Mistakes I made That You Can Still Avoid

Mistakes I made That You Can Still Avoid

This year marks my return to uni, at 31 years of age. It’s a bit daunting to realise that now I’m going to be akin to one of those weird mature-aged students who sit up the front, infuriatingly punctuating the lectures with waffling stories of “life experience” that bear roughly zero relevance to the course at hand, acting as though I’m one some kind of “peer level” with the professors. In reality, I’ll be firmly wedged in the back row, engaging in nary a shenanigan and trying to make out like I’m far younger than I really am (perchance if I listen to the "rap musics" on my discman, I will fit in). Be kind and help this old girl across the quad if you see me, please.

My first foray into uni life was a typical one —I started the year after seventh form (year 13 I believe the kids are calling it these days) and I went because I got Bursary/University Entrance and it was just expected of me. Mum and dad were paying, so naturally I decided on a double degree (BA and LLB), majoring in classical studies. Because of course I did.

It’s important to note here that I didn’t actually want to be a lawyer, in fact I had no idea what the hell I wanted to do with my life - because I was just a 17 year old kid who smoked a lot of weed. Predictability, I hated law. Classics was interesting, but “interesting” is not a good enough reason to be studying something that probably wouldn’t get me a job without first having a clear career plan. I dropped out of uni within about four months, much to my mum’s chagrin, and was told that if I quit, then next time around I’d be paying for it myself.

I did go back, in 2007—where I got through another seven papers of a BA before dropping out again—this time, due to different reasons. My student loan started to grow, and here I am, third time around (BSc in Geology and clearer direction)—with a bunch of wisdom to offer all the people that are starting out in their studies —advice that I wish I had taken far more notice of back when I was 17. Why am I writing this feature? Because I wish someone had written this exact feature when I was in my first year. Would I have listened? No. Will you? Ehhh, probably not. But hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and if even a couple of you act on my wisdom of hindsight and life experience, then we've just managed to dick a bank or government out of making some more interest, so it's a small win for the plebs at any rate.

As much as most of you will recoil at this, if you can live at home for free, DO IT. I moved out when I was 18 because it was all exciting to go flatting and to live away from home. However, mum and dad’s doors were always open to me entirely free of charge while I was studying—a comfortable, nice house with all the healthy food and freedom I ever wanted (they weren’t annoying or restrictive). In order to fund my shabby flatting lifestyle, on top of a part-time job I also had to take the student loan weekly living costs, which totalled about $3500 for that first semester. That’s $7000 a year for the glory of living in a shit flat with filthy flatmates and eating noodles, just because I thought it was “cooler” than living at home. If I could go back and live at home during that time, I would do it in a heartbeat. On a related topic, if you can get ANYTHING free or heavily discounted due to your student status, DO IT. Do it before real life makes you pay big bucks. This is a really good time to get on top of any dental issues you may have.

If your parents are paying for your tuition, privately acknowledge that you are incredibly lucky and do your best to make the most of this golden opportunity—so many kiwis cannot afford the luxury of sending their kids to uni, which is why our country has such astronomical student debt. If you can avoid becoming part of that statistic, then you need to do everything you can to leverage this to your advantage. This is my single greatest regret, losing that free ride early on.

While we're on the subject of money, try not to get sucked into the trappings of student accounts with $1000 overdrafts, and try your best to avoid using course-related costs for short-term stuff like alcohol, clothes and mobile phones. I know it’s far too easy to take money that you only have to pay back “someday”, but trust me on this—that “someday” will come, and along with it will come interest and resentment at having to pay back something where you can’t even truly justify where the money went. Banks are total vultures for setting up their little tents during O-Week—they are exploiting you all for your youthful innocence and desire to get turnt and laid now that you’re a student who can drink legally. Just do your best to avoid these, as that’s $2000 of debt right there, with little to no tangible reward.

Keep it in clear perspective that your student loan is something that you do have to pay back, usually in excess of $30,000. If you are paying to study, make sure it is something that you really, really want to do. I can’t stress this enough, because otherwise you are throwing a house deposit down the drain, for absolutely nothing. An almost-finished BA in philosophy that you don’t intend on completing is completely useless, and now you have a hefty student loan to add to your feelings of failure. 

