Choosing the path that you want to take in life can be so difficult, and if you are between the ages of 16 and 25 and thinking about your options for the next part of your life, that decision can feel like it is loaded with so much pressure. We are often sold the tried-and-tested trodden path for most of our school career: you finish school, you go to sixth form, you get the grades that you need to go to university and then you choose the subject that makes the most sense based on your A-levels. You finish university, and you start a graduate scheme, or an internship, or work experience in the area that you want to go into. You get a graduate job and work your way up; saying the right things, doing things the right way, getting in with the right people until you work your way up the ladder. You’re seen as successful if you’re settled into a career within a year of graduating, and you’ll probably be in that career for the next forty to fifty years.
For most of the population, jobs are the tool that provides us with the money that is needed for the rest of our lives: it allows us to travel to the places we want to go, to live in the place we want to live, to spend time with friends in the way that we want to, to eat and drink and be merry. We live in a society in which it isn’t really possible to live without a solid income, so we become trapped in the vicious circle; you must earn enough to pay your rent, and you must pay your rent so you can continue to live and work.
There’s got to be more to life than this right? More than living to work and working to live, more than doing the things that we do just because it is the logical path and the most likely to earn us a liveable income. What if we could have all the things that we need, and achieve all the things that we want to achieve, by taking a path that is less trodden?
Path A is the traditional education-scheme-job-promotion route; getting the right grades, moving on to the next thing and working our way up. But life doesn’t come with only one option, despite what we are told: there are many options, and each carries worth depending on our motives and intent behind it.
There is a Path B. There are many things that university, graduate schemes and graduate-level jobs offer; but it may be the case that these things can be found outside the traditional route, in a way that will set you on a path that you are passionate about, and that produces real fruit in your life. Now, I’m speaking as a graduate with a BA in Youth and Community Work and Practical Theology from Gloucestershire University; it is not that university is never the right route. But, like in everything else in life, we have the power to think outside of the cultural norms that we grow up in; we have options and we are never on a set path that we cannot get out of. If going to university will bring you closer to the things that you want to achieve and the path you want to take, then that is absolutely the best thing for you to do; but if not, then your life is so much bigger than whether you have a degree or not.
Here are some of the components that a university education will offer you, and some alternative routes that you can take to these areas:
- Time to practice your skills, and have a go: A university education is broken down into modules and topics; teaching you the theory and skills that are relevant to that area, and then testing you in the form of an essay, presentation or an exam. If you choose a creative degree, coursework and practical assessment will give you the opportunity to show what you can do, and to put those skills into your work. If you choose not to go to university, you can find this by taking up other learning opportunities or finding people who will teach you these skills. You’ll also learn through practical experience, and learning on the job is a very valid route. Although you don’t come out with a certificate at the other end, the product of your work will be the evidence that you can achieve the goals in that area.
- Contacts and community: University is great, because you spend three years or more in a group of people who are passionate about the same things as you, and are likely to end up in the same kind of career as you. As well as getting you through the university experience, these relationships can turn into valuable contacts for your professional career. The community means that when you’re struggling, demotivated or underachieving, you have a safety net of people who are on the same page as you and who support each other in the low moments. Outside of university, this community may be found in networking and time spent co-working on projects that are not your own – even voluntarily – to find passionate people that are on the same path as you. It means finding community outside of the work environment; networks of family and friends who understand your passion and your vision, and who are cheering you on. It means inviting others along on projects, and partnering with people, so that your work is not simply the product of one mind. Although these relationships will need to be more intentional than relationships formed in a university environment, you really get to choose who you want to spend your time with.
- Inspiration: University helps you to try out a wide range of topics and experiences, and to find the things that make your heart beat a little faster. It might be that you can go on to specialise in that area in the last year of your degree or in another course; or it might be that this passion leads you into a career that you love. There’s time to dabble and learn a little bit about a lot of things – there’s time to find experience outside of lectures and to find out where your skills lie. You’ll meet lecturers and tutors that give you a fire in your heart for their subject and encourage you to take it further. You can spend time around people who are passionate about the same things, and try projects together. On an alternative route, inspiration comes from trying lots of different things and finding out what you are passionate about; it comes from listening to people who are doing the things that you want to do, and letting their thoughts and ideas inspire yours. It means immersing yourself in culture and listening to the ideas that emerge from your heart.
