Tough Choices

 
 

In the aftermath of exam results in UCD, Peter Molloy examines the perennial issue of students struggling with the difficult choice of whether or not to drop out of college, and speaks to two students about their experience withdrawing from university

Social networking can come in for its fair proportion of criticism. Sometimes, though, it can be right on the money.

Early on Wednesday, 20th January, one Facebook status update was pithier than most. “FML”, read one student’s succinct summary of that morning’s good news, or lack thereof. The responses were sympathetic – crucially, no-one needed elaboration about just what had commenced the day on a bad note. Exam results had rolled around once again in UCD.

As the day wound on, it wasn’t difficult to read the mood as knots of students gathered around Belfield and swapped news. For some, delight – or at the very least, welcome relief – was evident as celebratory trips to Harcourt Street and beyond were loudly planned.

For others, however, the outcome on a chilly midweek morning had clearly been less than had been hoped for. In the Newman Building, the long queue which had built up by mid-morning outside the Arts Programme Office was telling enough. Most students seemed semi-cheerfully resigned to their fate, with hurried calculations being shared, principally based around multiples of €230 – the current going rate to repeat a module in UCD.

But at least some students were facing a rather more pressing reality that Wednesday morning. For a significant proportion, the news an SIS login brought at breakfast was even graver than the dispiriting prospect of scraping together the cash for one or more repeats. Bad news at the academic polls meant confronting the unpleasant reality that perhaps things definitively weren’t going the way they wished in UCD.

Fast forward nine days, and I’m sitting in the office of Aisling O’Grady, Student Advisor for the College of Arts & Celtic Studies. It’s approaching five o’clock on a Friday evening, and the deadline to formally withdraw from college before incurring a second semester’s fees is imminent.

O’Grady – worldly, but irrepressibly cheerful – admits that I’ve caught her at the tail end of a very, very busy week. Even as we settle down to interview, a knock at her office door reveals a nervous-looking female undergraduate. It’s perilously close to the deadline, but O’Grady doesn’t hesitate to usher her in. I dutifully yield my place on the seat and retire outside.

Even if confidentially didn’t obviously rule it out, I don’t actually need to be inside to grasp the gist of what’s taking place. O’Grady invariably greets newcomers to her Newman Building quarters by quickly reassuring them that she’s been there and done it all before – in every sense of the word, having herself failed First Year as an undergraduate. She tells me later, once our chat has resumed, that helping students wrestling with the issue of dropping out, or simply experiencing academic difficulties, is nothing new to her.

“It’s been the same as every year. It’s mainly First Years who have had difficulty settling in and haven’t managed to get the balance right, and were afraid maybe to ask for help before now. ”

It’s time, perhaps, that I come clean from my end of things. I know the bi-annual routine in O’Grady’s office only too well, and not from the semi-professional, detached Observer side of affairs. At one stage, and not the hazy, distant past, I was the one glumly sitting on the other side of the desk, trying to weigh up my options.

I’m in the final year of my final semester studying History in UCD. The problem is that the figures don’t quite add up: mine is a three-year course, but my student number begins with an 06 prefix. In the black and white scheme of things, I should already have graduated and left Belfield in my wake, striding out into an economic recession with all the prospects that a certified competency in primary source analysis and dissertation drafting can bring. Yet here I am, still toiling away amongst the dusty ranks of the James Joyce Library’s History section. So what happened along the way?

As she speaks from lengthy student experience, O’Grady – without intending to – neatly summarises my previous self, circa September 2006. I’m a textbook case of the type of person who was all too ready to embrace the sudden freedom that college offered, but was ill-prepared to shoulder the concurrent responsibility. I have to admit it – she has me bang to rights.

Three years ago, I gleefully ticked almost every negative box it was possible for a callow undergraduate to complete. No sooner had my feet hit Belfield’s concrete that autumn, were they swiftly treading off track.

Before even a full month as a UCD student had elapsed, I’d developed the firm habit of treating my weekly timetable as a firmly à la carte affair. Tutorials, officially mandatory, were (in my reality at least) entirely discretionary. Lectures were almost beyond consideration, unless I happened to be in an unusually industrious mood – or if I had time to kill.

And that was just during the day. By night, I eagerly grasped every opportunity that presented itself to further divorce myself from my academic commitments. The opening of an envelope anywhere in town would have invited my presence, swaying slightly by half-nine and still relishing the fact that I was out – on a Tuesday night!

But even a monumental idiot can’t hold reality at arm’s length forever though, and the payback wasn’t an eternity in catching up with me. That Christmas, my first experience of UCD exams came with predictable consequences, though my results shouldn’t have surprised me as much as they did – especially given that at least one exam had seen me swaggering out of the RDS after only a token half-hour attempt at coherent writing.

Still, at least I learnt my abject lesson and ran a tight ship from there on in. If only.

When summer exams – and the prospect of re-sits – rolled round, I didn’t even deign to attend most; of those I did, I stuck to established personal tradition and failed a majority. And so into the semi-mythical ‘Stage X’ I fell.

This was how September 2007 saw me parked in the very same seat in front of O’Grady that I’m occupying now, with my proverbial tail truly between my legs. At least two sessions of friendly but firm advice stood me in little stead, however, so determined was I to steer my own, erratic course. By the time my second Christmas as a UCD student had rolled around, I had settled upon the answer to my self-inflicted woes – I was dropping out. And by January, that was essentially what I’d done. I still came to campus – nearly every day, in fact – but the only remaining draw was either to meet with friends or to dutifully attend the Observer office. Somehow I saw no particular irony in effectively ceasing my involvement in UCD as a student, but continuing to participate in extra-curricular activities.

