Dropping out? first, let’s drop the stigma

Dropping out? First, let's drop the stigma

By Amber Reid

Everyone questions their degree at times, but sometimes it’s for more serious reasons than others. Sometimes powering through university isn’t the best answer, but many people feel too ashamed to even think about dropping out.

Disclaimer: I nor Candid Orange Magazine endorse dropping out of university, the message is merely not to be afraid or ashamed if it must be done.

I don’t think this degree is for me…

When you’re locked into a degree for at least three years of your life (which is proportionally a pretty big chunk for us young people when you think about it), it is inevitable that at some point you will be wondering: ‘What am I even doing here?’ Questioning why you are doing your degree is not abnormal, especially since university hasn’t really been university over lockdown. No bumping into friends after class, grabbing a coffee to rant about the workload, or even just having an actual classroom to get to rather than just a webcam and a tiny speaker. Sometimes the reasons we consider stepping away from our studies won’t go away. This is a terrifying question to ask yourself as a student, but that shouldn’t be the case.

Seriously debating whether you need to drop out, restart, defer, or switch subjects at university is a miserable situation for any student to be in. The uncertainty and anxiety you feel within yourself is damaging enough to the decision-making process, but there is another huge weight on top of this. What will people say? What will people think? Will my family, my friends, even strangers, look at me as a failure because I can’t get through this? These thoughts are exactly the reason people are often too scared to even think about stepping out of their degree. If you are too afraid to even think about such a big decision, how can you seek the advice of the people you care about? And how can you feel secure in knowing whether staying or going will be the best decision for you?

You should not be afraid to consider stepping out of university if it is what you truly need. Being relatively fresh out of education (which is very different from higher education) it is difficult to comprehend that university is not mandatory. While it can be an amazing experience for some, it is not an accommodating environment for every person or their circumstances. Whether you power through your degree in one go, take a break, restart, or leave to work on something else altogether, your degree should be something you chose to do. If you chose not to do a degree, you’re not doomed to failure. You are opening up the time you would have spent studying to start placements, apprenticeships, internships, volunteering, freelancing, gap years, jobs, or even starting your own business. As long as you look, the world is filled with opportunities whether you’re doing a degree or not.

A degree is not the only measure of success

There is no invalid reason to be considering stepping out of your degree. I myself considered deferring to take a year out during the pandemic. I have spoken to people who hated their subject or university environment, were battling against personal issues or didn’t settle into unaccommodating teaching styles. Some people face physical health conditions that stop them from studying, others struggle with the mental. There are people with disabilities who can’t adapt to the teaching methods that don’t accommodate them, and there are people trapped in degrees they have no interest in because they didn’t realise there were options other than university after A-Levels. None of these people have wasted anyone’s time, hurt anyone, or done anything wrong, so why should they feel ashamed to have faced a tough decision to better themselves? There only seems to be two options, said one final year student: ‘complete your degree or become a dropout, and being a dropout was being a failure.’ This stigmatic misconception is what tethered this student and so many others into degrees they weren’t thriving in.

To begin a degree – something our society universally recognises as requiring intelligence and drive – and not complete it can make some people feel ashamed of themselves. You regret beginning it, but you might regret leaving it as much if people raise their brows. Even if they don’t, feeling that you chose not to complete something that could bring you success is distressing, and feeling like its what everyone around you is thinking makes you feel foolish to the point that it hurts.

Shame is a powerful oppressor. Even around supportive people, the fear of being perceived as a failure can trap anyone into silence. Sitting on such a big decision is the worst kind of procrastination, but it can be so hard to start the conversation with those around you. Aside from embarrassment, being on bad terms with friends or family can present a whole extra barrier to discussing your future. If you take the leap without talking first, it can feel like you’re throwing yourself into a storm of side-eyeing and assumptions. The student stereotypes are partially to blame for this stigma. ‘Everyone seems to believe it’s [because] I’m not interested or just wasting my time, or [I was] just there to drink and party the whole time,’ said Nicole (22), but a large reason this stigma persists is because we are often too ashamed to talk about it.

However scary the reception may seem, you can not let it be what stops you from stepping out of your studies if its what you really need to do. In my case, waiting it out was the best decision. For others, taking action was the best decision they have ever made.

For Alice, who had been struggling through her entire first year with her mental health, ‘Dropping out was kind of a relief because I hated the course so once I made the decision I just felt really free and like the world was my oyster.’

Nicole found that, ‘Dropping out was the best thing I’ve ever done! I have worked on myself and have been working for the NHS for nearly a year, my mental health is amazing and I feel ready to finally go back to university at the fruitful age of 22. […] when I’m 26 with a first honours degree I don’t think my employers are going to be asking me why I dropped out the first two times. If I had stayed in university the first or second time I would have barley scraped a 3rd and would have had so much placement to catch up on [I’d] have been completely miserable

A former Politics and Economics student, who wished to remain anonymous, was forced to drop out after not receiving adequate support to complete his degree with severe dyslexia. ‘I wish I just never went in the first place.’ He said. ‘You really have to recognize your disability and not force yourself into an environment you won’t be able to work in […] I’m much, much happier now.’ He has since been working as a muralist, and is developing his own brand of hot sauce.

Talking through the taboo

When facing the decision of whether to step out of your studies, you must look beyond what others may say. It is daunting, but on the other side of all of the fear and uncertainty, you will reach clarity. Whether you stay in university or not, thinking through your decision and talking about it as much as you can will not only help you find certainty in what you want for yourself, but also dispel the stigma that stops others from talking about it too.

No one talks about how dropping out isn’t giving up – it’s realising that university isn’t the right path for you.’ Anonymous. Interruption in first year, now at end of degree and wishing she had dropped out.

Having someone supportive in your life to talk openly about it makes the conversation much easier to have.’ Harrison, Music Production, switched universities and considering dropping out due to lockdown restraining a practical degree.

In university, you become responsible for your own education. It’s not like school. Make sure its what will work for you, and if it won’t, then don’t do it.’ Anonymous. Dropped out due to a lack of support for dyslexia, now running their own business.

It doesn’t get held against you, and I wish more people felt like it was okay to do this if they are really struggling. You are never too old to re-enter education. Always put your mental health before anything […] there is no point in doing a degree if you aren’t present mentally or physically. You just gotta do what’s best for you and remember it doesn’t matter what other people think, you is all that matters and your journey!Nicole, 22. Tried three different universities and courses before finding the one she loves.

For me, thinking I might have to leave university for a year made me really appreciate what I get from my degree, and I can firmly say that I appreciate every moment of it.

Remember: your degree should be your choice.

If you’re ditching it, good for you. Now you have more time to find what you really want to do. If you’re sticking with it, do it for you. Make it count.