- 30 Aug 13
Another college year is almost upon us. Third level can be one of the best times of our lives, provided we take care of ourselves and those around us...
Well, another member of the extended family has secured enough points to get into the college of choice. Just enough, that is, but who cares? The news was greeted by one of his cousins with the words “giddy up – the best five years of his life are ahead!”
Indeed. Or so one hopes.
We’re at an interesting juncture. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Back then most young people in Ireland didn’t go to college. The transition to the adult and working world was short and sharp. There was far less room to experiment and experience, less time to spend on learning, fewer expectations about what life might deliver to us. There were no gap years then.
Nowadays, that transition to the world of work arrives later and can last as long as a decade. It takes a lot longer to gain independence and wade into the cold waters of the working world. In addition, these are troubled and austere times and many people are carrying grave burdens of stress and fear, not to mention a deep-seated pessimism.
So, it’s easy to lose sight of just how good it is to be a student. And it really is. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure to perform and the prospect of under-employment and possible emigration darken the skies. But still, you have between three and five years in which to work on fashioning the person you’ll be for life. Yes, some colleges are more effective than others at nurturing this and yes, higher education in Ireland is highly socially selective. Nonetheless, in many respects it’s the time of your life: and not just hormonally speaking!
The first thing new students hear, or should hear, is this: forget everything you thought you knew about how to learn and pass exams. From now on it’s about how to think, analyse, experience and grow. What a mandate!!!
It goes far beyond learning what you have to learn, though that’s a factor, of course. It’s also about gaining knowledge, insight and understanding. It’s about making new friends and acquaintances as well as meeting new challenges. A student’s life is as much about what goes on outside the college walls as what goes on inside… and they are not at all incompatible.
When the texts about the Leaving Cert results were flying, just by coincidence, I was listening to Bob Dylan’s ‘Dream’. It’s from that very album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In it he recounts a dream he had when he fell asleep on a train bound west: a dream in which he saw again the room where he and his friends “spent many an afternoon” and together “weathered many a storm, laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn.” It was a room where:
“By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung/
Our words were told, our songs were sung/
Where we longed for nothin’ and were satisfied/
Jokin’ and talkin’ about the world outside.”
It’s a student’s life. In the next verse, acknowledging “hungry hearts through the heat and cold” Dylan makes the observation that they “never much thought” they could get very old. And then he makes a telling observation: “As easy it was to tell black from white, It wasn’t all that easy to tell wrong from right” …
All too true. But then the duties of young people in general and students in particular include hanging out with friends, wasting time as though it were limitless, doing nothing as well as anything and everything, and being righteous about all – to remind the rest of the world (and especially the next generation up) of how far they have deviated from their ideals. And those duties extend to singing and dancing and revelling in the freedoms of their station in life – because those freedoms will be sacrificed in due course and this greatest time of your lives will be over soon enough…
It’s great, or it ought to be. Of course there are bumps on the road as well and sometimes there are tragedies. Some of these might beavoided. As well as talking, singing and dancing, friends need to care for each other.
The ‘My World’ research, which was commissioned by Headstrong and conducted by Drs Barbara and Amanda Fitzgerald from UCD found that levels of optimism among young people begin to decline from the age of 12/13, reaching their lowest at 18/19 – and only recovering to the same level as 12 year olds by the time we are 24/25. Financial matters were found to be significant stress factors and mental health was a major concern overall. In particular, identity issues can be terrifying without support.
That research also shows that many students drink too much. Of course, drinking has always been part and parcel of the package – think of ‘The Drinking Song’ in the operetta The Student Prince. But sometimes it crosses the red line. Some people just shouldn’t drink. For others, heavy drinking can be connected to stress and other mental health issues.
Borrowing from ‘The Butcher Boy’, Bob Dylan’s Dream ends on an elegaic note.
“I wish, I wish, I wish in vain/
That we could sit simply in that room again/
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat/
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.”
You want to remember the time of your life for the right reasons. You don’t want to look back in regret, nursing a sense that you could have done something good and positive, but didn’t for whatever reason. So, look out for yourself and for others. There are important services if things really fall apart. There are counselling services in colleges and online there’s spunout.ie, reachout.ie, headstrong.ie and PleaseTalk.org.
Now, go and enjoy.