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Withdrawing From University

Lucy shares her experience of putting herself first and leaving university. She explores how schools seem to push forward the idea that uni is the only way to start your adult life- in reality it's about seeing what's best for each individual person.

TW: depression, anxiety, eating disorder

I’m awful at making friends.

I struggled a lot with it at secondary school. At primary school, I’d been a ringleader of sorts, forging a small army to play kiss-chase at break times, and was outspoken in the way that young girls are when they’re small and round and not very pretty. When I moved schools at 9, loudness no longer seemed to draw people to me as it had before. My circles grew smaller, friend groups fluctuated as they do with age, and I fell down the cracks into my own company.

This solitude brought with it as many self-esteem issues as would be expected. I became convinced that if I was pretty enough, or funny enough, or maybe even just present enough around the other girls, I would make friends. When that failed, I became unable to hold a conversation without severe anxiety. I stopped talking, stopped eating, and started running. I spent my evenings texting online friends across the world who thought I was a little cooler than I was. All the time I was carrying my personal mantra with me: things would be different at university.

It was comforting to know that the hours I spent poring over textbooks instead of having life experiences would lead to some higher meaning where I’d finally be happy. With good enough grades, those ‘best years of my life’ held the promise of a Princess Diaries makeover where I’d be every definition of ‘enough’ to make friends.

And it happened!

On the first night of freshers, I ended up at a party with one of my housemates. In one evening I made people laugh, made friends, and learnt every drinking game. People were kind and accepting, and potentially just as scared of being stuck without friends as I was. Since going out drinking was a way to feel confident and meet friendly people, I did it every single night. When freshers ended, I was still going out every single night.

I’d studied so hard and pushed myself through all of that loneliness to be at university. I was going out and having fun, yet every passing day felt harder and harder. Gradually I stopped going to lectures. I felt guilty for attending LGBT+ society. I would go out every night with my housemates and sleep at 6am. When I wasn’t drinking, I was in the gym. Before I finally made the decision to leave, I was rapidly losing weight and failing classes.

In hindsight, my behaviour makes complete sense. I lapsed back into old habits; as awful as it was, I knew how to be lonely. It felt comfortable and familiar. It was safer to hide away in my room during the day than attempt to make friends, and potentially be shot down.

It took me reaching my absolute breaking point for me to leave university, because I couldn’t bear the idea of ‘giving up’.

University is a pivotal moment at which underlying issues can flare. For many it means a total collapse of structure, schedule and support network, leaving vulnerable students alone to foster unhealthy coping mechanisms. So in the face of chronically underfunded mental health support systems at university, which fundamentally lack the resources or training to recognise students in need of urgent intervention, what can be done?

My experience speaks to the culture of shame surrounding ‘dropping out’. I was determined to have the experience I had waited so long for, afraid of letting my parents and teachers down, and unwilling to admit that I needed help. Now, more than ever, students are facing the same decision I had to make at my breaking point. Staff strikes, long-term health conditions from the pandemic, and the toll of online learning mean these conversations are imperative to protecting young people at the moment they feel the most alone.

This conversation about leaving university can start early. At my school, we were merely shown a brief glimpse of the statistic, ‘14% of students drop out of first year’, in an optional lecture. Without any further conversation about why, the prospect became a horror story. It cultivated a sense of shame and fear of being on the wrong side of the statistic. We were stressed enough about being pushed towards Oxbridge applications - we didn’t need the added fear of applying to the ‘wrong’ university!

Schools love to show off their success stories of students who have seamlessly graduated, entered the world of work and gone on to achieve great things. In high-achieving education, too rarely is university shown to be one optional path of many into happiness, or anything close to a struggle or bad experience beyond freshers anxiety. Many colleges and sixth forms push universities over apprenticeships or work placement, which only adds to the pressure students feel to go down a set path.

I would have benefited hugely from any conversation about struggling in university, or education about the warning signs of deteriorating mental health. Colleges and sixth forms have a space in which they can make this happen, whether through guest speakers, lectures or workshops, to give young people the tools to keep themselves safe.

It’s still not something I include on my CV, or something I talk about to employers - something I find ironic, as it’s my greatest demonstration of ‘overcoming a challenge’ to date. Regardless of diversity and inclusion training, the stigma surrounding people who leave university prevails. What if I’m an unreliable employee? What if I can’t handle pressure? What if I waste their time by deciding, once again, to leave?

But it’s something I’m vocal about with my friends heading off to university, my friends at university, and anyone else willing to listen. Leaving taught me to stop putting on a brave face. It helped me work through my chronic need to people-please. Most of all, it instilled in me the invaluable ability to say no to things that I didn’t want. Until these conversations start, I’m working on becoming a drop-out success story.

Lucy Walker

Hi, I’m Luce. I’m a final-year English Literature student at King’s College London. I’ve written a lot about my experiences with poor mental health, therapy, acne, and loneliness. I’m grateful to Matriarch for creating a supportive community where I can potentially start some conversations.


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