Art done by instagram user @inktestines

In September 2015, I entered Ryerson’s Journalism school. With a deep love for storytelling, I thought I had found my vocation. But I never did have a stellar student attitude. For most of high school I was skipping classes and pulling through with the bare minimum. My overzealous attitude concluded that things would change come university, as I was finally doing something I deemed meaningful. To my dismay I found I was grudgingly submitting stories about the Santa Clause Parade when I had been placing my bets on finally being able to write about more topical issues. The drudgery of the curriculum, lack of social connections and a few mental health ticks led to school feeling like one giant drag. As the days went on, I began to view postsecondary education less like an opportunity and more like something I had to quickly wrap up so I could get on with real life.

It didn’t help that my program was competitive and everyone was constantly on the hunt for internships and writing gigs. It often felt like if you weren’t stressed out or super busy, you were falling behind. I couldn’t muster the willpower to even do the basics and the fact that I was wasting thousands of dollars to be there didn’t sit well with me. When the summer was over, I knew things would be no different if I went back. So I didn’t.

It was one of the better decisions I’ve made. Four shitty minimum wage jobs and a cross-cultural program later, here I am. I just turned 20 and life has never felt more opportune.

Which leads me to question: Is University the right platform to learn? To do anything practically, you need to set a standard. Requiring a sheet of paper that proves you’ve met that standard seems logical enough. But I’ve seen a lot of people in university who have lost their golden ball. Growing up means becoming an enhanced version of who you are, not shedding your imagination and dreams for the sake of being practical. Who even dictates what “practical” means?

It’s another day in the restaurant and a customer I am serving goes on about how I’m on my way to becoming a professional student because I’ve been taking my sweet time to complete a BA. “You millennials get so caught up in wanting to do everything that you end up doing nothing,” she tells me “Stop wanting it all, find out what you like, get your degree and stick to it”.

Her thoughts paralleled what a lot of my family was telling me. But I didn’t eat up their words because I knew that unlike my parents’ generation, I wasn’t coming into a booming economy. Education isn’t as affordable. A lot of industries have begun valuing actual experience over theoretical knowledge. It’s not naïve to presume the traditional path has become outdated.

No education system is perfect. In Western society, universities border on the line of being enormous corporations, out to milk you for all you’re worth. But my older sister always reminds me that “education is an investment”. That was never made clearer to me until earlier this year when I went on a cross cultural exchange called Ship for World. There, I had the opportunity to speak to folks from eleven different countries about their schooling systems.

I learn that every Kenyan player on the national rugby team has a masters. I ask Camille, a Kenyan girl, how she deals with the stress of school and she simply states “you’re born a warrior”.  I think of how easy it was to pull the mental health card to boycott deadlines last year and wonder if a Kenyan student would ever dare do the same. Majority of students in Kenya are working on their PhD because everyone has a masters and the job market is tough. “You don’t do something you’re passionate about” she says, “you do something practical”.

But in Japan it’s the opposite. I am surprised when my Japanese friends tell me they are in school for literature and philosophy. They tell me it doesn’t matter what they study because at the end of the day, they know they are going to work for a company. But grades still matter and they often get mixed in with morality. You’re not just bad at math if you flunk the class; you’re an all-around bad student who is inviting shame onto your family. In a collectivist society such as a Japan, everyone is a unit and an individual ought to work harder to feed the whole. Like in Kenya, mental health awareness is non-existent, despite Japan having one of the highest suicide rates in the world. There is little room for learning hurdles and personal failures. You suck up your depression, grit your teeth and get on with it.

In New Zealand, we visit a school where 98% of the students are of Maori or polynesian descent. I doubt I’ll ever feel as welcome as I did when we walked into the gymnasium and were greeted by 300 kids doing the Haka. Witnessing adult men do the war dance is breathtaking but seeing a bunch of kids evoke the fearlessness and strength of warriors is something else entirely. They then sing us a mesmerizing, beautiful song. They don’t even know who we are yet as soon as we step into their school we are wrapped up in the warmest welcome.

The children intimidate me. They can’t be older than twelve yet they have such a proud but humble presence. It reminds me of a late night conversation with a Maori voyager named Tawhana: “When the world is constantly trying to conquer you, push you out of a place you call home, you need to develop some thick skin” he tells me. The principal speaks of her students with much devotion. “We teach our kids to respect themselves so they can respect others” she says.  Ferguson focuses on character and integrity instead of grades. Outside on the playground, there are wall murals of different Maori gods painted onto the bricks and I listen eagerly as the kids dish out stories of what each God represents. Teachings from Maori history intertwine with the curriculum and I witness how a rich culture builds up the students here at Ferguson.

I thought Ferguson was a private school. Every student feels so…whole. I sit with a group of kids and ask them what they want to be when they grow up. One says an architect. I ask him what he does when he gets home. He says chores. So do all the others. They interrupt each other but whenever they turn to me, they quiet down and make sure to call me “miss”. Their respect for elders and confidence remind me of my mother’s students- she teaches at a private school here in the Greater Toronto Area. It even sounds like these kids wholeheartedly love their school. I’m amazed; when I was their age,  I would’ve rolled my eyes at the thought of someone saying “I’m proud to be a student here”. I start to wonder. Are Japanese youth quiet and meek because of their rigorous education system, pitting them against each other since an early age? Are Maori youth strong due to their struggle? I am shocked to learn that Ferguson isn’t a private school- in fact, it’s a public school located in the poorest region of Auckland. This makes me question: where do education and culture intertwine? Can one exist without the other? Wouldn’t that lead to standardized testing, the one facet of western education most of us hate? I find it ironic that I’m not in school yet I’ve never ruminated education harder in my life.  And when you start to question an education system, you immediately begin to question the society that built it. You no longer see education as a means to an end, as a yellow brick road that will land you that white-collar job and bubble of security.

 So now what? I’m going back to school. Hopping between full-time entry level jobs is soul sucking. You’re too tired to leap at your creative projects at the end of the day and by the time the year is over, all you have is a measly blog post or two to show. When I was working for money, it felt like I wasn’t really working towards anything, despite the constant cash flow.I was working just to kill time and make use of myself. Not to make myself useful.  And that’s an isolating, depressing way to live.

Though that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything. I know more about drill bits and how to fix a toilet than most girls my age, thanks to Canadian Tire. I have mastered the art of body language due to a server job where I struggled to communicate orders to cooks who had recently immigrated from Afghanistan and didn’t speak a word of English. Just yesterday, I started working at a doctor’s office and googled what a pap smear was.

Travelling put my dismal outlook on education into context. I am now eager to go back to school and make sure I show up, and not just physically. Unfortunately, wandering too far off places is also tough on the wallet. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Many corporations throw money at students to fulfill their corporate social responsibility (milk capitalism!). Governments and political parties hope to leverage global outreach and diplomatic relations by  sponsoring exchanges, conferences, and  volunteer trips. The opportunities are out there; you just need to look in the right places.

My friend, Annie, reminds me that “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions”. Theoretical knowledge will only take you so far. The more I see the world around me as a mere fraction of a much larger framework, the hungrier I am to explore.

I’m beyond thankful for the amazing individuals I’ve met this year. On my two hour commute to work, I often ponder memories and marvel how they aren’t daydreams but actual memories. I encourage you to take a gap year and travel. I went to 5 countries, have friends that feel like family scattered across the globe and have learnt more than sitting in school could have ever taught me. If you have any questions or need advice, don’t hesitate to hit me up. For now, I’ll keep sharing my stories. See you next time, SH.