How to survive being at university when you hate it and it’s soul crushing and you’re not white.

As I am writing this, there is an essay that was due on the 17th of January waiting for me to finish. But honestly, I am so over it. ‘It’ being the essay and also university. The essay topic is mildly interesting, nothing groundbreaking, nothing impossible to write and I know I “should” do it. I know I can do it and I can’t truly call this procrastination because that would imply somewhat that I want to write the essay when deep down inside I most definitely do not! Also it’s an economics essay so it’s just inherently nonsensical and evil. I’ll finish it though, just in my own time.

Anyway, whilst there is no conventional reason for me to be writing a blog post that no one asked for when I have this lackluster essay to write – I am going to (attempt) to justify why I am still at university whilst I know that it’s one of the main contributors to my internal conflict.

Why am I studying what I’m studying? Why am I in debt for this? How helpful is this really going to be? What the fuck am I still doing here? Is it too late to drop out? I feel like this is a boat (or rather, sinking ship) that most of us at university are in.

Well, most of us I’m assuming are at university because we haven’t bothered to explore other options and are valiant ‘status-quoists’. But perhaps more importantly, it’s knowing that getting a degree is one of the (sort of) sure fire ways of getting a job. So in that sense, the nature of university doesn’t have to be valuable because it’s just a stepping stone to getting the jobs we think we want. To be honest, it does make me feel sick saying this knowing that I’m in debt for receiving what is meant to be an elite education and we all already know the arguments for why university isn’t worth it regardless of whether the debt matters. Yet here we are. So we’re either okay with selling ourselves out a little as slaves to capitalism or, even worse, do genuinely believe that university is worth it.

So why not drop out? Enough people have done well for themselves with no degree. I think most of us are scared, and not irrationally so. Scared to end up not being able to make a living, scared to try something else, scared to face our parents etc. But despite all this, I do think that in the most roundabouts of ways, university is useful even if it’s only instrumentally so. This is especially for my fellow social science and humanities ppl, I don’t know about you stem niggas but I doubt you lot have made it this far anyway.

One of the main take aways from being at UCL is that life is shit, and don’t get me wrong I always sort of knew this. But I thought life was shit in the very basic way of like “bad things do happen to good people”. But being at university opened my eyes to the ways that life is very intentionally constructed to be shit for most of us. Places like university, especially when you try to make some sorts of changes, have very special ways of reminding you of your insignificance. These are places where beauracracy comes before efficiency, where everyone comes before teaching staff, students and service workers. There are plenty of other things I could say about how rubbish uni is, how unfair it is, how racist, sexist, homophobic, heteronormative, classist it is but if you’re already in uni you’ll know this.

In no way do I want to romanticise how awful some (and by some I mean most) universities can be, but there are very valuable lessons to be learned and there are ways to change your approaches to learning so you can actually get through your degree. Hopefully some of this is relatable and/or helpful.

For example, I think especially when you study the humanities you often have to write about your own opinions and it gets very difficult to not take low grades personally. If you’re someone who has quite high standards for yourself, this can be soul crushing. It’s not just that your work wasn’t good enough but someone else is essentially saying your opinion is shit and it gets very easy to take this as “I am shit”. But you are not shit, someone quite literally just didn’t love your essay. And whilst there are legitimate things to grade like how well you communicate ideas, how well you use evidence etc. you tend to know if you fell short in those areas. One thing I have learned is to compartmentalise. It’s important that there’s a clear distinction in your head of you and your output, conflating these two and having whatever you put out to be judged by others will leave you an insecure mess. Put simply, you are not your work. Yes, your work does reflect you but how your work is judged reflects on the person marking it. I think this is super important when it comes to practically finding ways to finish your degree. Feeling like you’re not going to do super well usually results in some level of procrastination, because it’s easier to fail knowing you didn’t try than knowing you did and still fell short. But if you know that you are not your work then you’re less likely to fall subject to these sorts of self-destructive behaviours.

Sometimes though, your procrastination isn’t a result of a deep rooted fear of failure. Sometimes the work is just fucking boring and there are a trillion better things to do. This is something that’s widely talked about in that genre of corny self help literature where it’s argued that you tend to go for short term satisfaction rather than the long term which is why you may avoid doing things like studying. I feel like this is a bit of a shit take though, whilst graduating is a long term goal that would bring a lot of us satisfaction, not studying doesn’t mean that we’re too busy chasing short term highs. Not always anyway. I think there’s a lack of acknowledgement that students are multifaceted beings who have interests and dreams outside of academia and corporate work. It might seem like objectively your priorities are out of order if you’re a student and your number one goal isn’t to graduate. But this isn’t something that should be problematised, life is bigger than this. Whilst we should study and try to graduate, this doesn’t mean uni has to be THE number one thing in your life. Other priorities may not even be things that can be materialised, it might be companionship, self knowledge, emotional growth, physical health, self-esteem etc. What I’m mainly trying to say is that even though uni takes up so much time, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a top priority for us and that is OKAY. I think most would agree with me in saying that what we care about the most is pretty separate from where or what we study and we should own that. Actualising this relieves some of the pressure we put ourselves under, the sort of pressure that isn’t actually conducive to ‘doing what you need to do’. It seems counterintuitive to de-centre the thing in your life that takes up the most time, but I’ve found it surprisingly helpful.