Why? Well, why on earth not? My course was too hard. I didn’t actually enjoy studying History at third level (though I loved it at school). There were better ways to go about getting started in my chosen career. A thousand conjured-up excuses, and all of them equally spurious – that is, for me at least.

Eventually – and perhaps inevitably – my Road to Damascus moment arrived, and it dawned on me at last that perhaps, just perhaps, dropping out wasn’t actually what I wanted. So I trudged to the bank to withdraw a hefty loan in order to cover the various repeats I had accumulated, began to knuckle down, and finally began college properly.

So far, so good – and a happy ending for all? Well, no, actually, anything but.

I was lucky – luckier in some ways than I think I still grasp, even now. Lucky because I managed to arrest a downward slide in time; luckier still in that the factors which brought me so close to ending my time in UCD weren’t academic, economic, personal or any of the other myriad of issues that can affect a student’s performance, and can ultimately lead to a decision to abandon a course of study altogether.

The root of my brush with dropping out of university lay firmly with my own hubris, immaturity, and misplaced sense of priority. When I eventually began to treat my college experience in the manner that I should have done from the very beginning, I was able to discover that I actually had at least a modicum of aptitude, and – perhaps much more importantly – a distinct enthusiasm for my course.

Others aren’t so lucky. For some students, external influences – whether stemming from personal problems, reasons of finance or academic capability, or a range of others – can contribute to the unwelcome and affecting academic problems. For more than a few, it can quite simply be the case that their chosen course of study is simply not for them – or, at least, it isn’t at that particular point in time. Like anyone else in UCD, I’ve known examples of all of the above, and the experiences of the interviewees on these pages are utterly typical. My own memory of flirting with dropping out lends me some sense of empathy with their positions, but our experiences certainly aren’t the same – nor, in honesty, would I wish them to be.

O’Grady is the very first person to acknowledge that for some, no matter how difficult the decision to part ways with a course may be, it’s still a step that has to be taken.

“One of the first questions I ask students who come in here who have gone down in modules is ‘Do you really want to be here – do you really want to get a degree?’, because that’s the baseline that you need to work from. Most people actually do want to be here – they want to get their degree – but they’re just a little bit lost in knowing how to go about it. [For some people, however] it may have been last on their CAO form, or it’s not what they wanted to do. If it’s not the right place for you then you need to withdraw.”

With Friday last marking the final day for withdrawal this semester without incurring financial penalty, it seems likely that O’Grady’s schedule will calm down a little bit this week. Realistically, however, the likelihood of the seats in the waiting area outside her office remaining empty for long seems faint.

~~

Shane (20) is a First Year student in Health and Performance Science. In September 2008, immediately after completing his Leaving Certificate, he embarked on a Science degree in Trinity College. Very quickly on, however, he realised that the course simply wasn’t for him.

“Going into physiotherapy had always been my overall goal, so it was just a case of which direction into that area that I took, [but I soon found that] Trinity just wasn’t my thing at all. When it came to the course itself, I just couldn’t handle it. I’d say it was a mixture of the course and the college. I thought about [withdrawing] for a good two weeks, because as soon as I got in there I realised that it just wasn’t my thing.

“There was no hassle at home. I said it to my Mum straight away and she told me that it was the right thing to do if I wasn’t enjoying it; that I should get out of there. She was really supportive about it – that was great.

“I had been working in a newsagent on Saturdays and Sundays and they decided to give me full-time work for the year, so it was very handy. Getting back into the study side of things this year wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I thought it would be harder, but things like Blackboard are a great help. I live in Bray, so it means I can study from home more.

“I love my course at the moment. Christmas exams went great – I passed everything, so I was very happy with myself.

“If I had to give advice to anyone who was in the same position that I was in, I would say that if you really, really don’t like it, get out of there. I never looked back, and I haven’t regretted taking that step since. It’s the best step I’ve ever taken really.”

~

Louise is 21 and in the Second Year of a General Nursing degree. She originally came to UCD to an Economics and Finance in 2007, but realised by Christmas of her first year in the University that her heart wasn’t in the course. Having reapplied to UCD through the CAO, she is now three terms into her new programme of study, but has become steadily disillusioned with her course. At the time of interview last week, Louise was preparing to formally withdraw from the University.

“I initially came to UCD to study Economics and Finance. I’d worked very hard for my Leaving, and was very happy with the results, but I hadn’t actually given the course itself much consideration before starting. I had difficulties… very soon on – I found that I just wasn’t engaging with the course the way I thought I would.

“An older sibling was already studying Nursing in UCD, so I had a very good general knowledge of the course through her, and thought it looked like something I might be very happy doing. At the start [last year] things were great – I made friends very quickly and really enjoyed myself. I enjoyed the theory-based portion of the course hugely – I did very well in my exams.

“It was really the placement in hospital that began to change the way I thought. I found the hours very long, and very challenging, and I started doubting whether or not this was actually something I really wanted to do in the long-term.

“Actually facing up to it was very, very difficult. I was very conscious that I had already changed courses once – my parents had helped me out with paying fees for the first year of new course, so I was very worried that I was letting them down. The money situation at home really isn’t good at the moment, so that really didn’t help things. It was a huge relief to actually come out and say it… two weeks ago.

“UCD have been quite good. Various staff members have talked to me and explained my options, which has been a help. As far as I’m aware, I do have an option – at least for a year or so – of picking up where I left off and resuming my studies. That’s definitely a bit of reassurance.

“Overall, I’m quite frightened, and very worried at the moment. I have a part-time job, but only at weekends – it’s not a nice feeling having nothing to do all of a sudden from Monday to Friday. Not having a place to get up and go in the mornings gets me down. I’m thinking very strongly about looking at other courses and reapplying through the CAO, but even if I do, that still leaves me at a loose end until September. I’m really not sure about anything at the moment.”

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