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The Hard Truths

My father grew up in rural Saskatchewan during the fifties and sixties. At this time, going to university was still relatively uncommon, especially for small town farm boys. Both he and his brother worked long hours on the farm to support the family, but my grandfather always had higher aspirations for his sons. Back then, attending university was a golden ticket, akin to winning the lottery. Just get in and pass and you could easily find meaningful and lucrative work.

My father and uncle both attended the University of Saskatchewan and received bachelors degrees. My father began working for a doctor in Victoria before settling into a long career as an investment advisor. He made a middle-class income and supported a family of four for many years.

I followed in his footsteps a few years ago, myself attending university and studying psychology. When I first enrolled, I was fed a narrative similar to my parents. I was told that once I finished I would have access to near limitless opportunities and surely achieve my dreams. I walked into university with a sense of entitlement and rose coloured glasses on. Surely nothing could go wrong. Surely if I simply attended and passed my courses I too could find the success of my father.

Flash forward to the present day and my perspective has changed drastically. The realities of university and entering the workforce have helped me to understand the very real barriers facing students. Gone are the days of limitless opportunities. I'm saddled with debt that will take me years to pay off. I'm still moving towards my dreams, but there are still many steps to take before they are realized.

I was unfortunate in that I fell prey to many of the misconceptions and pitfalls that are present for today's students. I just simply wasn't aware of all the ways I could make things harder for myself. I wish someone had sobered me up to the cold realities early on. If they had, I'd be much closer to where I want to be.

The following are hard truths I've learned from my days as a university student and graduate entering the workforce. It is my sincere hope that they go on to help those in a similar position.

You're Not Entitled To Anything

You're not entitled to anything. This is something that as a middle class, white Canadian living in an affluent neighbourhood, I simply did not understand at the time. My whole life I had assumed that certain things were guaranteed for me. I was always told I could be anything that I wanted, and I think as a child, I took this too literally. I just assumed I could be whatever I wanted to be. I wanted to be a psychologist. I figured I would attend the classes, get the grades, go to graduate school and that would be that. I had no idea what that actually looked like, but at the time I didn't care. It didn't matter what it looked like. It was my birthright. It would happen.

I'm sure my world view at the time is shared by many prospective students. Many well-intended parents tell their children exactly the same thing. My parents generation grew up in hardship and worked to ensure that their children never had to experience what they did. But in doing so, they prevented their children from developing the resilience and attitudes necessary to face hardship, as well as the assumption that we would never have to. 

When I first entered University, I oozed naivety.  I assumed all PhDs were enlightened and that if I studied the works of great scholars I could crack the mysteries of the universe. I thought graduate school was just four short years away. I thought everything was open for interpretation and that every idea I held was original.

I was humbled in so many ways. The workload was significant. The coursework was challenging. Professors were fallible. I learned how tenuous my education was. There was simply no guarantee that after I put in years of effort that my degree would net me anything. As one Professor told our class: "Your degree isn't the end of the story. Its really just the ticket to the ball."

Grades Don't Matter That Much

When I studied psychology I was encouraged to attain the highest GPA possible. My professors made me feel like grades were all that mattered. I was surrounded by a culture of overachieving. My fellow students, many of whom I was friends with, were simultaneously competing with me. After every midterm, our relationships became strained as me evaluated ourselves against each other.

Most of us wanted to go to graduate school, and truth be told, grades matter for that. But having left the ivory tower, I know now that they're not everything. I work as a behaviour interventionist for children with Autism, and despite a high GPA and a capable understanding of academic psychology, I find I rely more on skills I've learned on the job than in the classroom.

Grades are a reflection of your ability to succeed in an academic environment, but most businesses and industries demand entirely different skill sets. The real world also operates on different principles. You can't network your way to an A+, but you absolutely can to secure a better job. Your character, ingenuity, integrity and perspective matter more than your ability to memorize and regurgitate large quantities of information.

I think its also important to reflect on the unique experiences that University offers outside of the classroom. I'm not talking about getting drunk with your dorm mates every Friday, but rather about participating in the larger community that universities foster. There are opportunities to join clubs, participate in activism, support your student union, recreate and workout, and meet and engage with interesting people. If you have your head in a book all the time, you miss out on those opportunities.

Life Happens

In the middle of my third year of university, I suffered a health crisis. It was a devastating experience that I hope I never experience again. I had to take a semester off, and despite making a fairly successful recovery, I was changed in unexpected ways.

I returned to finish my final year, only to find my priorities had changed. Life had happened, and my whole relationship to post secondary education was different. I had lost a sense of security and direction and felt horribly disoriented. I finished my degree not at the gallant sprint I imagined; rather, I limped through my final semester.

I think as a young person, with so little life under my belt, it was difficult for me to conceive of all of the challenges I could face. From my perspective, life was good, and would continue to be good until it ended. I could not fathom the ways I could suffer, nor did I see them coming. But that is life: consistently inconsistent. 

It is not unfathomable for your university experience to be interrupted. Its not even unlikely. Everybody experiences tragedy. Deaths occur, people get sick and relationships end. These are surprisingly common things for people in their twenties to experience.

The most tremendous learning experiences often come outside the classroom, in the form of challenges both internal and external. In time, I've gained more from these difficult experiences than any course I took in school. But at the time, I was so fixated on my goal, I didn't have the time or patience to really let life happen to me.

I think we do ourselves a disservice by holding too tightly to a certain path. If I hadn't accepted things had shifted, I would have never ended up where I am today. When turmoil ensues, it's important to go with it. Half a human life is picking up pieces and putting them back together.


The above article is not to meant to scare or demoralize prospective students. Rather, it is intended to inform. People often go to university during an inherently tumultuous period in their lives. The whole experience, which is rife with pitfalls, doesn't have to be. If you are open to adversity, humble to your opportunities, and prepared to learn in and outside of the classroom, you will succeed. Good luck with your studies!