Why I Chose to Leave School (And How I Strategically Planned My Departure)

By: Kiera Dinsmore | @kieradinsmore

These past few months, I’ve seen a flurry of back to school posts on every social media platform. They feature everything from new haircuts to school supplies, class schedules, degree countdowns, and “back-on-track” goals for fitness, self-care, and the ever-elusive straight A average.

I give these online declarations a big thumbs up, hoping to encourage my peers as they hit the books once again. However, I feel a slight tug whenever I do so knowing that this time around I am not joining them.

This fall, I did what many of my peers consider to be the unthinkable – I didn’t go back to school.

During the first three years of my degree, life was an absolute roller coaster. There were times when I absolutely excelled in my studies, soaking up knowledge and theory like a sponge.

And then there were the times that outnumbered those shiny, happy moments – long periods of feeling rushed and anxious as I watched my mental and physical health swirl down the proverbial toilet bowl of life.

“I need a break.”

This year, I took the plunge and studied abroad for six months in Brussels, Belgium. I thought it was such a phoney, cliché thing to come back and be “a changed person”. Those people who “found clarity” made me roll my eyes at the predictable “eat, pray, love” endings. I was certain of who I was and what I wanted my life to look like; no plane ticket or trip of a lifetime was going to change that. 

Nevertheless, I uprooted my life. I left my relationship, my friends, my family, my jobs, my apartment, and my little campus – all the things that made me feel secure. I moved into a crappy, overpriced apartment in a rainy, cold city that I didn’t like all that much in a country I knew practically nothing about.

I spent the next seven months living in french, learning about journalism and migration and European parliamentary decorum. I made new friends entirely different from the crews I had back home. I experienced firsthand the ways in which a country and its society responds to acts of terror. I lived out of a backpack as I travelled to eleven countries, throwing myself into cultures and traditions totally foreign to me.

As I felt my time abroad coming to a close, I grew increasingly nervous about the thought of returning to my old routine as an entirely different person. I wasn’t ready to give up my risk-taking, unorthodox ways just yet.

A Choice Just For Me

Taking a time out from school carried a huge appeal for me.

I could take a break and really refocus where I wanted to direct my studies and efforts. I could be sure that my time in school wasn’t rushed, and the massive amounts of money and time and energy paid off with meaningful knowledge – not just a piece of paper.

I could pay off debt that I had accumulated from the last three years of studies and a very expensive travel season. If I was successful, I could spend my last period of study breathing easier about my financial obligations.

I could work in my field, or even just try my hand at gigs I’d never had the guts to pursue. I’d gain some more experience in the working world before graduating and having to “get serious”.

I could finally dedicate time to accomplishing goals and developing skills that weren’t covered in the classroom, like how to play the guitar or obtaining my TEFL certificate.

The Nagging Voices 

Ever since I was about 13 years old, I’ve felt like there was a “track” I was supposed to stay on. Finish high school, get into a reputable university, graduate, find a job that paid well and pushed me further up the career ladder, make waves in my field, and retire happily as part of the loyal legion of an XYZ corporation.

I already started university a year after I was “supposed to”. I didn’t excel or pass all of my courses like I was “supposed to”. I was watching my friends head towards graduation and real life, knowing I would never really catch up. Why was I trying to move at a pace that didn’t work for me?

Yet, I worried myself sick about a decision I felt so instinctively confident about. I started to doubt myself in every way – was I making a terrible mistake?

Would I be able to find a job that paid the bills? Would I make enough to cover my OSAP and other loan payments?

Did I want to be 25+ when I graduated? Was I putting off my “real adult” life?

What if I didn’t go back to school? People warned me I would lose motivation, that once I stopped it would be so difficult to restart. Would I lose momentum forever?

What about the technical aspects of school? Would I be kicked out? Would the university honour the work I had done before my time off? Would I be punished long-term and be forced to retake credits?

Would the workforce stress turn out to be worse than academia for my health?

Would I lose touch with the school community? With my academic, professional, and personal contacts?

And the thing that generated a heavy guilt…

Would people think I had failed?

That I was too stupid to work through school like everyone else? That I was lazy? That I wasn’t ambitious? That I had given up at the first sign of something difficult?

I was doing something unconventional, that people don’t talk about or see as a viable option.

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A Promise to Myself

I knew that even if university and I were on a break, I would need to fulfill my curiosity in other ways and eventually finish what I had started.

I promised myself three things:

  1. I would give myself a minimum of one year off, and then re-evaluate.
  2.  I would pay off my debt first and foremost – if I didn’t have the financial stability to support myself, then I would defer my studies until it was feasible.
  3.  I would commit myself to learning in other ways – signing up for yoga classes, guitar lessons, and TEFL courses as soon as I could afford to do so.

