Is University Worth It? A World-school Student’s Perspective

I recently received an important question from a reader who’s been reading my blog for a few years. While you can read the full comment for yourself on Weekends, University, and Cold Nose Kisses, I’ve taken the liberty of posting the most significant part below: 

I also know from your parents’ blog, that for them it is critical that all you as their children have college degrees. My question to you is – Why do you feel it is necessary for you to have a college degree? From the posts you have written recently, you have expressed on more than one occasion that you are struggling and how the experience is draining you and stifling your creativity. In this post you speak out against the sedentary nature of your present existence and how it goes against the grain of your very nature.

What do you feel you will achieve with a piece of paper that you as a vibrant, incredibly accomplished young woman and budding entrepreneur would not be able to achieve in life? Do you believe that a piece of paper will give you a greater level of credibility? Do you feel it will be the absolute entry level to pursuing the meaningful work you wish to pursue? Do you believe it will provide you with opportunities you could not create yourself from your own imagination? Do you believe that it will be back up for a rainy day?”

What an awesome question, right? As I prepared to write a response, I found myself contemplating my answer more and more deeply. In the end, I realized that it’d be better to answer as a post. I’m sure George isn’t the only one with a question like this for world-schooled kids who’ve decided to attend university. Is university worth it? If I love travel so much, why would I give up life on the road for a brick-and-mortar academia lifestyle? Here’s my take on it:

As you all know, my education has been anything but conventional.

I stepped foot in a public school setting just once or twice as a kid. We called them “field trips,” and they consisted of fun days accompanying my public-schooled cousin, my great-aunt (a principal), or my godmother (once a teacher) to their schools. Other than that, my school days were spent at home, up until I turned eleven. Then, they were spent on a bike, in a camper-van, or on a mountainside as my family slowly wandered the world. It hasn’t been a conventional childhood. But as George mentioned, it’s always been extremely important to my parents that my brothers and I receive the best educations we could access. Mom likes to say that, “university attendance is mandatory” in our family. I’ve grown up always expecting to go to university, as a result. It’s in my family culture. Mom was a teacher by trade as a young woman. My Gramps was as well and has his Master’s degree. Our family dinner table discussions focus on science and history, politics and culture. Higher-level education is incredibly important to us as a family. Mom may be interested in sharing her perspective on EdventureProject.

Outside of the family culture, I have my own reasons for wanting to attend university.

Geography is a passion of mine, born of a childhood of travel. While it’s true that so much can be learned while on the road, there’s also much that can be learned exclusively through university membership. Nowhere else do I have extensive face-to-face access to experts in the fields I’m interested in. I spend my weeks listening to lectures and staying after class to talk to people who have dedicated their lives to the studies of topics I’ve only brushed over. Where else can I find an opportunity like that?

I’ve found that attending university has exposed me to research topics I never knew existed.

I’ve found so many new interests in subjects that I originally would have done almost anything to avoid. For example, I wrote a post earlier this year about a class I absolutely had to take in order to get the major I wanted. I did NOT want to take this class (huge understatement). However, I ended up learning so much and became fascinated with the class. I learned how to make 3D models from satellite data, how to measure soil moisture content without ever taking a ground sample, how to interpret satellite imagery, and more. It was tricky sometimes, but it was awesome. One of the reasons I have not pursued an entirely self-led learning style is that it would mean missing out on so many opportunities to discover a love for a topic I might hate the sound of. I love that university is exposing me to topics I never even knew existed.

I’m passionate about geography and the courses I’m taking are incredibly interesting. Obviously, that’s a huge incentive for me to continue at Queen’s. But I will say that last year, when I was taking all the beginner courses that weren’t related to my subject of interest and it sucked, I did think seriously about dropping out. At that time, I did a lot of research on opportunities I’d love to be involved in somewhere down the line. I looked at teaching, helping to run NGOs, working as a geography-related journalist, urban development positions, and more. Every single one required a bachelor’s degree, at the least. I can’t speak for everyone when discussing the importance of a university-level degree, but I know that my personal dreams and goals would certainly benefit from one.

If you had the opportunity to study a subject that you loved at one of the top schools in the country, why the heck wouldn’t you go?

There’s a feeling of accomplishment that comes with sticking with a project for years. I’m finding that it’s teaching me that I can tackle even seemingly overwhelming projects (like the Remote Sensing class) and come out victorious on the other side. Sure, it sucks sometimes. Sometimes you have to learn or do things you don’t enjoy. That’s life, friends. Some things are worth not giving up on.

Outside of in-class learning, being in an on-campus setting has allowed me to learn many lessons I didn’t know I needed to learn.