Additionally, I know in a lot of self help stuff there’s an emphasis placed on finding your ‘why’. Your purpose/reason or thing that’s going to get you through whatever journey you’re on. Personally, I’m 20 and don’t know what the hell I really want so this ‘finding your ‘why’ stuff sounds like bs to me. I have loads of general shallow interests that mean I can’t confidently say anything like “My ‘why’ is wanting to contribute to eradicating poverty” or “I want to become an author because growing up I didn’t read many poc authors”. But like, upon reflection these are some pretty huge ‘whys’ and they just don’t need to be so outlandish and arbitrary. Like, at the moment my reason (or ‘why’) to graduate is knowing how badly my grandpa wanted to see me graduate. Should I want to complete my degree based on what someone else would have wanted? Ideally not, but I don’t give a hoot because that genuinely is the only thing keeping me going and that’s what matters. Your ‘why’ might be not wanting to be in debt in vain or it might be proving a point to yourself or someone who doubted you. I hate how these sorts of motivational things have been constructed as only being useful if they are deep and dreamy. Your reason is merely just an instrument to keep you going. And, if you acknowledge that a university degree is more instrumentally than intrinsically valuable your ‘why’ doesn’t need to be morally pristine. My reason for actually getting out of bed in the morning sometimes is so that I can take a cute pic with natural lighting because the sun has a way of shining at 9am. Now, I don’t know what this says about me and my priorities but it might be the thing that gets me out of that bed that morning so I don’t care.

Another big thing about uni is people. Some of the people I have met at uni are so fucked up that thinking about them causes me to feel embarrassment. Some of the people I have met at uni are so incredibly interesting and supportive and wonderful that I can’t not think about them. It’s really a mixed bag. But if we’re talking literally and optically, university is pretty white and it’s pretty Asian. So if you’re anything darker than a paper bag, your experience of people is likely to be markedly different. This can be super demotivating because even if you don’t experience racism or you don’t fall victim to someones ignorance (by some miracle), sometimes you just won’t get the companionship you desire. This isn’t a silver lining, but it is an opportunity to practice putting yourself out there. Not just with students, but with staff too. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was changing my personal tutor, my new one is a fabulous British Indian woman who shares so many of my experiences and has created a safe space for me to talk shit about anything I can think of. This is something I had to do on my own though, one thing about university is no one is going to pick you up when you are down – and if you’re any sort of Black no ones going to even notice you’re down. There is a time to cry about this and vent, which is very much necessary, but there is also a time to take that as an opportunity to foster intentional relationships and create safe spaces. You’re just not going to get through uni by yourself, even if you could, you would massively be doing yourself a disservice. It’s through others that you tend to learn the most about yourself which is necessary at such a crucial age. Not only this but sometimes people get proper stingy about sharing notes and you need to have people that aren’t going to make you dance like a chimp to get them.

One other more petty thing that’s helped me get through university is venting. But not to my friends, but to the people who have caused me to be pissed off. In my final year especially I had an epiphany. These professors or whatever they want to call themselves are not better than me, I have also written my fair share of mediocre papers. So, if I see something problematic on a reading, in a seminar or anywhere really, straight away (and I mean pretty much effective immediately) I will complain about the issue. This has served me well because now I actually remember what the hell it is I’m being taught because I know how full of shit it is and have made that known. Is this productive in terms of “making real change”? I don’t know and frankly I’m past the point of caring. All I know is that it is cathartic and it makes me actually pay attention in lectures/seminars because there is always something to complain about. I recommend this especially if you’re in your final year because at that point you’ll be out of there soon and you don’t owe these ppl shit.

The bottom line is this: university can feel like a huge waste of time, it can make you feel like a sell out, it can make you feel singled out, it can make you feel dumb and a whole host of other things. Does this mean you should drop out? Well, I would say no and that’s because you’re not going to escape those feelings by leaving university especially not as a poc. So why not stay, why not take the university for what it is (a profit maximising institution playing dress up as platos academy) instead of leaving for what it isn’t!

There are more things I think I could probably say, but won’t because I think I’m ready to get on with that essay now.

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