I threw myself into the job hunt – found recruiters, sent out stacks of resumes, pored over job postings, scoured Facebook ads, and pounded the pavement until I scored a string of interviews.

It’s All a Process

All of my hard work paid off as the mess started to fall into place.

I worked at a tour agency and a bar throughout the summer, with unconventional hours and jobs that filled the financial quota until I could find my dream job. Ultimately, I made incredible friends and finished my summer with ridiculous anecdotes and memories.

I now work a 9-5 dream gig in a high rise building in travel and tourism. I use my second language every day. I put away my savings, chipping away at bills as I go. I have a routine and purpose and an obligation to an enterprise and consumer base I believe in.

I’m learning and living outside the box of standard student life, and frankly I’ve never been happier.

Ultimately, I’ve learned that dreams have no expiration date, and it’s better to enjoy and trust the process than fret about the final product.

I will make it across that convocation stage one day. Maybe wrinkled and weary, but content and experienced just the same.

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How to Stay Motivated Past The First Month of School

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.” – Zig Ziglar

If I could come up with an object or solution with magical properties it wouldn’t be an elixir that preserves youth, an oil that prevents hair loss, or a stone that turns metal to gold.

You know what I’d develop? Motivation in a bottle.

Can you imagine? If we could take that combination of hope, fearlessness, and drive that consumes us before New Year, at the start of the school year, or after great words of encouragement and turn it into a perfume we could spray on at will we’d be doing some great things – like writing multiple drafts of our essays.

But until an adorable nerd somewhere whips up this magical concoction we are forced to stick with tried and true methods to do the hard work required to accomplish our goals. Here are a few strategies to keep you grinding well past mid-terms.

Maintain a Neat Work Environment

Your physical surroundings have a significant impact on your mental state. Have you ever decided you were going to go home and tackle a reading only to remember the mess waiting for you? That image instantly drains your energy and convinces you that you can’t get to work until you clean. So you turn on music, start cleaning, look around at all the clothes to hang up, sink to the floor and mumble, “Nope.”

There’s no need to aim to become a domestic god or goddess. Commit 15 minutes each day to picking up everything off the floor. A little bit goes a long way, especially when it comes to cleaning. As you witness the tremendous impact a small amount of cleaning every day has, you will become more motivated to develop a rigorous cleaning schedule and by extension, get things done in your work space.

Attend Every Class (Even If You Can Get Away With Skipping)

When 3 out of 4 of your professors are just reading slides off a screen, it’s hard to find the motivation to drag your butt to their 9am class. In theory, you could read all the slides later and show up for the exams, but the key words there are “in theory”.

As the number of slides to catch up on grows larger and larger, the amount of work you’re faced with will get even more overwhelming. You’d be surprised at how much you can absorb by simply showing up. And even if you do wind up slacking on the readings, when you eventually decide to tackle the syllabus and play catch-up, you won’t be starting from nothing.

And remember: you picked these classes for a reason. With the exception of a few pesky mandatory classes, you chose these lectures because the subject matter seemed interesting. Follow up with that initial curiosity by attending.

Stop Joking About How Lazy You Are

It’s as simple as this: if you keep saying you’re lazy, you are going to act lazy. If you spend time joking with your friends about what a bum you are, you will cultivate a social group within which self-pity is acceptable and poor performance is not embarrassing. If you do nothing else on this list, start telling yourself that you are a hard worker and that you get shit done, even if it is not true in the moment. Your actions will catch up with your words.

Set Micro-goals to Make Your Larger Goals Manageable

Saying “I will get an A in all of my classes this semester” is a lovely statement, but it lacks something important: a plan. If you made this same goal last semester and you didn’t get the marks you desired, consider what behaviours brought you up short.

Was it often difficult for you to get started leading to procrastination and then hastily submitted work?

Instead of deciding you will spend every evening in the library, commit to spending at least ten minutes on a given activity. Reading an article. Studying a chapter. Even cleaning your room. Promise yourself if you can perform that activity for ten straight minutes, you can watch Netflix or go out, guilt-free. Chances are after ten minutes, you’ll be on a roll and hesitant to slow your momentum. If you feel your thoughts drifting to social media or your phone, tell yourself you can look at it in ten minutes (or five if the itch is particularly strong).

When the chemical engineer and the botanist I’m keeping – uh, hosting – in my basement finalize the formula for liquid motivation, I’ll hit you all up with some prices. In the meantime…

GET TO WORK!

