From digging dirt to a degree- how education preserves mental health
By : Jason Smith
Recently, I received the wonderful news that I’ve been awarded a First-class Honours for my Bachelors degree. Now 27 years old, it’s been a long road, having dropped out of university in 2014. In the intervening years, I faced many setbacks. While my mindset has remained the same, the difference between then and now is the practical experience I’ve gained in putting it to the test. I’ve had my moments: head in hands at 2 in the morning trying to figure it all out. But my attitude has proven to be a resilient bulwark against the threat of losing my mental health; a threat I’ve been conscious of- being part of a generation of the infamous ‘quarter life crisis’. In the past, my friends have often commented on how surprisingly upbeat I’ve been during the darker moments. I’d like to share a few pillars of that mindset in the context of my life.
My lowest point
From barista, to waiter, to bartender, to zoo guide, to manual labourer, to delivery driver, to plant operator. The list goes on and on. I’ve bounced from job to job, living day to day. Financial struggles have been an ever-present reality. I naively took out more credit than needed for a man my age. The consequences , combined with bad luck and a stubborn refusal to return home reached a climax: The summer of 2018 saw me reluctantly living in my car and cheap hotels when I could afford it. I have a vivid memory of waking up in the morning of my 25th birthday alone. I was laying back in the driver’s seat tucked inside my sleeping bag, peering through the window. For a moment, I laid there contemplating the reality of my situation.
Embrace the struggle
Suffering is an inescapable part of life. Rather than seeking to avoid it at every turn, I embrace the personal growth it can stimulate. As a result, I resisted the temptation to give up and take refuge in the comfort of my family home four hours away. I was not yet curled up in a cardboard box on the high street. I would just keep calm and carry on with patient persistence. Today I’m a stronger person for doing so.
While some temporary situations might end up being more temporary than I’d like, an almost Zen- like persistence allows me to prevail in the end. As it did with the car/hotel situation which lasted 5 months- far longer than I’d originally hoped. The following summer, I slept on an airbed, for what ended up being an entire year, until I could finally afford to buy a proper bed. I woke up on hard ground in the middle of the night due to yet another puncture more times than I care to remember. When I returned to university, I signed on for the 2017/2018 academic year. But it wasn’t until the 2019/2020 year when my financial difficulties subsided, that I could sit the year without any major distractions.
Feed the fire
There were many daunting moments, but they couldn’t crush my spirits. Beneath it all (sometimes buried deep!), I had a feeling of almost smug confidence, knowing these times would pass and a bright future lay ahead. I knew it because I still had that fire inside of me. This fuels my optimism and drives me on. The fire that inspires awe and wonder at the great possibilities of life. And that ‘the world is my oyster!’. I always hold on tightly to a positive vision of the future and feed the fire if it starts to flicker, literally in the mirror if necessary – I know that I must always be my biggest cheerleader.
Life can be unfair
Sure, there may well be an unusually large number of factors getting in the way, and things might be horribly unfair. Life can get tough – working out the most efficient way to spend my last 87p to maximise my caloric intake before going hungry again wasn’t fun. But ultimately, there’s only one question in a given situation that one wants to improve; ‘what am I going to do about it?’. The external factors are a given. I can either wallow in self-pity, frozen in these conditions, or take action, step by step to improve my circumstances.
I’m in control
I was raised by hardworking, entrepreneurial parents who sacrificed a great deal for their children. From running restaurants to selling wine, I witnessed many different businesses growing up. Seeing the world through an entrepreneurial lens, the underlying message was one of self-reliance and independence. Most importantly, the optimistic idea that the world is a place to be seized upon through one’s initiative and effort. I carry that spirit close to my heart. When I look forward I don’t think ‘what’s going to happen to me?’, I think: ‘what am I going to make happen?’.
Not a victim
The biggest threat to that optimistic view of the ‘self’ as an autonomous individual with great power over the direction of their life is the opposite idea that we’re all just victims of forces beyond our control. This is a general idea which circulates throughout society. When there seems to be an unlimited supply of obstacles getting in the way, it can be easy to slip into such a paralysing view of the world. Paralysing because we lose the belief in our ability to take life on. We’re a goal-orientated species. Setting and achieving goals is vital to our mental well-being and as such we must always reinforce that strong sense of the autonomous self.
An intellectual journey
In a six-year period in which I’ve lived in 10 different apartments. The only constant has been an enriching intellectual journey which inspired me to return to academia. It’s important for your mental health to develop some skill or interest during difficult times because it provides that vital sense of positive momentum to drive you forward. For me it was my intellectual pursuits. I may have been materially broke, but my mind grew richer as I delved deeper into my intellectual interests. I knew that I was investing in my mind and that one day it would pay dividends.
When I decided to return to academia, I knew I wanted to study at the very best institution. I inevitably turned my sights toward Oxbridge. Gaining my undergraduate degree is a stepping-stone toward that goal. Now my focus is on preparing my Master’s application. I yearn for the honour of walking through the ancient halls of Oxbridge. If that time comes, those gruelling 12 hour night shifts covered in dirt, lugging bricks for minimum wage as a university dropout, will become all but a faded memory, if not so scarcely believable that it must have been a distant dream from another life. Whatever happens, the fire will keep burning stronger than ever.
In hindsight, our problems are often much smaller than they might have seemed at the time. Approaching future obstacles with this in mind makes them more manageable and protects our mental wellbeing. I’m almost embarrassed to say I’ve suffered in any real way – my hurdles are dwarfed by so many others not only in this generation but certainly for generations past. But that thought helps me to stay grounded. Sometimes it’s useful to take a moment to remind ourselves of everything we have to be grateful for. Instead of focusing too much on the negatives, we should start from a place of gratitude and then build on the positives to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.
By Jason Smith
About the author
Jason Smith achieved his Bachelor’s degree as a mature student in 2020. A strong advocate of an interdisciplinary approach to learning, he combined Economics, History, Philosophy and Politics to complete his degree. After completing his Master’s degree, he will embark on a long academic career where he hopes to make a positive and lasting difference to academia and society at large.