On a related note, it’s so important to know that you need to stand up to your parents if you are just studying to appease them. Seriously. Even if it's them who are paying your tuition, they don’t get to make you feel bad about not going to uni until you really want to be there. It’s usually just because they love you and are concerned that you may never go, when they just want you to have a good, secure life. Just make sure that you are making your own decisions about your future, because it’s just that—YOUR future. 

The financial decisions that you make at this age can haunt you for a very long time, so if you want to take time off to decide what you really want, then do that, and do it immediately. Show them this article if it will help you reason with their frightened wee heads.

Try to live well within your means, and if at all possible, try to avoid working more than 12 hours a week while studying. Often when you work a lot and study at the same time, the first thing to slide is your lectures, followed by your tutorials, followed by your grades. 

Working while studying is usually unavoidable, but keeping your eyes on the prize and remembering that you are only working to support your study is really important. Make sure your employer knows that your education is your top priority (and if they can't deal with that then they are a weak-ass little bitch who should have known better than to hire a student)!

Once you are happy with your study direction, make the most of it! Think about your career goals and get to know your department’s staff. If you want to work in a specialised area, find out who specialises in that area and follow their academic movements. Read some of their published works, email and ask them for advice in choosing your papers in order to get where you want to be. Seriously, you are paying $1000 per course paper so you should feel entitled to do this (to a reasonable point, don't be a stalker). Ask questions, go to all your lectures/tutes/practicals/labs, do the recommended reading and just get involved. Skipping lectures and cramming for exams might get you through with a pass mark—but furious regurgitation of course material, and understanding and applying that material, are very different things. I once wrote a huge essay about radiocarbon dating in an exam and now I couldn’t even tell you three sentences about it—which is hardly preparing yourself for your chosen career.

I know this is all boring rudimentary advice that you have all heard before, but it’s stuff like this that I never bothered to do, and I wish I had really listened to all those overzealous orientation guides back then.

Know the system. If nothing else, learn the procedure for withdrawing from a course—it could save you a lot of money and/or prevent an F appearing on your transcript. Often in life things crop up which are outside our control, and the university has many systems in place to help catch students when we fall. There are so many support services which are all free of charge and available to any student, so take advantage of these. Spend some time browsing the uni and OUSA websites so that you have at least a basic knowledge of what services you are able to access should the time ever come. This is all part of what those massive tuition fees are going towards, so treat yo'self.

Speaking of taking advantage of campus services, get amongst any Clubs and Socs opportunities that sound good. The prices for their activities are incredibly cheap, and I say this coming from a long stint as an adult who has never been able to afford to pay the regular costs for photography courses, stand-up paddleboarding lessons, coding lessons, etc. You will NEVER get to learn stuff like this at such a cheap cost, so DO IT NOW! You might unearth a hidden passion that you never knew you had, and if you don't, it's fine because it only cost you dickety two cents anyway. You’ll probably also meet new people, which is another thing many of us are guilty of not doing. It’s so easy to stay in the social circles we forged in high school, but you never know what kind of friendships or relationships you might miss out on if you don’t pursue the activities that interest you. Also, don't be afraid to get yourself a trusted fuckbuddy and have lots of (safe) sex. It's good practice for later in life and and good stress relief.

Finally, if you have a student loan and intend on leaving the country to seek better drugs, be very aware of the costs of doing so. IRD allows you a three-year repayment holiday, whereby you don’t have to make any repayments. However, keep in mind that you will still incur interest outside of New Zealand, and once that repayment holiday is up, you will have to make mandatory payments up to $5000 per year, plus interest. After my repayment holiday period had ended, I didn’t make any voluntary repayments for five years—and my loan almost tripled due to the interest and late payment penalties. So if you go overseas, make a huge effort to keep on top of your loan repayments—or better yet, wait a while and pay off as much as you can in NZ while it’s interest-free.

And there you have it—those are the main areas that had I paid more attention to, my life would have coasted along a whole lot easier up until this point. Don't get me wrong, I'm totally happy with the experiences I have had, and I don't believe that "everything happens for a reason", either. Who's to say that had I not taken the more difficult route I would be as determined as I am with my study direction this time around? Nobody can answer that, but I sincerely hope that you pay attention to even just one of these pieces of advice—because keeping this stuff in the back of your mind will hopefully save you a whole bunch of unnecessary hardship, whether financial or career-wise. Don't be a dick to Future You; think of your ultimate desires and make good choices.

This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2016.
Posted 11:49am Sunday 7th August 2016 by Chelle Fitzgerald.