I promised myself a few years ago that I would write this article before I left Acadia, and now I’m finally in my last semester ever (hopefully!), so here it goes. Dear student body of friends and strangers, I present to you my biggest and most embarrassing secret. It’s something so deeply and personally disturbing that I’ve told very few people – not even my parents. Are you ready? I flunked out. I know I’m not the first nor the last person to ever fail university, but for me, receiving that letter of academic dismissal in the mail was a gut-wrenching conclusion to a particularly dismal string of events. I’m writing this article partially to relieve some of the weight of this secret I’ve been carrying around for three years now, but mostly as a precautionary tale for any readers who might find themselves in a similar situation.
In the spring of 2009, I was eagerly anticipating my high school graduation and less eagerly anticipating the next big life hurtle ahead of me: post-secondary education. I actually enjoyed school. I was a good student with good grades, and I participated in a wide breadth of extra-curricular activities. When it came time to make some big decisions about what to do next, like many of my peers, seventeen-year-old me applied to a variety of universities. I didn’t particularly have an end goal in mind career-wise, I just knew that I was smart and capable given my academic success to that point, and so going off to university seemed non-negotiable. I assumed I would just launch myself into school and figure things out on the way, because what seventeen-year-old knows exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives anyway? As I had achieved well-rounded grades in both arts and sciences, my high school counselor strongly urged me to apply for science programs “to open windows to the future,” and I knew I liked people, so I chose psychology. I was accepted to all of the schools I applied to, so I chose Acadia based on reputation. Sound familiar so far?
The slow crash-and-burn began upon arrival. I was thrust into introductory biology, statistics, research and design, and all the other fun necessities of a science degree in psych. Possibly due to my lack of end goal and mostly due to my complete disinterest in any of these things, I was strong out of the gate but quickly fell far behind. It seemed that my plan to jump right in and swim until I reached the finish line was flawed. A pivotal moment that I can remember from my second year of school is laying on the floor of my friend’s room in Chipman with a group of people talking about their life aspirations beyond university, and suddenly realizing my own impending identity crisis. Who am I and what do I want to do?! I hardly recognized myself, failing courses and wondering what the point of any of it was. In high school I was just forced to take everything, my life had a regimented structure, and I identified myself by my extra-curriculars. I was a band kid and that somehow summed up the rest. Now I was nobody, and I was going nowhere.
Obviously the news that I was failing school didn’t exactly fly with my parents when I came home for Christmas that year. To be precise, they called me a “disappointment”… that was pretty difficult to hear. After many hours of talking and sobbing profusely with my mom, we decided that maybe I should switch majors. In retrospect, taking a step back from university to figure my life out would have been a prime choice at this point in the story, but that’s not what I did. I returned to school as an English major and began fast-tracking my way through the English program, cramming every vital course I’d missed into a 3 year plan in order to graduate by 2014. Switching to English was a breath of fresh air. I still didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I had always enjoyed reading and writing as a kid, and I found the course content much more in line with my interests. The department and the class sizes were also way smaller than anything I had seen thus far. I made friends incredibly quickly, got to know everyone in all of my classes, and all of my profs knew me by name. It was like night and day.
From then on my marks improved and I was generally happy to be working on something I was both good at and enjoyed, but then in the spring of 2013 I got some unexpected news. My uncle had received a sudden diagnosis of terminal cancer. Following this news, my grandmother was also diagnosed with cancer. My family spent that summer in a state of somber anticipation. We spent four months saying goodbye. That somebody who had a family and a career and all the things they had ever dreamed of and worked towards could suddenly cease to exist in the midst of it all was nearly impossible for me to comprehend. It made everything seem pointless. In the fall of 2013, as I was beginning what should have been my graduating year of university, not only did my long-term relationship fall apart, but I lost two people to cancer in little over a month. Not wanting to burden my aching family with the profound impact this experience was having on my outlook on life, I kept it to myself. I stopped going to class, not because I wanted to but because I simply couldn’t seem to summon the strength or will power. I laid in bed and I watched the seasons change from fall to winter. I ignored my phone and my friends. I just stayed in bed. Christmas was extremely sad that year and further strengthened my resolve not to tell my parents I was sinking, because I could tell that they were barely coping as well.
That spring I got my letter of academic dismissal, as expected, and I put it in a drawer. I didn’t even open it for a long time because I couldn’t look at it without feeling sick to my stomach. I told my parents (and anyone else who inquired) that I was burnt out and that I wanted to take some time away from school. I didn’t tell them I got kicked out. I couldn’t bear to admit that I had failed them after everything they had been through already. I spent two long years working a minimum wage job in food service, hating the monotony of my days and contemplating my next move. Finally, last spring, I reached a boiling point in my stagnant life and reapplied to Acadia to finish what I had started … and here I am.
I wanted to write this article for anyone who might be feeling as unsure about their future as I did. In the leap from high school to university it seemed like everyone around you knew exactly where they’d head in life, and if you’re like me, you probably followed the masses hoping you would figure it out too. You probably didn’t let on that you were feeling a little lost and overwhelmed. I also wanted to write this article for anyone who feels like they’re carrying an impossible weight on their shoulders. I need you to know that you’re not alone, and that school isn’t everything, even if it feels like it is. I need you to recognize when you’re sinking and yelling for a lifeline, regardless of the size of the burden you’re trying to shoulder alone. I wish more than anything that somebody had reassured me that it was okay to take a step back and reevaluate my goals. I might have been more successful, for instance, if I’d taken some time after high school to really think about what I wanted to do before diving aimlessly into university because I felt like I had to. I pounded away at this degree for the sole purpose of having a degree. I did it because I thought it was what I had to do to validate my life, but at the risk of sounding cliché, I forgot that life is about finding happiness.
We’re taught that successful people just bite the bullet and go to university, get a good job, and live happily ever after. I’m sure that’s true for many, many people, but sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes you don’t know why you’re doing something, and you need to figure out what you want before you proceed. So this is for all the people facing academic penalties at the end of this year. Your story isn’t over, your worth isn’t based on your degree, and your life isn’t a total loss. You got here because you’re smart and capable, and you’ll figure out what makes you happy eventually. Maybe it involves university, but maybe it doesn’t. Either way, there is absolutely no shame in taking time away to figure it out. I am now twenty five years old and finishing my bachelors degree, eight years after I first started here. We’re not all on the same time line, and it’s not a race to the finish line, because there is no finish line. Most importantly, none of us know how much time we have on this planet, so whatever you do, do it for you.