student you are. Sometimes we have to jump through hoops to get to where we want to be. Don’t let college be a hoop. Enjoy what you learn and make it your own. Not all professors will appreciate this individuality, and sometimes we have to play the game a little, but don’t play it at the expense of losing yourself in the process. Learn to be okay with failure and don’t let it control you moving forward. Find that professor who will support your life goals, not just your academic ones.
Finding a community, opportunities in places outside of school, and a mentor is crucial to having a more meaningful college experience that works for you in the long run.