Navigating University Life: Challenges and Personal Growth

I thought it would be a good idea to share with others what I think are the challenges of university that students face because I get this question a lot. You may be wondering how this relates to leadership, and I suppose that is a good place to start. What we are discussing here is self-leadership during what can occasionally be a challenging and confusing time.

I know from my own experience how difficult student life can be, and I’m not even talking financially, as I was lucky enough to go to university at a time when not only did the government cover the costs of the fees, but they also gave you the grant to go, I mean they put money in my pocket rather than putting me in debt.

When I went to university, my goal was to go to university. I had studied hard to make that dream come true, but that was the full extent of what I wanted to do. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after university, which made it difficult to know what to study. I didn’t really have a long-term goal.

And at 17/18 years old, when you’re making these choices, it’s not surprising; we have so little of life’s experiences for us to clearly know what we want to be doing for the rest of our lives.

I know some do; my daughter Lucy was pretty clear she wanted to be a radiographer,  but in my experience that type of clarity is uncommon.

So we often arrive at university lacking a vision, and as Joel Barker says ‘…action without vision, just passes time…’. 

I know that when I arrived, I’d chosen to study chemical engineering because it seemed to have a broader scope than just chemistry, but it wasn’t something I was passionate about or something that I truly thought I would end up working in for the rest of my life. So yes, I just ended up passing the time.

For many of us going to university, it is also our first time away from home, and this gives us a level of freedom and independence we may never have experienced before. Plus,  we also have to do so much more for ourselves: ironing, washing, cooking, etc, etc. So it can be a very exciting and scary time of our lives.

It allows us to throw away our old persona and reinvent ourselves. I remember the guy in the room next door to me dyeing his hair electric blue. I asked him why the dramatic change, and he said his parents were strict and now he could do what he wanted, and he wanted blue hair, and this was 1979 so it was pretty radical.

So university is a key part of our personal development, one where we may reinvent ourselves and discover different things about ourselves. Maybe you never wanted to study medicine; that was your dad’s idea, and now you’re going to study the history of art because that’s what you want to do.

When we start university, we have a level of freedom that many of us have never experienced before and this can be a significantly life-altering time.

University is different from school in so many ways, but I think the biggest is the attitude of the lecturers. In school, teachers would want to know why we were not attending lessons, why we hadn’t done our homework, and why we were not getting the scores they expected.

Whereas the lecturers are just lecturers, it’s up to you to attend, do the work, and achieve the grades; there is no one chasing you up. It’s almost as if you chose to come to university, so you should be motivated to do the work.

I remember this being quite a big surprise for me, and certainly for some of the tougher courses and poorer lecturers, it made not attending way too easy, with the result that the grades slipped, but the only person who seemed to care about that was me.

There was an increase in freedom, the opportunity to just opt out of things I didn’t like or didn’t want to do, but what this is really is a greater degree of accountability.

So in my day, the challenges I found I had, and I don’t think I was alone in this, were

  • lack of vision
  • increased freedom
  • a need for self-determination

which, at a young age and possibly without the right level of maturity, was a disaster.

I remember that in my exams at the end of the first term, I finished 75 out of 78.

I had skipped lectures, I’d spent my time playing rugby, drinking, and socialising, and I had zero interest in being a chemical engineer. I was clearly on the road to failure, and with no one to challenge me about the results or chase me about homework that was not done I ended up failing my first year.

For me, this was a blessing in disguise because it got me to think about what I was passionate about and make some changes, which resulted in me changing to do a degree in mathematics, which was something I was interested in, and although I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished university, it was much clearer that math would be important to me, no matter what I was going to do.

In today’s world, especially in the UK, students now need to find funding for the fees while living and enjoying university. While this might help bring some more clarity, it does leave many students with significant debts of at least $50,000 once they complete university, with many owing much more.

The job market has changed significantly too, and a degree no longer guarantees a good job, so significant investments can be made that might not achieve a return, which is a risk.

However, I would recommend anyone go to university and get a degree. You cannot really put a price on education; learning is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves.

But we need to be aware of the challenges that we might face in order to get the most out of it.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts or your experiences on going to university and the challenges that you faced.

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