“The real value of a real education…nothing to do with grades or degrees”: Thoughts From a Graduating Student

Warning: deep and meaningful content.

I finished my degree three weeks ago with an awful sense of failure and underachievement; I was too exhausted to put 100% into my work and I knew it wasn’t up to scratch; I was full of regrets for not doing that internship or this extra-curricular activity: I felt like I had wasted my time. So I went back to the man who was the source of my dissertation: David Foster Wallace, my hero (for anyone who googles him, please don’t judge me). In his address to graduates, he says:

“The real value of a real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness…You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

This might seem heavy, but what Wallace says is actually kinda comforting. I realised that if I measure the meaningfulness of my degree by the grade I get, how many summer schools I went on and how long my CV is, then I’m always going to feel like an underachiever. There’s always something to do, some way to be better.

So, I choose to decide what my university experience means by the people I have encountered.

Royal Holloway was not my first choice and, if I’m being honest, I chose it for the architecture. Despite this, I am glad that those folks in admissions showed some mercy and gave me an offer. I am glad because of the people I have encountered, and the friendships I have made. When I consider the last three years, I see fun, tears, laughter and other clichés. All of which demonstrate the bonds I have created with fellow human beings. Even those moments, when your friend has just had her heart broken and you are obligated to watch Chicken Run and eat a disgustingly satisfying amount of pizza, are special and important. These moments are what I cling to in times of unknown, like the tedium of job hunting. It’s being with these people who have helped me develop that has made my degree what it has been, and I’m all the better for it.

Don’t get me wrong, getting the academic stuff is pretty important and anyone who knows me will understand what a ‘geek’ (I totally embrace this) I am and how academically-minded I can be (shout out to my housemates who put up with my stressing over commas or whatever in my essays). But my being like this only makes me more qualified to say that university is about the people you encounter. I have been inspired to change by my lecturers, my friends, administrative staff, employers and Postman, Isaac, of course. We are defined by those around us.

I won’t pretend that I have a vast database of pearls of wisdom in my head, in fact, I feel more lost than when I first arrived with my wonderfully innocent keenness and far too much luggage in Egham. I will leave you readers with a recommendation which I feel confident to give: get out there, meet people, develop; measure your life by interaction with others, not by the number of firsts you achieve.

DISCLAIMER: this article in no way advocates NOT studying. Passing your degree is kinda important so don’t spend ALL your time drinking and being with people, lock yourself away occasionally…

David Foster Wallace, This Is Water, (New York, NY: Little, Brown, 2009)