With the struggles this generation has had with finding work that matches their degree, many of us are asking ourselves if that university education was worth all the time, effort, and mountains of debt. Well, I’ll break down my own experience and the things I got out of my own undergraduate and graduate university experience and hope that you can take something for yourselves.
First, my disclaimer is that my college experience was not traditional. I went to a junior college, then transferred to a local university while living at home. Then I applied for Clinical Psychology Ph.D programs for two years and failed to get in one. As it turns out, they are extremely competitive. I then went back to the local university and earned my master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Now, I’m not working in my field for various reasons which I described in a previous post here. I do hope to work in my field one day in the future if things were to change.
Don’t Be Afraid to Start at Community College
My first bit of advice is that there is nothing wrong with a local community college or junior college. Often when we attend community colleges, they are near our homes and our support systems. Staying near your support system can be extremely beneficial if you struggle with any form of disability as well as anxiety and depression. Mental illness is something you should never struggle with alone.
There are so many reasons why this is an excellent option. The schedules and professors are usually more relaxed in this setting, so you can dip your toes into the water without feeling overwhelmed right away. Prerequisite courses are also straight forward to transfer to a university if that is your goal. If university transfer isn’t your end goal, then community college is still an excellent option. Many of these colleges have certificate programs and associates degrees for computer programming, networking, nursing, welding, industrial maintenance, cosmetology, and so many more.
There are several situations in which a community college may not be the best start for you though.
- Financial Aid: Most universities offer scholarships for ACT/SAT scores, sports and other extra-curricular activities, and others that you would not qualify for if you went to a community college before university. Though most community colleges are affordable compared to universities, you have to consider your ultimate goal in this decision.
- Location: If you don’t live near a community college or junior college, that option may not fit your needs.
- Experience: If you’re looking for the “college experience” with campus life, freshman events, sororities and fraternities, sporting events, etc., then you may want to go straight to a university. Some community colleges can offer aspects of this experience, but a university generally offers a wider range of students, courses, activities, and experiences overall.
Disability Support Staff/Special Populations
If you’re dealing with a disability whether it be physical or psychological, I highly recommend that you visit the disability support office at your prospective school. They will set up a file with you outlining the accommodation that you need to succeed. They will communicate with your professors what you need in class. I highly recommend that you personally speak with each of your professors, but respect and kindness are not always a given with each professor, so it is important to have someone who can back you up if you should encounter frustrations along the way. See my previous post about what I tell professors and about my personal accommodations and experiences here.
Some accommodations that you can expect are:
- Note takers
- Extra time for testing in a distraction free area
- Large print notes/copies of presentations/copies of board work
- Interpreters for the deaf
- Space for anyone requiring a wheelchair/other special seating as needed
- Support staff to escort you should you have a need for that
- And so many other various accommodations
Time at university allows for self-discovery during which you will learn your own dislikes, likes, needs, and goals. You will find people whose goals and likes match or complement your own. Some of these people become more than just someone you study with. They become someone you struggled with, someone you experimented with, someone you succeeded with. These experiences will bond you to one or two very close friends. Some of my closest, deepest friendships are those that were forged during my time at university.
Keep in mind that every friend you make during this period of your life will not become a lifelong friend, but that is part of the learning process as well. This period allows you to discern between the types of people you want in your life and the ones you would rather not include.
Cultural, Spiritual, and Emotional Education
During the university experience, you will hopefully be exposed to people from varying cultures, levels of spirituality and religion, and backgrounds. Meeting people who are different from you should be viewed as a chance to educate yourself and expand as a person. Learning from the experiences of others is how we expand our thought patterns, practice empathy, and make decisions about who we want to become. From these new people, you can learn to discuss differing beliefs and values which will help you identify your own value system.
Expand Your Personal Interests
Throughout your time at university, you will be exposed to new hobbies, interests, and activities. This exposure will allow you to discover what you enjoy doing. Universities and community colleges often offer courses like pottery, photography, visual design, drafting, music, cake decorating, painting, and other various courses on creative arts. If you have time to take any of these courses, you may discover a hobby that you will continue throughout your life, or you may even discover a career path. These days are all about the side hustle, and most of these involve performing services for others such as art design, photography, social media management, and other creative activities.
Creative arts are not the only hobbies and activities you may discover. Sports and games are also hobbies that many pursue in some fashion throughout their adult lives. As you meet new people and see new needs, you may also find inspiration for business ideas or a niche for an invention or service.
Who Are You Going to Be?
University is that time where you are absorbing all that surrounds you, and this education encompasses so much more that what you learn from the classroom and books. You learn how to interact with your peers; you learn that sometimes life isn’t how you expected it would be; and you learn that your choices matter. We don’t magically go to university and return as the person we will be forever, and this is a lesson that I’ve learned during my non-traditional six plus years’ experience.
The most important things I’ve learned are thus:
- Always, always, always give someone the benefit of the doubt, because you never know their struggle or how their morning went.
- Empathy is a skill some are born with, but it can be learned. It is invaluable when working with others.
- Vulnerability and openness are NOT weakness. They require trust in humanity and should not be met with judgment and aggression.
- Don’t be afraid to take a new path, happiness is where you make it and never where you expect it to be.
- Take chances and make mistakes. In your mistakes, you will learn the most powerful lessons of your life.
- Never view change as settling. Life is in constant flux and so are you. Embrace change and make it your own.
- Stop comparing yourself to others, especially based on their social media. You are so much more than what you post online. You are NOT a simple being and neither is anyone else.
There is so much to be learned in this world from class, reading, those around us, mistakes, and chances taken. Don’t stop trying new things and always stay curious.