Funny how that works, isn’t it? Half the time, we don’t know that we need to learn something until it’s put there for us to deal with. Although I’d technically been living away from my family off and on for almost a year before university, I’d been traveling near-constantly. It’s a completely different lifestyle than living in one place. I knew how to balance my travel budget, but I’d never had to pay rent before. I knew how to shop in markets around the world for one or two days worth of food, but I’d never frozen my own meals to prep for rough financial months. I wasn’t used to long-term apartment maintenance. This is a little embarrassing to admit, but that first month I actually forgot that people have to keep toilet paper stocked. I’ve learned quite a few basic life skills I’d assumed I already had and the quiet and the calm of being in one place has allowed me to focus on my studies and personal growth. I’ve learned a lot about myself, this year. I’ve learned that I can be alone and be perfectly happy. I’ve learned that I don’t “fit in” with the Kingston youth culture; then I learned that this was ok. I can’t tell you how much I’ve grown in self-confidence and self-acceptance. I’ve grown both closer and farther from my family. My ties with them have grown stronger in some ways, and yet, I find myself looking to them less and less for approval and direction. I’d say that living alone and in one place has been good for me in these ways.

Lastly, I know that I’ve called the degree a “piece of paper”. But that’s a huge over-simplification, really.

The more I’ve thought about this today, the more I’ve regretted calling my future diploma a “piece of paper”. It’s a slang term we throw around a lot here, but it’s quite misleading. Yes, I get a piece of paper at the end of my four years and can show that to future employers or business partners. But when they look at that paper, they aren’t just seeing my title and degree. They’re seeing just another piece of proof that I’m passionate about the topic at hand, that I’m willing to work hard and overcome challenges, that I have the background necessary to work in that field. Maybe it’s possible to get the same results by investing a lot of time in volunteer positions and so on. I’m not entirely sure and I’d rather not risk it. A bachelor’s degree remains the most proven way to begin to show that you’ve done the study it takes in a field where that knowledge is essential. So yes, I do believe that a degree (along with other related projects and experiences) is a vital part of proving credibility in a field.

As far as the rainy day question goes… eh. I’m not worried.

I am creative and I never give up. When rainy days come, I bring my umbrella and splash in the puddles. When I lost my first job due to an injury this summer, I created work for myself as a fiddling fairy and part-time nanny. When I needed money for an international trip at fifteen, I figured out how to sell articles online. When I couldn’t get a traditional entry-level job due to travel circumstances when prepping to move out, I started teaching creative writing online and designing websites. There’s always work out there for people who are willing to seek it out or create a job where one didn’t exist before. I’m always looking for experiences and skills to keep in my back pocket, but my degree will be just one tool of many.

In summary, yes, I do think that getting a degree is a vital part of becoming a fully capable world citizen.

If you can get into a great school, there isn’t another opportunity like it for learning from experts and exposing yourself to new ideas and areas of interest. A degree isn’t just a piece of paper. It’s years of hard work and experience that help a student to grow in a variety of ways. It isn’t the end-all-be-all for employment potential, but it is a useful tool to keep in your back pocket and a wonderful way to expand your worldview. Of course part of me is hating being in one place for so long. I’m a wandercreature. Can you blame me? Still, I’ll remain here because I want this degree and I’m determined to stick it out. The narrow-mindedness and lack of direction or interest I see in other people my age at Queen’s frustrates me to no end, which is where the majority of my anti-university rants come from. My first year drove me crazy, what with young adult drama and a spread of prerequisite courses unrelated to my study topic. But second year? The classes and professors? The actual content for my major? Bring it on!

Hopefully, this answers your questions. Please feel free to post follow-ups below.

Note: I’m lucky enough to be a Canadian citizen and am avoiding the insane amounts of debt U.S. students rack up, which obviously affects how useful my degree is to me. If you’re from the States and are looking into attending university, I highly recommend that you check out international programs. You might end up with a better program for a lower price, somewhere cool! What is that, a win-win-win?

12 Comment

  1. By the way, I just noticed as I re-read this for errors (I know, should’ve done it earlier, don’t judge, it’s finals season) that George mentions that I’ve said I’m struggling. Clarification: I’m struggling with being in one area. I’m not struggling in school. I’ve almost managed straight A grades in most of my classes this year. Just FYI. ;)

  2. echomyst says: Reply

    Thanks for this post. We’re in our second year of homeschooling our two young children, and our eldest (not quite seven) doesn’t see why she needs to go to university since she’s learning outside of school now.

