The Paper Chase: Why My Piece of Paper isn’t Just a Piece of Paper

Maygan Eugenie Forbes | 18 April 2017

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Graduates final salute goodbye to university.

I recently came across an article on Forbes.com that told the story of a contributor, Neil Patel, who has deep regrets over pursuing his degree. In this article Patel writes: “Don’t listen to them! It’s not worth it…college was a waste of time, a waste of energy, a waste of money, and a waste of potential.” He then goes on to give a small description of his degree, and his early ambition to become an entrepreneur (which, according to Patel, is a job title that does not require a degree). He then proceeds to list a set of substantial degrees that he believes to be worth the time, energy, and money of a degree. For the sake of my word count I won’t write out the list, but I can tell you now, as a Film Studies MSc student, I don’t make the grade according to Patel. Everybody’s different but without a doubt, every degree counts. But is the question here less about the value of a degree and more about a void in cultural experience? Are we missing out on great wonders, wasting our limited time by being a servant to educational institutions, regardless of what degree we are pursuing?  

For me, time is something I have always struggled with. In the conventional sense of tardiness I am the biggest perpetrator, but I also struggle with time as a cultural concept. On my fifteenth birthday I suddenly became acutely aware that I was getting old, and it made me strangely uncomfortable that I had not been discovered as a child prodigy yet. Possessing no unprecedented talents that would warrant this anxiety of mine, I distinctly remember thinking “I guess I’m past it now.” Since then, all of my endeavors have had a sell by date; if I have not embarked on a new life journey by September, the rest of my year becomes out of sync. This then means that I orientate my physical and mental goals on an arbitrary month due to my own internalization of the traditional academic schedule. Add to this the fact that I have always been told that time is precious, time is money, time is running out, and time is of the essence so use it wisely, and you start to get a sense of the urgency in my system. And so far, on paper, my system has worked. By the age of 22, with two degrees under my belt, I am well-versed in how to play the education game. I can write a stellar paper in under a week and leave enough time to save time on the things I do so wellworrying, for example. I have spent the majority of my life in exam halls and referencing textbooks but whilst I am grateful for the opportunities that are born out of this, has it all been a waste of time?

A good friend from home recently had a leaving party, as she is getting ready to travel around Canada. I could not be more proud of her bravery and gumption, but am I jealous? Yes. As I sit, bleary-eyed from a two-hour lecture, the aggressively highlighted deadlines in my planner should be on my mind; however, I can’t help but think about all the time I am potentially wasting. There is a world out there full of everything I may never get to know; there are relationships to be had with as-of-yet strangers, extraordinary pavements and road markings to explore, life that is beyond my scope of vision and I worry that it’s passing me by. There is money to be made and there are social ladders to climb. Why am I exhausting myself over an expensive “piece of paper” when the world is saturated with success stories of those who did not let an educational hierarchy guide them.

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Road markings in Taiwan

So, for the sake of my own existential crisis, let’s consider the options (all speculative, of course). If I had decided not to attend university, I would have most likely stayed in my hometown London. According to The Telegraph, one of the greatest destinations for any bright, young twenty-something looking to start a fruitful life! However as a victim of bullying, my home was tainted, everywhere I turned I saw ghosts of my past, tormenting my every step. Rather than finding help for my anxiety I would most likely have developed dangerous coping mechanisms, placing my mental health further and further on the back burner. If I had not gone to university, I would still see myself as a projection of all of the hatred thrown on me, there was no love or appreciation for any of the values I hold so dear now. I’m a Gemini, so, in line with my MysticMeg birth chart readings, I’m an extrovert and have wanderlust by nature. There is no greater institution than education to allow one to travel through and try on some of the different types of human one can be, whilst remaining contained in an environment where stress, coffee, and friendships thrive.

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Bill Murray as the leading expert of existential crises in Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)

Of course, I understand the absurdity in delivering rhetoric that implies an absence of positive growth if you do not attend university. Life happens for everyone and I acknowledge my privilege in being able to write about my experiences with university positively contributing to my life, and my privilege in growing up in an environment where university was encouraged. Another close friend of mine recently lamented on his own starting economic position, and how he utilized university as his vehicle up the social ladder. This is not an isolated reality, and unfortunately, in life, I have come to accept that there are some life choices that enable a certain level of safety, and that some of these stages are easier to come by for some people than for others. Higher education is one of those stages for many people It’s safer to have a qualification, two degrees or more and you help to ensure that you are acknowledged as a socially secure asset to society. It’s safer to be in an environment that values a polished level of critical thought. For many people, any degree is a safety blanket.

But how safe is safe when you identify as female or as an ethnic minority, which effectively means that  your earning potential will be devalued? Are the life experiences still worth financial jeopardy? Is University more than just a safety net? For me, yes. When I left school I was a shell of myself, and it was during University that I grappled with destructive mindsets that I have now overcome in some cases and learned to live with in others. Not just a piece of paper, my degrees have earned me the ability to realize that my mind matters, and everything I create I own with pride. I am a part of a community that is so much more than academic rules and regulations. While my education might mean that I have to delay the grand Canadian adventure, it has also meant that I got to move away from the city that I used to call home and that I was given room to explore who I am. Recognizing that life happens, no matter where you are, reminds me that yes, university is a life experience, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything.

About Maygan

Born in London, I have spent the majority of my higher education studying in cold cities and defending the spelling of my name. I am currently studying an MSc in Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh; my research interests include representations of feminine adolescence onscreen in Hollywood and World Cinema. When I’m not having a quarter life crisis in the postgraduate room, I can often be seen wandering around Edinburgh humming songs by Kate Nash and petting dogs.

Article Edited by Juliet Conway and Bridget Moynihan.

Works Cited

Neil Patel. “My Biggest Regret in Life: Going to College.” Forbes. 26th December 2016. https://www.forbes.com/sites/neilpatel/2016/12/26/my-biggest-regret-in-life-going-to-college/#52b2866b1ac7

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