Graduating University - When you don't walk the traditional path

Graduating university; a significant achievement for some, an inevitability for others, and an impossibility for many.

I never imagined finishing university. Actually, that’s not entirely true.

Growing up, especially during high school, university was an inevitability for me. After all, that’s what you do, you go to high school, finish your exams, go to university and get a degree, and then get a job. That’s what we are taught to do, that’s the way the education system is structured. I never imaged any other path was realistic, let alone actually possible.

I was lucky in a sense, university, education, is a privilege and that’s something I was going to have. I had imaged doing law, or engineering, or medicine. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Probably because they make money, and wasn’t that the point of working? Going back further, I always wanted to be a zoo keeper or vet, I loved animals. I don’t know when those dreams changed.

That path, that traditional, expected, engrained, path of school, university, and then work no longer became a path I could follow.

The depression I had forced me to leave school. It was severe, prolonged, and resistant to all attempts at treatment. It was a chemical imbalance that took its toll on me, and everyone around me. It almost took my life.

Despite the efforts of the school, it no longer became an option. It got to a point where I struggled to get out of bed for the day, let alone leave the house. Just before my 17th birthday, I received ECT as a last resort. I was lucky it worked.

Although I would be a year behind, the plan was to go back and finish high school. Again, it was the belief that being successful in school, specifically getting top marks on your final exams, was the necessary step in going to university and being a success in life. Success equalling a good job, which in turn meant a good and happy life. I was also 17, and all I wanted to be was just like everyone else, I only wanted to be ‘normal’. Normal meant high school.

The unfortunate side effect of my treatment was severe short term memory loss. I came home one day, sat down at the kitchen table to do my homework, opened my maths book and called my mum over. I could see it was my handwriting, the days date was written in the top corner of the page, “Mum, I don’t remember doing this”. The final years of high school, the final exams, if anything are a memory test. Remember, repeat. I couldn’t remember.

The next decision was the hardest one I have ever made. Even with all I had just gone through, leaving school was the most difficult. I genuinely believed that I was throwing my life, my future away. I had to, school was no longer an option.

I was now a high school dropout.

Once the decision was made I decided to take my life back. I was going to be as happy, healthy, and as strong as I could be. The depression took so much away from me, I refused to let it take away my future.

I incorporated a variety of lifestyle changes; exercise, worked on getting good sleep, changed my diet, made sure I had professional support, developed my communication skills, tried to maintain a social life, and much more. Towards the end of that year, I was strong enough to go back and study. I became fully qualified as personal trainer and worked successfully in the health industry for the next 6 years.

During that time I decided to share my experiences. I quit my job, moved back home, and decided now was the best time to give back and put my story down in a book. Whilst that was happening, university, something I had long given up on, now became a realistic option. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to do something.

How do you get into university without completing high school? Well, at the ripe old age of 21, I was now a mature aged student. With that, there are a variety of ways to get into the course you want to complete. So, I did. Now here I am. Published my book, graduated university, and doing something I never imagined was possible yet love every moment of it.

That path I thought was necessary, the path most of us are taught, was so far from what I ended up following. Was it easy? No, but if I’ve realised anything, even the most walked path isn’t guaranteed to be easy. Honestly, we learn the most when things are hard.

adam schwartz gradutation

I learnt a lot at university, not just facts that can be googled, but skills that few other places would be able to teach. More than that, the person I am now is fundamentally different from the person that started, and that is a very good thing.

The point of writing this isn’t about the importance of university, even though it has a long list of benefits. The point isn’t about the derailing effects depression can have on a young person’s future. This isn’t even really about me. It’s about you, or your children, or your students.

Whenever I speak at schools, one of the main points I always get asked to cover is that I didn’t finish high school, and to show the students that everyone has a future, even without a top completion mark, even without a mark at all.

I’ve been fortunate enough to make friends from all different walks of life over the years, and they emphasise how anyone can do anything. One has 5 degrees and is extremely successful, others have 1 or 2, some have never stepped foot inside a university, while others took a few step in before never going back. All with equal success, all of them are working, contributing, have purpose, and meaning in their lives. Is it the path any of them thought they would follow? More than most, the answer is no.

If I asked you what do you want for your life, or your children’s life, what would you say? Generally, it seems to be happiness, health, and success. Well health is a bit more objective, but happiness, as well as success can look, and be very different things for everyone. What they mean can also change over time. How they are achieved isn’t set in stone, nor is it obvious, or guaranteed.

When given an opportunity, even if it’s an exam, it’s always important to do your best, as you may never get that opportunity again. However, always know that whatever the situation may be, it does not mean it is an accurate reflection of your capacities, or any indication of your potential.

Einstein once posed that ‘everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’ A mark from an exam, based within an education system that has barely changed since its inception over 300 years ago, is not an indication of your capacity to succeed, it does not predict your future, and it is not a sign of your potential.

Graduating university isn’t the biggest or most important thing by any means, but for a very long time it was something I never imagined possible. If going to university is something you want to do, then great, I personally believe it is something everyone ought to experience. However, if university isn’t your thing, then that is equally as great. I am different from you, as you are from everybody else.

Whatever your path may be, whatever dreams you have, know that there are plenty of ways you can achieve them.