Most people go to university once and finish with graduation. But some do not. For various reasons, people drop out along the way. If this happens to you, it can feel like you failed at life. But fear not—there is life outside of university. And finding out what really motivates you can often be the best way back. This is the story of how I did all that.
The long walk—thinking about why you ended up here
Once upon a time I started my first degree, in computer and business studies. I saw it as a middle ground between modern engineering and engagement with people. But it wasn’t what I expected and the first year was tough. I wound up transferring course to get more of the people aspect. But after a year of academic studies this second first year was too superficial and I lost my motivation completely. I dropped out after less than a year.
My decision to stop studying riled older people around me—I was, after all, throwing away my golden ticket to middle class jobs. But it also got to me, as I felt that I did not try hard enough. My tutor even said that “university studies is not for everyone”, something that cut particularly deep. But life moved on. I got some odd coding jobs before I landed an internship in robotics.
“If I was going back to school, it was to learn, any piece of paper at the end of it being merely an accident.”
As luck happened, some of my colleagues were recent graduates. They told me about advanced modules, that helped them understand why robots did things when operating autonomously. They also recommended some new study techniques, to get through introductory modules. Spurred by this, I considered going back to university, if only to learn about robotics control. However, there were problems: one, I could not afford more studies; and two, I did not qualify for admission.
The purpose of degree-level education
Many graduates say, you will never use your degree knowledge. They then add that the degree taught them to think, and I think that is quite right. There are people who, without even a push, learn how to critically analyse facts and acquire knowledge. Most of us, however, need an education to do just the same. I say that a degree teaches you to learn independently.
Exploring these arguments was key for me to get back into formal education. I’ve known many people who only ever studied for the exam and seemed about as motivated to learn as my sister’s dog is to bathe. I decided early on that this was not to be me. If I was going back to school, it was to learn, any piece of paper at the end of it being merely an accident.
“I found myself a few years older and many experiences apart from my fellow students. Lecturers kept insisting that this was university, unlike anything you’ve experienced before. I had to bite my tongue a few times.”
If you want to give a degree another shot, you really need to explore these arguments yourself. As you will soon see, the second time around can at times be more difficult than the first and not always when you expect it. You will need to attain a motivation beyond fancy titles that keeps you going when the path gets rough.
Getting through the first year
Luckily for me, I found a place on a maths degree through clearing. I still had a few months left on the internship so I commuted to campus on the weekends and emailed pictures of written assignments to my tutor. Apart from a failed exam, this worked out.
“Evenings and weekends were devoted to study and I did as much as I could at work to learn how my theoretical knowledge could be applied in practice.”
However, when the internship wound down I found myself a few years older and many experiences apart from my fellow students. Lecturers kept insisting that this was university, unlike anything you’ve experienced before. I had to bite my tongue a few times. The pace was slow, assignments focused more on formalia than content and classes were full of busywork. What saved me was that I got another job in the same town as the university. In the first year I passed more modules than the total number of lectures I attended, since I was always on the other side of town working. My classmates all thought I’d drop out.
But I decided to take the challenge head-on. If I could not be on campus every day, I’d have school days and work days. If there was not enough time for assignments, I’d work faster. Evenings and weekends were devoted to study and I did as much as I could at work to learn how my theoretical knowledge could be applied in practice. It was tough, but I would not have it any other way.
Engaging with teachers—the hidden strengths of university education
Gradually, more engaging content was added in modules. I did not notice much at first, but after a while I traded workplaces for one closer to campus so I could attend lunch lectures. I started asking more questions, and met professors one-to-one. When you gather people who devote themselves to their trade in one place, you get lively, engaging discussions.
Initially, I was afraid to engage—what if they found out this was my second time around? But then I stopped caring. Professors really don’t care beyond what year you are in, until you show an interest in their subject. They will not think you are dumb, rather they will help explain why things are the way they are. Since you can ask questions back, this is much more valuable than reading a book.
Graduation and beyond
Now I’m nearing the end of the degree. I still work, and it is still tough. But I know I have learnt things I would not have picked up on my own. And, nary a month back, a professor told me about a realm of mathematics that is nearly unexplored, but very useful for smart robots. She convinced me that I, of all people, should continue with research. I once thought I’d always be a failure within academia, but apparently, you just have to find the real reason to study for a degree.
For me, this whole process was a learning experience. It will take some time to digest, for sure, but there are some lessons I’ve already drawn from it. I don’t worry about that one late assignment or scowling teacher—that you really can sort later. And if you have dropped out, you can get back. More people than you can imagine would like to see you try. If the going gets tough, feel free to reach out—you are not alone in this. You too can graduate.
Johan Byttner is a graduate of the IB from the time before ubiquitous smartphones. He studied Management at Warwick University, UK, and studies Mathematics at Linköping University, Sweden. Outside of class he rides horses in his spare time and works to make an autonomous car not crash into a fence near you.
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