News Article

Coping with difficult times at university

I withdrew from my master’s degree recently. It wasn’t the university, I’d been here 3 years already, I was excited for a fourth. It wasn’t the people or the workload or even the 2-hour commute at 7am. It just wasn’t the right course for me. After attending for a month, I realised I couldn’t see myself taking the subject area forward to a career, and I didn’t want to. Just like that, I was thrown into limbo. I’d gone from having a purpose and a clear career path to rethinking everything I like and dislike, rethinking my decisions, and generally feeling lost. 

I’m autistic and I have OCD, so moving to halls, to private accommodation, to home, and then to being a commuter, was 4 whole years of persistent changes, something I dislike intensely. When I found transitioning to university life and halls difficult in first year, I contacted my GP and requested some talking therapy. I’d had CBT before and so I was referred to a psychologist, who I still see monthly, 3 years later. This person talks to me about anything and everything in my life and helps me understand my brain so I can control my anxieties. When it came to my second move, and my third, I was better able to cope each time, because of the work I had been doing with my psychiatrist. Although moving each year was a change forced upon me, learning to cope with those changes empowered me to make the huge change to my life that was withdrawing with confidence. I can’t imagine first year me ever considering something of this magnitude. 

When I was considering leaving my course, I told someone at a party. After I told them I was “going to be behind” and that it would “mess up my plan.” They proceeded to tell me that the timeline I’m creating doesn’t exist. That I would get where I wanted, and it doesn’t matter how long I take to do it. This stuck. I don’t know this person well, but their advice flicked the final switch in my mind. Once I let go of my imaginary timeline, the decision became crystal clear. I realised I wanted certain qualifications years from now, but that I no longer wanted them in the field I had chosen. I had a meeting with my personal tutor and explained, and they encouraged me to do what was best for me, as they always have. 

Before I returned for my final year, one secure part of my life dissolved abruptly. I’d been good at compartmentalising my academic life and personal life, so when I hit the stop button on my course, I started to let the grief of that loss in. We’d conversed about futures, and I recalled saying to this person I didn’t know if this path was right for me before the academic term even started. They didn’t believe me because I appeared so assured of myself and my goals. Their belief in me gave me the confidence to try it anyway, which I’m glad I did. If I hadn’t tried it, I’d be wondering what it would have been like. Instead, I know what it’s like now and I know I made the right choice, there’s no regret. 

At each difficult choice and each hardship my parents offered me security. Knowing I had that security around me is one of the main factors that contributed to my ability to make these decisions. They were happy that I was making decisions that made me happy. Having that environment, the space to allow myself to feel lost, and to adjust to life without academic structure, is something I am so grateful for. I am privileged to have found out what I want from a position of strength. 

Each of these people gave me confidence, security, and assurance to think about big decisions in my life. They didn’t interject on them, they listened and had faith in me. When you have a big decision to make, or when something doesn’t feel quite right, there will be someone to listen; whether they’ve always been there, or you have to seek them through your GP, or even bump into them at a party. The world is filled with people who will listen and support you, you just need to tell them the problem. 

If you relate to how Alex felt or just want to talk about how you're finding things at university, remember there are lots of people you can talk to. You can reach out to the Positive Peers during term time, reach out to your personal tutor or check out the Wellbeing Hub for other services available.  


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