Don’t get me wrong, 2009 was a pretty great year. Those American flag print Topshop shorts were everywhere and ’I Gotta Feeling’ by The Black Eyed Peas was played at parties with sincerity. But, apart from experiencing those cultural milestones, 18-year-old me was having a pretty terrible time.
I’d just waved goodbye to school and the same best friends that I’d stuck with since before I had teeth, and moved from my mum’s house to South London for university. Unfortunately, most choices I made at that time were monumentally bad ones. From the haircut to the career aspirations – all of them so bad. But fast forward nearly a decade and 26-year-old Lucy is here to tell you why, although it felt like the end of the world at the time, dropping out of university was actually one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
It turns out that uni is very different to an all-girls grammar school, and arriving bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at a London art university was basically one giant, charity shop-clad reality check. I was in way over my head, and about three or four weeks into the course, I knew deep down that it wasn’t for me.
Trouble is, things get complicated if you’re the type of person who can’t think of anything worse than disappointing people. So I didn’t tell anybody that I was struggling. I basically just stopped attending. I let my workload become something terrifying and impossible, and by Christmas I was not ok at all. I felt alone and embarrassed and immature, compared to the rest of my pals who were living the freshers dream.
The heavy hanging debt, the little space that you’ve created to call home, friendships that you’ve made along the way… it all feels like a waste and a failure, particularly when academia has been the dominant narrative for your future. But looking back, I realise now that admitting to making mistakes shouldn’t be embarrassing. It should feel like an act of bravery when you’re trying to make it on your own and prove the world wrong.
Side note: it’s also important to point out that dropping out shouldn’t be your go-to plan if you’re unhappy, though. Give your course enough time to experience it properly. Try not to let nostalgia or homesickness influence your decision. There will be lovely student welfare people at your university; reach out to them and start that conversation.
I realise now that admitting to making mistakes shouldn’t be embarrassing. It should feel like an act of bravery when you’re trying to make it on your own and prove the world wrong.
But only you know if a situation is making you too unhappy to keep just ‘getting on with it’. It’s so important to look after your mental health, and ignoring your feelings and putting yourself through a difficult situation can be really damaging. Not to mention a bigger waste of money in the long run. So make it a priority to listen to your own mind and take care of yourself, whether that means staying or going.
Don’t believe me? Counsellor and Counselling Directory member Debra Allonby says: “Sometimes university just happens at the wrong time of your life… If, after all your efforts, the time is still not right for you to stay, then hold your head up high and feel empowered to say ‘this isn’t for me at this moment in time’. That’s not a failure - it’s you looking after YOU and that matters more than anything.”
Dropping out of university is not the end of the world, although it might feel like it. It happens every day, to multiple students who’ve felt the very same feelings as you. To put it into perspective, one in 10 students drops out of their first year at university. That’s loads! And hey, it also does NOT mean that you’re a failure. It just means that you’ve started down the wrong path, and you might have to double back a little.
In the end, dropping out was life-changing for all the right reasons. I worked in retail for a year afterwards to earn some money, put my mind back together and figure out my next move. Taking time to consider my options and get my confidence back was a massively helpful and influential learning experience.
Yes, the low point of it all is undoubtedly making that final decision, and then having to share it with everyone who needs to know. But once that’s done, you’re through the worst of it and out the other side. My accidental-sort-of gap year ended up as one of the happiest times of my life. I made some amazing friends, I grew in confidence and later fell into a career that I adore.
Just remember that everything happens for a reason. Be honest with your own feelings, allow yourself some time to decide what comes next, and trust in the universe. It will work out for the best.
Image: Pablo García Saldaña viaUnsplash