Returning to education after leaving school early

After leaving school at 15, Rían writes about their experience of coming back to education and why it was one of the best decisions they made

Written by Rían Browne O'Neill


Dropping out of school

I made the decision to drop out of school at 15. I had always done pretty well in school, I tried my best at everything I did, I got good grades, my teachers were always happy with my work and praised me with compliments about “how far I’d go” in the future – I was the model student. However, the rest of “school life” was something I couldn’t handle. For those three years I fought my own battles with depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety and although I was fortunate enough to have a great support network around me, it was such a battle to even get to sit my junior cert that afterwards I wasn’t ready to jump into another two years of leaving cert pressure – I wasn’t in a good place, I needed a break so I made the decision to leave, in favour of taking care of my mental health.

I spent the next couple of years reclaiming the life mental illness had taken from me. I had very low self worth, anxiety had left me agoraphobic to the point where I found it very hard to leave the house. To make a long and complicated story short, with the help of my family and an amazing therapist, I managed to work towards overcoming my demons, mostly through counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy. Eventually, I began to feel like I deserved to occupy space again, I had aspirations and goals I wanted to reach. One of those goals was to get to college. Between myself and those around me we looked into further education opportunities in my town, we eventually found a perfect fit with the local National Learning Network training centre. I found a course that would allow me to apply to college once I had completed it, all I needed to do was start.

Scary first steps

My relationship with school is a complicated one, it was never a place I felt safe or that I could call my own. Taking those first steps returning to education after so long of a break was hard, it was scary and daunting to say the least, but it was the best decision that I could have ever made for myself.

I started the course with a headful of assumptions mostly fueled by the stigma that still seems to be attached to attending courses like these. I was torn between feeling proud of myself for making this big step and feeling like a failure for not fulfilling the expectations of my old teachers and peers – I was “the smart one” I should have finished the leaving cert with flying colours and began college by now.

Thankfully, this past year has completely flipped those assumptions I began with on their head.

Better than I could have imagined

My experience has been nothing but positive. Although the first few weeks were definitely the hardest, persevering really paid off. The course itself, in office administration, was more of a stepping stone for me and so I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did. For the first time I was the person who was in charge of my education. I got to use my own initiative and use my own voice. There were opportunities for me to develop practical skills that can translate into the workplace, I got the chance to develop my writing and confidence through giving presentations in front of my other classmates as well as gain work experience that I could add to my cv. Everything was at my pace, if I needed more time to complete an assignment, I could. Students’ different needs and abilities were accommodated. The pressure that constantly loomed over my head in school didn’t exist anymore.

Aside from the course itself, what I really believe gave me the most out of this experience was spending the past year getting to know my classmates, fellow students and tutors. Every person at the training centre had their own story to tell. Everybody’s motivation for being there was different. To sit and chat over a cup of tea and hear about other people’s experiences and life stories, was one of my favourite parts of my time spent there.

Spending the past year in a friendly, encouraging and supportive environment gave me the chance to grow so much as a person, for the first time I actually felt like I did belong somewhere – something I never felt during my time at school. And although I’ve had my mix of good days and bad days with my mental health during this time, the intense panic attacks that became a staple of school mornings became a thing of the past.

Explore other options that work for you 

Sometime’s the “one size fits all” school system doesn’t fit everybody, for whatever reason. It’s important not to be afraid to explore other options. There are tonnes of different places to go such as National Learning Network, Youth Train, your local ETB or searching online through websites like Qualifax. Education is the most empowering gift a person can have, and it doesn’t begin and end with school.

Having taken this step, when I felt like I couldn’t, is one of the best things I could’ve done. I’m in such a better place than I was before. I’ve applied to study social science in college as well as gotten myself a part time job in the meantime. I’m moving on now as a person with a real sense of purpose, confidence and a clear vision for my future (as cliche as all that sounds) – and that isn’t a place I could’ve imagined reaching when I was 15.

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