Student Woes. What it’s like for your child to be a university student today

It wasn’t too long ago that I was a student, looking at four years of endless lectures and seminars, innumerable assignments, a sustained penniless condition, abysmal group work, pending exams and grades that didn’t always compensate for the lack of social life, sleepless nights and boring class discussions. As soon as I started my first semester, I was already looking to finish university. This was mainly because I already got a taste of life after studying. Before committing to do my Bachelors, I was working a full time job, earning a decent full time wage, had no debt (so I could splurge on clothes and vacations whenever I wanted) and I was in charge of my destiny. So why did I become a student?

Long Term Vision

The day finally came when in that wonderful job of mine I wanted to move up the corporate ladder. Why should I expect any resistance? I had shown initiative more times than I could count, I was the first through the door and often the last to leave the office, my work was consistently of a high standard, I was articulate and I grasped new concepts exceptionally well. So what was the problem? I was not a degree holder. Therefore, I was facing the prospect of working twice as long as a recent graduate (in the way of years) just to be anywhere near being considered for a managerial post and that’s only if that post wasn’t explicitly advertised for degree holders. What made it worse, a colleague one day jokingly admitted that his degree had to do with studying medieval history such as that of King Arthur and his Knights at the round table. Furthermore, I came across managers that wholly lacked business acumen, people skills, leadership qualities and even work ethics. Needless to say, I felt insulted but I had to figure out what to do.

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Now let me quickly add a few disclaimers – this is not about bashing those who have their degree in one area and have decided to branch into another unrelated field and this is neither saying that all managers are incompetent, egotistical, maniacal and did not earn their right to be promoted. Furthermore, I do acknowledge that some employees have been promoted without being a degree holder and are doing just fine. However, this is a changing job market and having at least a Bachelor’s degree is increasingly becoming the norm when applying for roles. With that being said, I decided to get my Bachelors degree because that was the start to becoming more marketable and overcoming the first of (I anticipate to be several obstacles) in climbing the corporate ladder in any organisation.

LESSONS LEARNT

During my studies, after obtaining my degree and currently back in the job market again, I have learnt the following lessons:

If I was offered another suitable alternative, I would have never gone to university

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A Bachelor’s degree, regardless of its duration, is ultimately a foundation course but a more expensive version of this. I studied International Relations and Chinese but my superb grades in International Relations will not get me through the doors of even the most prestigious international volunteer organisation and my Chinese, though robust academically, will never be good enough for me to even qualify for the role of a community interpreter. It almost makes you wonder if the whole thing was an expensive farce or a way to just keep us youths occupied so we don’t add to the already over-burdened job market.

Your work options as a student are not limited but rather, limitless.

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Even though you are a student, your options for work are not limited to cleaning, bartending etc. Before I left my full time job to pursue full time studies, my manager had the nerve to say ‘Good luck. You know the best you can get in the way of work will be bartending right?’ WRONG. I was determined to not take any loans and to supplement the financial support I was receiving through my scholarship and grants. Therefore, I chose to work part-time. If you will be using a job agency, the best way to achieve a healthy study and work balance is to possibly work occasional weekends. I was able to manage doing this in a luxury car dealership. However, the best option is to work for your university. My university was superb in recruiting students to different roles in the departments and faculties on-site. The pay wasn’t bad and they were very conscientious of offering roles that had hours that were reasonable enough to not encroach on your studies, while providing a quasi-steady income. The only thing is that this may mean going to work after class. In either case, you will have to be highly disciplined.

Lecturers and tutors can be both an enemy and a friend

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Lecturers and seminar tutors can be lazy and difficult. There are some lecturers and tutors that regurgitate the same material they had for the last five years and happily teach this for another six. If they made the effort to update this, they didn’t necessarily take the time to work on their delivery. Many times I was lulled to sleep by monotonous tones and uninteresting talks only to wake up when everything was over. As to them being difficult, as human beings they will not always be completely impartial and neutral when they deal with us students. You need only get to the stage of doing your dissertation and having a supervisor (which you will need to have several 1:1s with) to realise how much power they can wield in hindering or assisting you.

You will constantly face tests in and outside the classroom

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You will constantly be tested in the classroom and in the job market. If you think the worst injustice is being told that you need experience after spending the last four years labouring away diligently at your studies, think again. There is an enemy like none other which we are now having to contend with and that’s psychometric tests. Oh yes! Those lovely ‘pain in the ass’ that you’ll have to study and practice for if you are seriously determined to get into those more established and prestigious institutions. But why? Understandably, the job needs to find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff but why subject graduates to another round of rigorous tests when we just about kept our heads above water for the last three to four years? If these tests are really what matters, then let us study for that instead of doing all these modules at university (some of which will not even be applied in our field).

However, if you’ve chosen the other route of just going to interviews, that’s another joke. It’s not all about dressing the part, looking the part, sounding eloquent, being knowledgeable and demonstrating your skills. The deciding factors are more subtle such as if they see you fitting into their work environment; if you belong to a demographic that thinks, articulates and gestures in a manner commensurate to their social standing; if you will be a threat to them, in the future, through your sheer ambition; if you remind them of someone they dislike….. I could go on and on but these are the things that your career coach won’t tell you because it’s hard to prove. Many times, the hiring managers and interviewing panel themselves are oblivious that their decisions are being informed by unconscious and institutional discrimination.

Previous work experience only gives you a slight advantage

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Who said having a solid work background, before studying, will guarantee you smooth transition back into the job market? I foolishly thought that I could resume my life, as it were, before I went into full-time studies (i.e. get a job at my old salary grade or even higher considering that I now had a degree). That was wishful thinking and I had to learn the hard way. I was no different and I was no special. I had to start from the bottom again but the good part was that I was noticed a lot quicker by recruitment agencies. Granted, I wasn’t altogether happy with the jobs they were offering but within two weeks of graduating, I was back into work.

Students need to start exercising their smarts even before they’ve had their first lesson

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Students need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to pursuing university studies. It’s not enough to just succumb to the exorbitant fees; accept the Herculean task of paying back a debt big enough to be your mortgage and struggle, for however long afterwards, to find a job and make ends meet. Look into studying abroad and compare your tuition fees here and in European universities. From the first year, start making yourself known to the movers and shakers in your field of interest. Frequent their circles, interact, network, make sure you have a promising start once you graduate. Dial back the partying for now. It seems all thrilling to drink yourself to oblivion and do as much damage to your brain cells, while you can, so you can have stories to tell your grandkids. All of that is overrated because you are bleeding away money, most of which isn’t yours, and will lose contact with half the people you meet anyways. You will have all the time in the world to travel, enjoy life and party after you graduate. Make the most of your time while studying. As my very good African friend and mentor once told me, the difference between you and others is how well you use your 24 hours.

In the end, it’s not all doom and gloom

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Difficult, pressing and stressful times as these, if handled well, are very character building. All the failed interviews, rejection letters or even emails that went unanswered build perseverance and patience. All those times that you had to budget with little to nothing in your pocket, while living on just toast and beans, builds financial prudence. All those disappointing grades and exam results, which did not justify all the hard work you invested, make you uncomfortable enough that your aim will always be nothing less than the best. All those party invites you had to turn down, all that socialising time you swapped for library hours, all those summers you found work instead of being on vacation reinforce how you handle your priorities. You see, the true purpose of university was never to just gain a degree. It was always about gaining those life skills that would ultimately make you resilient in this world. Be smart, study hard and give yourself a fighting chance.



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