We’re told that university is the best time of our life. The truth is, sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes, university is crying and pushing through a panic attack to complete an assignment. Sometimes, it’s feeling a deep sense of loneliness because, despite being surrounded by other people, everyone’s on their own path. Sometimes, it’s having large life events happen to you, and struggling to get out of bed every morning for entire semesters or even years while you’re expected to continue going to school as if nothing has happened.
When the general perception of university is that it’s all sunshine and butterflies, we often feel like we’re alone in our struggle. We’re hard on ourselves because we think: “If everyone else can do it, why can’t I?” We see social media posts of other people having fun at parties, and we feel like a failure for not being as socially active. The clichéd saying that “everyone’s on their own path” is true, but not always helpful when we feel so alone in our struggles at university.
What if I told you that all these obstacles – all this anxiety over being a failed university student – is a shared experience amongst many students?
I think it’s important to remember that for many of us, being in university doesn’t just mean being in school. Oftentimes, being a university student means balancing school AND at least one job, a job that is essential for affording the basic necessities to survive. There’s the need to start figuring out our finances, and making the decision between being able to pay for groceries or having a social life. Halfway through term two, we need to figure out where we’ll be living the next academic year, and if it’s within our budget. Then we have to worry about whether we’ll continue with our current jobs and whether we’ll be able to afford the security deposit.
Another common stressor that comes with being in university is the perceived need to graduate in 4 years. There’s this idea that if we take longer than 4 years, we’re behind our peers. However, according to a study conducted by Statistics Canada, published on January 11, 2023, the average time to graduation for students in Canada is “equal to 1.5 or 2 times the typical program duration for each educational qualification.” This means that for those in 4-year programs, the average time needed to graduate is 6 to 8 years. Despite the fact that many of us are capable of completing a degree within 4 years, life often makes us take extra time. Maybe it’s the need to have multiple jobs to afford everyday essentials. Maybe it’s the way the pandemic has put our lives in a blender and turned everything inside out. So why are we beating ourselves up when circumstances outside of our own control determine the amount of time we need to complete our degrees?
We’re presented with so much misinformation about what university is like and how we should feel while at university.
No wonder so many students struggle. There also seems to be an unwillingness by the general public to acknowledge that university can be challenging, which just makes us feel even guiltier about the way we feel.
I’m not saying that it’s normal for so many of us to feel this way. At least, it shouldn’t be normal that most students are constantly exhausted and burnt out. We often hear jokes about university students surviving on ramen and energy drinks, but it’s upsetting how these warning signs aren’t being taken seriously enough.
What I am saying is this:
You’re doing okay.
We need to give ourselves more grace, and understand the many circumstances in our lives that lead to us not having the “typical” university experience. In fact, the “typical” university experience is a luxury that most of us do not have. While it is a privilege to have access to higher education, it is important to acknowledge that keeping ourselves alive while being a full-time student can also take a heavy mental toll. And sometimes, this leads to university feeling like a massive weight on our shoulders. But I promise,
You’re not the only one.