Time out: My life as a deferred student
Sarah shares the lessons she's learned from her year out.
This is an opinion of a young person and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of SpunOut.ie. It is one person's experience and may be different for you. If you'd like to write something for SpunOut.ie please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Some would say that at 18, I’m much too young to have regrets, but I harbour them anyway"
The trees are unfurling, there’s a grand ‘aul stretch in the evenings – it’s that time of year once more! Only one more major holiday stands between Irish students and the Leaving Cert. In a few weeks the press will be set alight with discussion over the exams, with every mammy and milkman in the country offering their two cents’ worth. If I could offer one piece of advice to those frightened poor sods tackling sixth year at the moment, it would be this – don’t run before you can walk.
When I cast my mind back to my own Leaving Cert experience less than a year ago, I see a naive young girl with a grand plan. A big believer in delayed gratification, I forwent every chance to catch up with friends, declined every party invitation - all in service to said grand plan. The way I saw it, the isolation and stress would be worth it once next September rolled round. The quintessential college experience beckoned; boys, friends, boyfriends, nights on the lash (I’m a teetotaler) and top grades in every module
But things didn’t exactly pan out that way. You could compare my sixth year struggles to holding your breath underwater for too long. I buried myself in the books with such intensity that by the time the exams finished up, I was alive – but only just. My mental and physical strength had depleted to levels beyond unhealthy, and even as September loomed (and with it, the promise of my fabulous new student life), I still wasn’t 100%.
Depression and anxiety only became worse as I left home for Uni, and after transferring courses in a kneejerk reaction to the workload and pace, deferring became the only sensible option. In the weeks after deferring I ran the full gamut of emotions – naturally, there were tears (clearing out my apartment on campus was particularly traumatic), along with the feeling that my world was falling apart; all because I’d made a mistake and chosen the wrong course.
Some would say that at 18, I’m much too young to have regrets, but I harbour them anyway. They range from financial (the money I could’ve saved by deferring in the first place!) to familial (the stress I’ve subjected my mother to thankfully hasn’t affected her hair colour… yet) to emotional (why didn’t I take better care of myself and my health?). What I don’t regret, however, are the lessons these few months “off” have offered me. I’ve learned how to relax, to trust my judgement and have the courage of my convictions – and I’m now ready to return to college in September with a stronger, more determined mindset.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my year out:
1. When you defer college, you’re suddenly landed with more free time than you know what to do with, so it’s vital that you keep busy for sanity’s sake. I’d been scoping out part-time work prior to leaving, and so was fortunate enough to walk into a job the week I returned home. If a gap year is on the cards, start putting out feelers in your local area; ask family and friends, draft a CV and canvas nearby employers, and check the websites of larger retailers to see if there are online application processes.
2. That being said, all this free time (yes, free! No studying necessary!) is a wonderful excuse to be selfish and develop/discover your passions. Although I couldn’t hack French at third level, I wanted to maintain a basic proficiency in it, so I started taking night classes. I also practice Tai Chi and boxing weekly, and have developed (unhealthy?) obsessions with both Made in Chelsea reruns and baking. A mixed bag for sure, but my point is that if you’ve always wanted to try something, now’s the time to give it a lash!
3. Check yo’self - for some people a gap year is an option. For me, it was a question of health. If, like me, you’re not on top form mentally or physically, make this your top priority. Ask for the help you need, tell your friends and family what’s going on, and develop basic healthy lifestyle habits so that should you decide to go back to education in September, you’re able to look after yourself and your academics.
4. Haters gon’ hate – the reactions I got when I initially told people I’d left college were unhelpful, at best (they usually came, I might add, from adults who had never set foot on a third level campus themselves). Tired of trying to justify my choice to people, I began telling strangers that I had simply taken a year out. Reactions have become shockingly much more positive. Don’t feel obligated to explain yourself or your circumstances to anyone. Your decisions and your life are your business, no one else’s!
5. Don’t look back in anger – much of the guilt I felt after my deferral stemmed from my decision to go to college in the first place. I kept asking myself, would I have been better off if I had never gone? In hindsight, probably not, as (a) I would have spent the year in a perpetual state of FOMO, and (b) after a year of sitting at home twiddling my thumbs I may not have wanted to return.
Those few weeks in college, however turbulent, proved to me that I am capable of living away from home, attending classes, budgeting and doing all the responsible mature things it takes some students years to master. In short, I’ve chalked the past up to experience, and am looking forward instead of back.
6. Lean on your own shoulders – gap years can be lonely, particularly if your friends have moved away to study. Facebook and Skype are great for quick catch-ups, but they’re no substitute for real contact. I have no easy answer on how to combat this problem; all I can say is try to make the best of the present situation. Working helps, as does pushing yourself to meet others through courses and classes. Try and stay connected to old friends, and make the effort to get together when they are home. Something as simple as window-shopping or grabbing a coffee in town can work wonders for your mood, especially if you’ve been cooped up at home. Of course, I’m not suggesting that everyone take a year out – in fact, if you’re still quite relaxed at this stage of sixth year, then that jump to college might be best taken sooner rather than later, as the possibility of not going back might increase after a year away from the books.
My aim in sharing my story is simply to say that there’s nothing wrong with wanting or needing a break. Our British neighbours understand this, and seem to have a much healthier culture of gap years. Here, on the other hand, Joey down the road with the 625 points is treated like a mythical hero, while those who took study breaks (or heaven forbid, dropped out!) are treated as a cautionary tale.
At the end of the day, there isn’t a mandate that requires you to go straight to third level (or even go at all), so what’s the rush? My own year out didn’t happen under the best of circumstances and was totally unexpected, but it’s taught me more about myself than any college course could have. Do what’s right for you, and screw the naysayers!