How To Find Your Squad in University

It’s September, and that means new classes, new supplies, and…new people. Forging friendships is one of the best parts of life. Yet in the flurry of frosh week and in the desperation to make any allies in a large lecture hall, you may wind up with people who just won’t make it past the first midterm. So what to do?

Know Your Values and Don’t “Edit” Your Personality

A good strategy for entering any unfamiliar place is knowing who you are and who you aren’t. Sure, we’re all works in progress, but there are interests you have, values you hold dear, and things you will not compromise on like your family, your health, your time, and your self-respect. Don’t edit your personality in order to be more palatable to everyone you meet. But on that note…

Have an Open Mind

You can be true to yourself and also be receptive to different personalities and new ideas. Going to a new college or university or simply beginning a new year means you will be exposed to a variety of people with a range of experiences and world views. Some of the strongest relationships are formed by people who differ a lot at the surface level (and yes, your “hard core” political opinions are not that deep) but are similar when it comes to their values like integrity, hard work, and respect. Be willing to engage in constructive conversations and hear people out when they say something that diverges from your point of view.

Don’t Make Time For Time Wasters

People will only give you as much shit as you allow them to. Stop forgiving flakes and quit extending invitations to people who can’t be bothered. Shit happens, but when people cancel make it clear that you were looking forward to your plans and are disappointed. One of two things happen:

1. people start respecting your time, OR

2. you weed out those who weren’t worth your time in the first place

Stop Being So Afraid To Look Stupid

This Toronto attitude of “he or she who cares the least is the coolest” has made no one happy. Instead, it’s led to angsty social media posts and a generation of lonely people. Make plans. Risk the fact that no one will show up. Let them know how awful you felt when they couldn’t keep plans. Life’s too short to make decisions out of fear of embarrassment or rejection.

Respect Boundaries (That Includes Yours)

The kind of friendships where you can borrow money or invest a lot of energy into helping someone through a tough situation are built over time. If a new friend is making unfair demands on your time, money, and emotional energy very early into meeting you, be careful not to get stuck in an asymmetrical friendship or worse, become co-dependent.

Recognize That Friendships are Work

Somewhere along the line we became convinced that friendship is something that happens spontaneously (you fight a troll together in a bathroom, you share detention with a bunch of other misfits) and that magically sustains itself forever and ever. And if it doesn’t sustain itself? Poof! It wasn’t meant to be.

This is so far from the truth. Relationships take work. There isn’t always a party to go to. Sometimes being a friend means grabbing a coffee, putting your phone away, and listening when the person tells you what’s up. It also means honouring plans when something better comes up. There’s “busy” and then there’s “I don’t care to make the time for you”.

Friendships don’t have to be 0 or 100. It’s not a choice between “seeing each other every day” or “lol I’ll let you know if I can make it…might be working”. Create a life for yourself outside of others, and then make the time to share it with people who will hopefully become some solid ass friends.

When Late Marks No Longer Make You Flinch

I often say that it’s a shame the sky didn’t come crashing down the first time I submitted something late, because now I treat deadlines like suggestions.

I should point out that this mentality is exclusively applied to unpaid, non group, school work. (How you doin’ future employers?) Perhaps it’s because in this case the only person I’m really letting down is myself. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Recently, a friend messaged me to ask whether we were supposed to submit an assignment online or in person.

“What assignment?” was my response.

Apparently it was due the day before. Normally, approaching deadlines send me into a mild panic that isn’t strong enough to get me started, but is present enough to colour everything I do that week with the knowledge that I need to get something done. The interesting thing about this deadline was that I hadn’t known it was approaching or present. Period.

In order to procrastinate, you need to be putting a task off completely. In this case, I hadn’t even known there was something to put off. I can’t even say I forgot, because forgetting implies you’d known about the assignment in the first place. (Full disclosure: It’s not that I wasn’t told, I just wasn’t paying attention.) So when I realized how royally I had screwed up, I had to laugh, and the first thing that came to mind was something Donald Rumsfeld said:

“There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Forgive me. After all, he was using these words to justify the eventual war in Iraq. But anytime I open a test and there’s a question I didn’t even know was in the realm of things I should have studied, or I totally blank on an assignment deadline, Rumsfeld comes to mind and I have to giggle.

It’s a shame that the sky didn’t come crashing down the first time I submitted an assignment late, because now I treat deadlines like suggestions. Once I finished laughing at myself, I sent my friend another message:

“I will not let this alter the course of my day.”

I’d start working on it tomorrow.

Moral of the story: Life’s short. Lose three or four percent.

The student life moral of this story: Don’t beat yourself up if you fall behind. Catch up, and make some adjustments in the future.

THE REAL MORAL OF THIS STORY: I will not be going to law or grad school anytime soon. Do not use me as an academic role model, kids.