    I struggle to answer this question, because university — especially in the U.S (we’re in California) — is cost prohibitive and there’s almost always some hoops-jumping involved. I attended Queen’s as well (ConEd ’05!) and it wasn’t until my final B.Ed year that I truly loved *all* my courses. They were what I was there for! But you’re right about the exposure to topics that I would’ve never been exposed to otherwise. Dr. Kobayashi was my first-yr geography prof and she was so passionate about Dale Chihuly that we all learned about his works that year haha.

    You know yourself better than I did when I was your age. I think — I hope? — it is because of your self-directed learning through homeschooling / worldschooling. :-) Are you at Queen’s as an international student, or did you stay in Ontario long enough prior to university to be considered a resident?

    1. Hi there! My Mom is Canadian, so I automatically have dual citizenship in the US and Canada.

      1. echomyst says: Reply

        Being a citizen is not the same as being a resident though… it sounds like you were admitted as a resident then? My kids will also have Canadian citizenship through me, but I think they’d have to live in Ontario for half a year or a year (?) before they can be considered a resident for university applications.

        1. To be honest, I’d have to go back and check the details to answer your question accurately. I applied to Queen’s as a transfer student from Oregon State University, where I studied as a part time e-course student for a while in order to get a few credits under my belt. My application process was a bit abnormal as a result of the traveling and credit transfer process. Hopefully that helps!

        2. Also, yes, I do have residency.

  3. I’m smiling. That is all. Super proud of you, and your independence, and all the things you’re learning and becoming. Keep going! <3

  4. Hi Hannah,

    Thank you for the wonderful, deeply considered, personal perspective you have shared with us. I trust you understand that I was never asking you to justify your position, simply, wanting to know more about your perspective of the world and I am truly grateful for your response.

    Given your wish to work in a such a specific field, I understand your choices, but most of all I applaud your determination to follow through, as this is everything in making your dreams a reality. So many people lack this determination in life and get so lost. As someone who worked many years in the corporate world and for the last 16 years as an entrepreneur, I wanted to add, you already exude all the qualities, skills and qualifications that would make any venture a success, irrespective of the requirements of a formal qualification. I have no doubt that whatever you would want to start in life would turn to gold, because it would be grounded in something that is meaningful to you, and with great maturity, you already understand what it takes to make it happen, even to utilise every aspect of the situation around you to create a thoroughly workable and successful outcome…where learning and growth for everyone involved would also be part of the mix.

    I am also glad that you suffixed your response in relation to those in the US. This actually addresses another aspect of the world we live in and how it is changing so rapidly. Many university graduates in the US will quite literally, in the coming twenty years of their working life, not be able to pay off their educational debts. They will literally become economic slaves to their education, forced to compromise their choices to lead a happy life, by the necessity to pay off the debt to an education that in the past guaranteed them an economically entitled life. Faced with these choices, many young people are choosing to do what you did last summer. The world will require this type of far more dynamic and energetic response to practically creating solutions adaptively, collaboratively and inclusively.

    Universities have been exclusive for hundreds of years and we are now reaping the economic disadvantages of excluding people. Your generation and in particular people like you and the young people we have met along our world journey, who have been willing to start projects that address these situations, which engage large numbers of people working together in experiential tertiary environments, are shining stars to a future world that will not exclude. What is clear in all of these projects are people who are following their passions all the way to seeing them a reality and this is what my family and I wish you EdventureGirl!

    Continue the Edventure and the journey with the passion, energy and determination that is inspiring so many of us to be our best! We would love to meet you on our journey. We are currently organising our trip North as part of our daughter’s Book Tour of North America. We would love to visit Kingston as we have never been there yet.

    1. Thanks for checking in! Of course, I never took your original question in a negative manner. This was one of the best and most thought-provoking queries I’ve had yet! I have been very privileged to be able to attend school in Canada. If faced with thousands of dollars in debt, I don’t think I’d go through with a degree, either. Let me know when you plan to come through Ontario! I would love to meet up and I’m sure my family would enjoy having you all to dinner if they’re around. :)

  5. Love it all, Hannah. So proud to read this, to see you continuing to grow and learn. I can just feel your mom bursting with pride. This is a question that comes up a lot in our family as well. We are a couple of over-educated parents trying to decide what to encourage in our own children. I love the fact that university has always been mandatory in your family. You made some really excellent points about it being it’s own thing, separate and different from the other experiences and opportunities you’ve had. I second your mama: keep going!

  6. Cameo says: Reply

    Yep, yep and yep. My traveling homeschool children are all expected to attend college. It opens more doors than not attending and in the end, my desire is for my kids to have as many options as I can possibly present them with. In our society, college does that.

    1. Have you been talking to my mom? That’s *exactly* what she says about it. Ha!

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