Taking my time at university helped me overcome my fear of failure and accept myself
As the first person in my family to attend university, navigating tertiary education was an exercise in patience, uncertainty and confusion.
My parents, Lebanese immigrants, did all they could to foster in me a love for education and higher learning, and really believed I could and should be a lawyer or a doctor or something else equally respectable and highly paid.
But for me, it was not a simple journey. I was diagnosed with anxiety, dropped out of my second degree, and later discovered I was gay.
All in all, it has taken eight years of on-and-off-again study to get here. And for me, that was exactly the amount of time I needed.
Things didn’t quite go to plan
What I wish someone had told me before all of this is that everyone moves at their own pace.
My university journey started in 2013, immediately after I graduated high school. Fresh out of year 12, I enrolled in an arts degree, although I knew little about what else was out there beyond some blurbs I’d read on a pamphlet.
It took three years, but in 2016, my parents’ hopes for me were finally realised when I was accepted into law. But it was very different than what I had pictured.
The workloads were unmanageable, and I received little support. A year and a half and a few failed classes later, and I made the decision to drop out and take the rest of the semester off.
The biggest catch? I never told my family and pretended I was still enrolled in online classes.
Failure became my greatest success
Though I had never experienced it before in my school life, failure forced me to take my time.
I was able to see that failing my law courses was not the end of the world, as I had always feared. Formerly an obsessive perfectionist, it gave me the freedom to stop defining myself by academic achievements alone.
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Failure also prompted me to do some soul searching, which led me to my true calling: social work.
It took a few months until I was able to build up the courage to tell my parents I had done the unthinkable and dropped out of my law degree, but transferring to social work was not met with encouragement from my community.
Some family members suggested I was lowering myself from an “elite” profession, and there was more value prescribed to making money than dedicating myself to a vocation to help people.
But while it was difficult hearing these sorts of remarks from my loved ones, it made me realise that only I can determine my own worth, and that it was okay to do what I wanted without the approval of my family.
Though they meant well, the path they wanted for me was not the one I wanted for myself.
Giving myself permission to change degrees gave me the confidence I needed to trust myself, and made it easier to acknowledge and accept other parts of my identity.
Discovering and accepting who I am
When I first began my university journey at the age of 18, I was determined to fit in with what my family and community wanted for me and from me.
As a queer Muslim, I never thought I’d meet others like me, so I would go out of my way to avoid admitting my sexuality so I could be seen as “normal”.
But hiding myself and lying about who I was only manifested in anxiety and depression and feelings of intense isolation.
Taking my time to complete my degree allowed me to prioritise my wellness and mental health, and to accept my sexuality. I was able to seek out a therapist, find the time to go on long beach walks with my best friend, and to work on building my strong, loving support system of friends.
I was able to give myself permission to learn how to relax and enjoy things again, and to stop putting so much pressure on myself.
And perhaps most importantly, it allowed me to finally see my queerness and mental health as assets: things that have guided me and often forced me to live my truth.
Define success by what it means to you
It used to be hard to watch people who started university after me graduating before me, but I have come to stop comparing myself to others and to respect that we all have different journeys that are unique and incomparable.
As I await my graduation as a 26-year-old, I am now grateful for the extra years of self-development, exploration, study and growth.
It is incredible to look at the progress I have made, from an 18-year-old suffering from anxiety and hiding who I really was, into an adult who has learned how to manage my mental health, implement self-care, and learn a lesson that takes many much longer: that being patient and kind to yourself is essential.
And while there were plenty of ups and downs along the way, I am so grateful to my family for coming around to be supportive and even proud of my career and life choices.
To those starting university next year, I want to leave you with this message: It’s okay to take your time.
Don’t just think about success at the expense of your health, your self-compassion, and your creative pursuits. You are allowed to do things when and how you like.
Define success by what it means to you. You’re the only one that can.