Education is important, and university is a completely valid life choice. But it is just that – a choice. We are not on a set path that we cannot divert from – we have the power to choose where we are going to put ourselves in life. It is our responsibility to learn, to engage with the world around us, and to be active participants in this world.
These words are from the rapper Tupac, speaking about education in 1988:
“School is really important: reading, writing, arithmetic. But what they tend to do is teach you reading, writing, arithmetic… and then teach you reading, writing, arithmetic again. Then again, then again, just making it harder and harder just to keep you busy. And that’s where I think they messed up. There should be a class on drugs. There should be a class on sex education. No, real sex education, not just pictures and illogical terms. There should be a class on religious cults, there should be a class on police brutality, there should be a class on apartheid, there should be a class on racism in America, there should be a class on why people are hungry, but there’s not, there’s a class on… gym.”
How different would our world be if every teenager had to take a class on why people were hungry? How much would a class on racism or police brutality affect the minds of the young people who are going to be the future leaders in our world? Whether we choose to go down the route of traditional education or not, we have a responsibility to be active participants, and to educate ourselves about the needs of the world. Education, whether it’s provided by schooling or life experience, needs to help us to look at the world around us with a critical-thinking approach, and to imagine the world that we could live in, giving us the skills we need to participate in the change needed.
And when we are participating – when we are adding something to the world that we live in – our perceptions and ideas and the unique background and experience that we bring to these things changes them. We are needed to change the way that our world teaches young people about sex and relationships. We are needed to bring hope and equality into a world where racism, sexism, classism and gender inequality are rife. We are needed to bring a voice of clarity into a confused world.
When I left secondary school, I flipped through the college prospectus with no idea of what I wanted to do, and, seeing a picture of a puppy, signed up to do a BTEC in Animal Management – the equivalent of four A-levels. Spending two years doing this showed me, although it mainly involved spending my days hanging out with cool animals, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I grew up knowing that I wouldn’t go to university – by the time I finished sixth form, students were paying £6000 per year of university in the United Kingdom, and this seemed set to rise; a lot of money to throw away when I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
At the same time, I had become a Christian and got involved in my local church; mainly sitting in the aisles with the children, racing toy cars up and down with them and spinning them around in circles. I was seventeen and found that the youth group was an easy place to be, helping to lead small groups and talking to the other teenagers. So, when an application for a youth work internship landed on my lap, it didn’t seem a million miles away from what I should be doing.
I moved my Vauxhall-Corsa-boot-full of things up to Northamptonshire, trained for a year, working at a parish church, and absolutely fell in love with youth work. I was spending my days helping people through some of the toughest times; comforting, helping, guiding. I was writing sessions and programmes and teaching young people about relationship with God. I was working in the community, in programmes that were making a real difference in people’s lives. After a year, I’d decided that youth work was the path I wanted to explore; and annoyingly, I was pointed towards a degree in Cambridge.
Deciding to do the degree is one of the best decisions that I’ve made to date. I was training in something that I knew I’d been called to do, learning about adolescent development and theology and pastoral care and diversity, and how the whole lot fitted together into one big picture. University gave me a language and a context for the calling that I had on my life.
Education was about giving me a passion about issues that I saw around me so that I could make a difference; giving me a language and skills to be able to work to fix these issues, and giving me the time to practice things, make mistakes, and learn where my skills fitted best. I’m now working as a youth worker in Cambridge, and although university was a part of that journey, it was also part of my story, along with the community that formed around me in Cambridge: a story of life experience, mistakes made, training from other places, inspiring people and a bigger calling on my life.
Remember: whatever life looks like, you have the power to change it. You are not stuck. You are not trapped in one career just because that is what you chose to do when you were seventeen. We always have the power to turn our life in a completely different direction, and go after the things that we are called to do.