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I didn’t know shit at 17. I wanted to be a graphic designer because it seemed like a cool lifestyle and I felt good about myself while listening to Owl City. I threw all my money and time in this basket, eagerly applying for Massey’s Design degree at a campus a whole hundred metres away from my high school.
After a year of sucking at drawing, of crutch-ridden video artwork, sleepless nights, and a near constant state of panic – after seven-thousand fucking dollars – I figured everything was about to get better. Second-year was where the ‘real’ design started; none of this ‘try everything out’ shit. The real design started, and within a week I had quit and enrolled at Victoria.
Nearly everyone I know regrets something about what they study. Some are just finishing up BAs and restarting LLBs. Some seem to change majors by the trimester, racking up endless 200-level points they will never use. Some are about to jump into hybrid MAs that allow them to study what they really care about under the ruse of continuing their current discipline. It’s natural to whine about whatever you’re studying while in the thick of it, but so much of this whining turns into actual degree changes.
Studying the wrong thing profoundly fucks up your life. You enlarge your experiences within this strain of academia onto the entirety of your adult existence. This is just what things are like now, you tell yourself, as you earnestly try to find something you were kind of okay at in high school interesting. This is the best time of your life and it already sucks.
Not that changing degrees is a breeze. Switching around majors is relatively painless for some, but really starting again – as I did, and as a lot of people end up doing – hurts, both financially and personally. You’ll feel old in your tuts, you’ll probably be a lot further into debt, and all the crazy-hard shit you’ve already done is instantly meaningless.
17-year-olds don’t hear any of this. 17-year-olds are conditioned into thinking of first-year as 12 months of partying and self-discovery, of one last gasp of reckless youth before it all slips away. University appears to be both the most responsible and most fun option. The government will give you oodles of money you don’t have to worry about for ages in order to do what most of your friends are doing, in order to fulfil the wishes of most of the authority figures in your life, in order to do something that every open day portrays as the funnest experience in the entire world. Why wouldn’t you?
University should be encouraged.* I universalised my own (and many of my peers’) experience in the last paragraph, and a lot of people went through a lot of judgment and trials to make it here. It just shouldn’t be rushed.
To its credit, Victoria is pretty flexible. Why not let hundreds of 17-year-olds pay thousands of dollars to start a Law degree you know hundreds of them won’t finish? A year of fucking around on campus is as lucrative as it gets for the University; hell, I’m surprised we haven’t moved to all-four-year programmes like they have in the States. I’m all for flexibility in first-year – it’s the thing Massey didn’t offer, which I hated – but our 17-year-olds deserve more than that. They deserve some time to think, time to think with real information; not brochures and open-day bullshit.
What if gap years were compulsory? What if you had to really show crazy drive to make it into uni immediately after high school, with most of us working and getting to know ourselves a teensy bit? What if open days were actual open days, and students got to sit in on real, boring classes in the middle of a trimester?
Obviously, some 17-year-olds are superhumans with clear paths for the rest of their lives already planned out. Some of the best students I know came to university at 16, which makes me feel sick just thinking about – but these are the people who would excel anywhere. The vast majority of us, the ones kind of just coasting between multi-year life plans – we could have done with a little more time.
I wish university was as romantic as our parents are convinced it is, but it’s not. It might have been in their day, but University is fucking expensive, and the choices you make here are likely to resonate for the rest of your life, both financially and personally. Until we fix this fucked-up neoliberal nightmare of a system, we probably shouldn’t be encouraging our young to jump into it without a good idea of what they actually want to do with their lives. Even if they all end up studying Law.
*A CONTROVERSIAL OPINION IN THE PAGES OF SALIENT, I KNOW.
Henry Cooke is a third-year Politics and Media student who used to have a MySpace name.