[this was first written for and published on New Grad, in August 2020]

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This is how it goes. You finish school at 16, followed by sixth form until you’re 18, and then you head to university for the next three years. If you’re lucky, you’ll have already secured a job upon graduation. This timeline is created to be followed, and can feel embarrassing if you don’t fit into the mould.

For some time, I felt shame when I admitted to being a 21 year old in my first year at University. I’ll be going into my second year in September, studying English Literature and Creative Writing, and I’m looking forward to properly studying again, and having something to do other than watching TV, making brownies, and cooking a million variations of pasta.

My journey with education is one that didn’t follow the timeline. After completing my GCSE’s I started at sixth form, where I studied Creative Writing, Psychology and History. My grades for each subject were C, D, and U respectively. On results day, I had a meeting with a few teachers, where I opted to study Childcare instead of History, a decision that ended up being an overwhelmingly negative one.

I ended up dropping out of sixth form and pursuing several apprenticeships, and after several experiences with roles that I didn’t enjoy, as well as starting a course in Health and Social Care, I submitted a UCAS application to study Psychology with Counselling Skills at Middlesex Uni. I loved studying Psychology but had a tough time with one of the modules, and, after talking about my love of English with some friends, I decided to apply for an English Literature degree. I received an unconditional offer for the course that I’m studying now.

Finally in a degree that I felt suited to, the pandemic swept in, affecting all of our lives. The world came to a standstill. Personal issues crawled their way into the forefront of my mind as I tried to concentrate on essays, as well as panic over the virus. To this day, my mental health is constantly fluctuating. Initially when it came to my health, I shied away from telling the people in my life what was going on. Now, I make sure to mention it to the people I can trust, so they know what’s going on and help me, instead of dealing with it all on my own.

The toll from the pressure of education on mental health is one that doesn’t get spoken about much. Its effect on me, from not knowing which path to take or how to properly get back into education, felt like a tidal wave. It has taken work, but I now know that I have a support system to help me through it, and I have healthier coping mechanisms compared to previous years.

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Being a mature student in university, when the majority of my classmates were 18 or 19, felt almost embarrassing. Admitting to them that I was 21 in my first year meant feeling an instant flush, but as the weeks wore on I realised that in all honesty, it really isn’t that deep. I know a lot of older prospective students will feel weird about starting university in their 20s or 30s because of the stigma attached to not following the conventional timeline. I’ve learned that there is no need to feel awkward about being older than everyone else. There is no time limit for education. Just go for it. 

In a society telling us how to be, how to act, and how to live, it’s difficult to not feel ‘less than’ when you defy the pattern. I have had family members ask what the point of studying English was, even asking when I was going to drop out. I want to get a first in this degree, not just for myself, but also to prove them wrong. Dealing with my mental health for these past few years, whilst changing my mind several times about my own path, made me feel alienated, left out, and confused. Everyone around me was graduating whilst I was starting university all over again, and I felt alone in this new beginning, where it seemed like I was being judged and criticised for my decisions.

The message I choose to take away from my experiences is to deal with your emotions when they first surface, and try to figure out the cause of your mental health decline, talking to other people along the way. Accepting help when it’s needed  doesn’t make you any less. When it comes to education and careers, you don’t have to follow the timeline set out by society. Focus on yourself and figure out exactly what you want to do. You don’t have to go to university right after your A-Levels; you can use that time to travel, get a job, and to learn more about yourself. That time will pass quickly, but the degree will always be there for you to choose if you want it in the end.

Things I’ve written lately:

The complexities of my Muslim faith
The cost of fast fashion and the power of (small business) lingerie
Revenge of the Sluts: on slut shaming, double standards and patriarchy
A night away at Sunborn Hotel
It’s the little moments
In Conversation with Tashie Bhuiyan
It’s the little moments
Emily in Paris: where’s the loyalty?

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7 Comment

  • John says:

    I can relate to that a lot, I felt the same when starting University at 26. I faced lots of doubts before making the step, but at the end they were all in my head, not existent in reality! Writing about our experiences can help other people, keep it up, you got a new follower here!

    • Sumaiya Ahmed says:

      That’s exactly it, the insecurities and doubts shouldn’t affect the way we live our life or progression. Thank you so much!

  • Glass Full-Ish says:

    Good morning Sumaiya, thank you so much for posting this. I really enjoyed reading it. I’m not a Muslim but I’m a British Indian 25 year old (with an unconventional journey, upbringing and a plethora of issues) and last year (to the disapproval of my controlling backwards immigrant parents) I enrolled (with great difficulty) onto a foundation entry course in the next town – with no A levels ,very few and low grade GCSEs, a BTEC and sheer determination. Like you, my mental health also fluctuates (admittedly it’s pretty bad at the moment but I’m working on it!) and I find that getting help for this is really challenging(long story) so when I had no access to a library and was trapped in a very problematic and broken home in the first lockdown -i completely failed to complete any coursework nor sit exams. Unfortunately I was taken off the course for these reasons but they say I can try again another year. I am hoping to return next year but honestly I am not sure if it is the right pathway for me. I’m much more concerned with getting a job and a better place to live even though education will always be important to me. I know exactly what it’s like to be a mature student and I appreciate your honesty. Best wishes, Isha xx

    • Sumaiya Ahmed says:

      Hi Isha, firstly thank you so much for reading and your comment!
      I do hope things get easier for you, education is tough and dealing with mental health problems on top of it definitely isn’t easy. If you do end up getting back to uni, try to secure some bursaries / apply for a hardship fund and maybe even a part time if you do feel like you want to pursue education again. Obviously a degree isn’t the be all end all, and there are loads of career options even without it, but if it’s important to you, go for it. Try to get counselling through your uni as well, it can help to talk about it. And if you do want someone else to talk to, I’m always here. You can find me on socials at sumaiyaahmedwrites on insta + sumaiyawrites on Twitter. I’m happy to help, even if it’s just as someone to listen xx

  • quotidian2911 says:

    Loved it👌👌