Overcoming academia

I was no longer a student. Who, then, was I?

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

No lecture prepared me for the shift from disillusioned academic to young working professional. I was shell-shocked in a bubble of student debt and perfectionism. In an instant, the weight of maintaining grades became the burden of professional liabilities.

I was no longer a student. Who, then, was I?

Nearly a year post-graduation and I’m still figuring it out. I can now see that it’s easy to get lost in the demands of academia. It became clear that the culture of university is detached from reality. Not only did I lose sight of the present moment – I lost a stable sense of self.

University is seen as the logical step after high school. I never challenged this notion. I was fortunate to discover my calling in the eleventh grade. My already ample interest in psychology and desire to help those in need partnered well with psychiatric nursing. How convenient that my passion fell under a traditionally secure profession! Thus started my six-year academic journey.

My life became an intricate juggling act of maintaining good grades, a social life, secure finances, part-time work and personal health. The stressors associated with being a full-time student became an integral part of my identity. I could not remember who I was prior to the constant papers, projects and practicums. I was lost.

Like many students, I relied financially on a student line of credit that I thought I would have no problem paying off as a working professional. Nine months into my career,  I can tell you that I was naïve. The struggle of living paycheque to paycheque is pervasive. Debt clashes with the cost of living – even upon entering a traditionally secure profession.

A friend once told me the struggle builds character. Admittedly, I agree. While I reflect on my experience, I recognize that it built resiliency. Navigating life after a degree meant dismantling the identity I built around being a student and rediscovering my worth beyond academic perfectionism.

Slowly, I am establishing ways of expressing myself that were formerly obscured by academia. Ironically, I have chosen to write my first article for free while my line of credit persists.

While the university experience can shape your identity, an important distinction must be made between who you are and what you do. Ultimately, my identity is now a psychiatric nurse on the surface – but I have much more depth than that, and so do you.

The truth is, I’m under the same if not more stress than I was as a full-time student. My then-deadline stress has now become the stress of fast-paced shift work. My personal ways of coping, sense of humour and work ethic remain unchanged.

I encourage you to be mindful of the value you place on post-secondary education – a privilege not all can access. With our identities tethered to academia, how do we perceive those without higher education? My experience has taught me that identity and work can overlap but are not synonymous. The fundamental worth of an individual is independent of academic and socioeconomic status.

Rather, every human being is worthy of access to stable income, employment and respect––regardless of their level of education.

Chantelle Partyka is a registered psychiatric nurse and mental health advocate living in Winnipeg. She is a disillusioned ex-academic trying to make sense of her experience. Chances are you’ve seen her perusing local music shows.

Published in Volume 72, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 29, 2018)

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