How To Survive (And Even Enjoy!) Your University Education 

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Words || Cameron Colwell

After a few conversations, multiple admittances of frequent breakdowns from friends and acquaintances, and some research, I’ve come to confirm something I’ve suspected for a long while: being an Australian student in 2016 is fucked. What was once, I imagine, an intellectual orgy of engagement, enrichment, and community has been ravaged by a number of policies and global trends, so that university now resembles something of a social and political minefield.

If your parents went to university, conversations with them may have left you with the vague sense that their generation had it much easier. This is a notion validated by statistics. In Richard Hil’s book, Selling Students Short: Why You Won’t Get The University Education You Deserve, he points out that by the end of their first year, at least 80% of students are involved in part-time work. This was not the case in previous generations, when the cost of living wasn’t so high and people had more time and energy for uni. While some may have the privilege of being able to rely on their parents to sustain their lifestyles, this is not an option for many families. Bigger, more crowded classes, economic deprivation, and the reclusive tendencies of many university students, I think, are what have led to a situation in which university students are five times more likely to report mental illness than the rest of the population.

“One of the things that made my first year so bloody difficult was that I went through it alone.”

So, at the start of a new semester with an influx of new students, and returners who’re struggling to get their uni groove back, I’ve written a guide to help deal with the harrowing back-to-uni adjustment period. Changing the system is a bit of a tall order, but there are some things you can do to mitigate the shittiness of being a university student in 2016. I have three suggestions:

1) STRATEGISE YOUR TIME

At the end of a more-or-less disastrous first year, I resolved that I would either have to change my approach, or drop out of uni altogether. I decided on the former. Before uni started, I sent e-mails to my tutors asking for lists of the texts I would have to read. Following this, I would spend some of my free time in the university library, researching and preparing myself. Strangely, with the gift of all that time, I felt like I was really getting some in-depth learning done for the first time in my higher education.

This strategy made it much easier to deal with my workload. My past attempts at surviving uni had involved a dangerous pattern of worrying, procrastinating, and finishing assessments at the last minute. This pattern often left my physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted, and afterwards I often lacked the energy to even get out of bed. My new strategy allows me to take regular breaks which I can spend as I desire, so that study is no longer an experience of constant crisis.

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2) FIND YOUR PEOPLE

One of the things that made my first year so bloody difficult was that I went through it more-or-less alone. Each of the four units I studied was in a different faculty, which meant that I rarely ran into people from my classes on a regular basis. In the end, I only came to uni when I had to, and made time to see my friends on the weekends.

In my second year, I made a conscious effort to make new friends at uni. I learnt that establishing a community is vital to enjoying your learning experience. You need people with whom you can collaborate, communicate, and complain with. My own ‘support group’ is made up of people who also study English or Education, people I work with at Grapeshot, and people in the student groups I am a part of, mainly those in the Queer Collective.

“I did certainly learn one skill: how to loathe myself like never before.”

Becoming part of a network of students was vital to changing my perception of uni, making it a place where I belonged and was excited to go. My university community is also my support network, and knowing I have this network enormously boosted my wellbeing.

3) KILL YOUR SHAME

Although my first year of university was very difficult, I did certainly learn one skill: how to loathe myself like never before. I slowly accrued an image of myself as a burden on my parents, a waste of campus space, and a worthless, lazy person. While I did change my work ethic significantly during my second year, I also realised that stuffing up is essential to learning — a lesson I see echoed again and again during my Education units. I was failing to see that spending time thinking about how much I was doing wrong was draining my energy. I’d dwell on my mistakes, and wear myself out with regret. But, in my Education courses, I slowly realised that it isn’t necessarily me that’s messed up, but the educational system in which I’m entrenched.

I’m not dismissing personal responsibility, but not matter how hard you work there are some things you can’t change. Don’t dwell on past mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up because you got called in for a shift the night before an important exam and a lack of preparation ruined your results. If you are in a crisis during university, don’t dwell on what you have done wrong; focus on what you can change about the present.

Good luck and godspeed in the new semester.

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