Coming to college for the first time in 2015, I imagined that by now I’d be buying my graduation robe and preparing for the big day, but instead, I’m only heading into my third year. For many college students this experience is a shared one, as not everyone starts and ends their college lives in the first four years, and as students we shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about it.
“So how many years left?” or “Sure, you must be nearly done now” and other similar comments at family gatherings have left me with a red face, forcing myself to say through a fake smile, “Oh no, still a bit to go!”. Unwilling to offer up any kind of explanation, I have been too embarrassed to admit that I had struggled to find my footing when I first entered college, and was taking things slowly as a result.
“The three year age gap was treated totally differently in secondary school, where it was only socially acceptable to hang around with people your own age.”
Last year in particular was a struggle for me, after starting a different course to my original area of study. I was embarrassed when one of my new classmates told me she was excited to be turning nineteen that week, while I was already twenty-two. The three year age gap was treated totally differently in secondary school, where it was only socially acceptable to hang around with people your own age. This stigma fed into the shame I felt around repeating my college years, and not fully realising how many others were in situations just like myself.
Seeing friends I started first year with graduate and pass final exams left me feeling sad and, in a way, hopeless. Imagining the success of finally entering into the working world, getting a job and moving away from Dublin made my own surroundings feel inadequate, and I despaired as I faced the reality that I still had two more years to go until I could be in the same position.
In lectures filled with baby-faced 20 year-olds, I felt as if I stuck out like a sore thumb, but I quickly realised that the age gap was only seen as an issue by me and was, in fact, a figment of my imagination. We are all merely college students. I could be 28 and I don’t think anyone would care or notice but me. Thanks to alternative routes like the Trinity Access Programme (TAP), there is a growing population of mature students on campus. Unlike in secondary school, mixing social groups and befriending people who aren’t your own age in college isn’t a foreign concept and is one of the more enriching elements of the college experience for many.
I’ve met some great friends in the past year or so who have similarly verged off the linear path of college life and taken a year out or repeated a part of their degree. Meeting these people has proven to me that situations like mine are a lot more common than I had thought. If anything, I would say that now I cannot imagine my life without the friends I have met during my repeat years.
“…people don’t always get their Leaving Cert results, enter college, spend four completely happy years and then graduate out into the working world, carefree and successful.”
I’ve learned that people don’t always get their Leaving Cert results, enter college, spend four completely happy years studying and then graduate out into the working world, carefree and successful. If anything, it is a lot more common for people to spend at least one year of their college career repeating, taking a year out or even just switching course and starting from scratch all over again.
Many students take time to themselves during college by going “off-books” for a year or two. There are endless reasons as to why someone may choose to take a year out but ultimately, these reasons have little bearing on the situation. What really matters is that students are taking time to do the things that they need to do, be that working on their personal goals, doing an internship or focusing on their physical or mental health.
The same thing can be said for repeating years in college. If you struggle the first time around, it seems a reasonable and worthy option to give that year a better attempt, rather than carry on struggling into the next year. Being granted a medical repeat with free fees gives many students the second chance that they need to work their way through college.
“Why should it matter that I took six years to complete college instead of four?”
Knowing that there is a whole cohort of students in similar positions to mine has helped me overcome whatever shame or embarrassment I felt about being a bit behind on my original plan of completing college in four years and heading off with a degree in hand. I’ve made my peace with it now, and I’ve accepted that it is okay that I took some time for myself, even to the detriment of finishing college in the designated four years. Why should it matter that I took six years to complete college instead of four?
I have come to realise that it doesn’t really matter in the bigger picture, and the only person who cares about my college situation and how old I’ll be when I graduate is me. There is no need for shame or embarrassment. College is not a linear path, and whether it takes a short or long amount of time, we all have the same aim of completing our degree successfully. There is no rush to the finish line, so you may as well spend your college years in the way best suited to you.