Post-secondary education: Punishment or prize?

Sharon Fawcett - Getting it Right (Shane Magee/AQ)

It was the first day of classes of the winter semester of 2012, and her foreboding statement expressed her expectations of the three months ahead.

“It’s going to be hell,” she said.

She was a St. Thomas University student, probably barely recovered from the demands of exams and multiple paper deadlines all coinciding in one or two horrific weeks prior to Christmas break. She was definitely not looking forward to re-living it. I could relate.

As I write this, my neck burns with pain—the result of osteoarthritis, aggravated by way too many hours hunched in front of a computer screen. The hunching has also led, I’m told, to a weakening of my pectoral muscles and consequent overcompensation by whatever that muscle on top of the shoulder blade is, cramping it and necessitating frequent dates with microwaveable hot packs.

Then there’s the extinction of my social life, family time and even minuscule moments of relaxation. It’s enough to have made me declare last month, “University is inhumane.”

I never expected to feel this way.

Having returned to post-secondary studies after a “sabbatical” that lasted more than two decades, I was overcome by emotion the day I drove up the hill towards campus in September 2009. As I caught sight of the steeple on George Martin Hall—glowing in the early morning sunlight—my eyes filled with tears. It was really happening. I was being given the opportunity to finish what I’d started so long ago, to earn a university degree.

Fast-forward two-and-a-half years and I’m still occasionally teary-eyed, but usually from being overwhelmed or fatigued or stressed out. I now mutter, under my breath, about deadlines and work load and professors who make students purchase books they never use.

And then, invariably, it happens.

I remember what a luxury books are. There are people in the world—776 million adults—who can’t even read a book. Millions, too, who could only dream of owning one. They wouldn’t believe tales of literate people who own books they never open.

I’m also reminded of the 75 million children without access to basic education and the 150 million children in classrooms right now who will drop out before finishing their primary schooling, two-thirds of them girls.

Even though the right to education has been a universally recognised fundamental human right since 1948 – and completion of primary schooling for all children is a U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) – the world still faces an education crisis. On its own MDG website, the U.N. states: “Hope dims for universal education by 2015.”

The sacrifices made by the parents of my friend, Emmanuel, indicate how much some are willing to give up to gain the prize of education. Emmanuel is a young Nigerian with six siblings, whose father sold part of the small family farm (their source of food and income) in order to cover the airfare and visa fees to send him to a European graduate school. Emmanuel’s church will fund his education, but he has to learn a fourth language in order to study in Italy.

My Ugandan friend, Dominic, spent a portion of his vacation last June picking cotton on the border of Uganda and Sudan. He risked snake bites, land mines, rebel attacks and numerous other hazards in order to earn enough to pay for his next semester in university. In spite of their sacrifices, these two young men, like me, are gaining something most people on the planet can only dream about.

These reminders of the value of education reorient my perspective on what university students in the West deem unfair and unbearable. We are among the few in the world who’ll ever have the opportunity to stay up all night writing an academic paper, to take an exam, to earn a degree.

Post-secondary education comes with physical, emotional and financial costs, but costs others would gratefully pay if given the means and the opportunity. The next time you hear me muttering under my breath, please remind me of that.