On Saturday, I spoke on a panel at the NI21 conference in the Europa Hotel. The topic was young people and politics. My good friend Brian John Spencer told the crowd I was his “hero” because I’m “a self-made woman” who dropped out of university and “made my own way” as a journalist. Brian’s biggest regret in life is doing the “done thing” and going to university to study law.
Consequently, I received a message from a young woman who was at the conference. She’s hating university and is thinking about dropping out. She asked for my advice.
The “university dropout” is a stereotype that has been romanticised by many. Given that I hear some form of this question every few months or so, I decided to publish my reply to her. Below is a slightly edited transcript.
So I’m going to be really, really honest with you because this is a big decision to make.
Firstly, it sounds to me as if you’re struggling with the workload. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, though. Go and talk to one of your tutors; there should be help available for you. You are not the first person to have this problem and you will not be the last. It’s nothing to do with you not being academic; uni is a shock to the system for most people because it’s so different from how things are done at school and if you’re not used to it, it’s hard to adjust. This is not a reflection on you not being “academic” but on how the education system doesn’t prepare students enough for the transition to uni.
Failing that, it could just be a case of swapping courses – or universities. A range of degrees in the humanities – anything, actually – will prepare you for a career in [redacted].
I understand this may not be what you want to hear because I was at QUB [Queens University Belfast] and I hated it. I just wanted out. It wasn’t the workload but the atmosphere and the social groups within the place. It wasn’t a place for working-class kids.
I know Brian made my story out to be very romantic – anyone who hasn’t travelled that path would – but in truth, it was anything but. The last four years have been hell for me. Getting by without a degree is so hard. It took me a long time to establish myself in my own right. Dropping out doesn’t mean you’ve failed but for most people, that’s how it’s viewed.
In fact, I’m now back at uni studying for my Masters and I intend to go back and get my undergrad because I love learning – I just didn’t love Queens.
When you don’t have traditional qualifications, you can’t climb the ladder. The traditional routes that everyone else takes are closed to you. You have to build your own path, out of whatever materials you can find. To extend that analogy, sometimes you’ll be making a ladder out of cardboard. You will fail so many times and success will be far from certain. University may be painful and it may be hard but it is the easiest way to get into any profession. By dropping out of uni, I forsook the traditional path which really takes away career stability. For a long time, I wasn’t sure how I would make a living. It’s taken me four years to get a point where my efforts are paying off.
It’s only in the last six months that I’ve been able to say dropping out of university was a gamble that paid off. Before that, I regretted it bitterly. What I didn’t see back then was how all the entrepreneurial projects I was working on would set me up for roles working in new media companies for entrepreneurs (like my roles at Mediagazer and The XX Corporation). These are the companies that are growing while old media companies are struggling to survive. This, however, was luck and luck isn’t always on your side. As I said earlier, there’s a lot more uncertainty in building your own ladder than in climbing the one created for you by others.
This is the other setback: traditional, established companies will not hire people who don’t come up through the traditional route. That would be a risk for them. Luckily, I enjoy working for small companies and entrepreneurs but if I didn’t, it would be a huge problem because my career options have been severely shrunk by the fact that I don’t have a piece of paper from Queens.
I hope this helps and if I can help in any other way, please let me know. If you’re still determined to leave uni, let me know and I will offer more positive pointers and any help/introductions I can. I don’t mean to be dreadfully pessimistic. My life has been amazing because of the decision I made at 19 and I’m so glad I made the choice I did. Yet it is not an easy path and I would be lying if I said it was. If you’re going to do this, you have to be utterly committed to your dream because there are days when it will be easier to give up than it is to keep on fighting. If you love it, you’ll keep fighting. You might take a break for a while but you’ll always come back to it.
Hope this helps,