University Angst? Don’t Hate. Participate.

I’ve done some writing in the past about post-secondary education as an institution, and some of its many problems. I’m reminded again and again of these inherent flaws when students step into my office having recently made a major realization:

University doesn’t prepare you for the “real world.”

There’s a certain mythology that every budding university student (myself included) clings to when they start their journey toward a university degree. Like a small child’s belief in Santa Claus, we feed students the notion that there’s some kind of magical power at work in universities that will transform them into adults, ready to step into a career and move on with life. The first couple of years go by, and the magic starts to fade as doubt creeps in. “This isn’t what I thought it would be like, but maybe things will be different in my senior years,” they think hopefully. Even though they’re pretty sure by that point that they’ve been fed a lie, it’s still more comfortable for the time being to deny the reality that there is no Santa.

And then, around the fourth year, there’s suddenly nothing left to cling to. The road has been travelled, and many students feel as if they’re no more prepared for “a career” than they were when they started their degree. Instead of a job waiting for them after graduation, there’s only confusion, uncertainty and a competitive labour market.

But unlike the child who’s just realized that Santa isn’t real, I’ve found that students rarely respond with anger or feelings of loss. The more common reaction are feelings of being lost, directionless, and somehow at fault for it all—perhaps for falling for society’s trick. Others simply become cynical and rationalize the time, effort and money they put into the last 4 or 5 years by claiming they just wanted the parchment, the credential. It was all a stepping stone.

I look back now at what I thought university would be like as I was graduating from high school, and I laugh to myself. What a rube!

Pretty pessimistic post so far, I know. But I’m an optimist, so hold on: the good part is coming.

I’m not sure when I stopped believing in Santa, and I’m not sure exactly when I realized that a university degree wasn’t going to win me the keys to the proverbial executive washroom. But they were both fundamental steps to take in my life development at the time.

It may not be as magical, but people still give and receive presents without the help of Kris Kringle and his flying fauna. Children begin to realize that there’s actually some work involved in getting the gifts under the tree, and as they start putting them there themselves, they get to experience not only the joy of receiving, but the much more rewarding experience of giving. Their conceptualization of the whole holiday shifts from that of being a passive recipient into being an active participant.

In the same way, students must make the shift from being recipients of post-secondary education to being active participants in it. No one is entitled to a university degree. I think the holiday metaphor is apt in this case because we are currently seeing a consumer mindset being applied to the education system—if you pay for a good or service in a consumer system, you are fully entitled to that good or service. Not so in school—there, you pay for the chance to participate in a dynamic, thriving environment that offers you the opportunity to succeed. And for most students, there’s no dollar figure that ensures good grades, or career preparedness for that matter.

So, university doesn’t prepare you for the real world. What does it do? Well, I suppose that depends on how much you’re willing to put into it. Whatever you do, don’t just sit back and be content to only focus on your studies, thinking that they will somehow carry you beyond university. I haven’t seen too many job postings that ask for a minimum GPA or require you to submit a transcript. I know it sounds cliché, but get involved. Find some clubs, join some societies, volunteer, do a co-op work term, develop relationships with people—peers, professors, TAs, student services staff—anyone that can be a useful part of your network come job hunting time. Learn from others’ regrets.

Don’t hate. Participate.

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