The Big Taboo: Thoughts on Dropping Out

In my introductory post about the sort of content this blog would feature, I may have promised ‘light-hearted’ but I also promised ‘honest’. Hence the nature of this post.

‘Dropping out’ is traditionally a pretty scary idea, and in many ways has become something of a taboo topic. When applying to university, I was often told to look at the drop out rates when gaging the best institutions. The theory was, the higher the drop out rates, the worse the general student experience, the ‘lesser’ the university. At the time that made perfect sense to me, but now the idea of  ‘drop outs’ defining a university is far from clear-cut.

If I’m being honest, dropping out crossed my mind more than a couple of times during first term. This wasn’t necessary Exeter’s fault, rather how I imagine most students feel at some point or another. There were days when I felt isolated, homesick and unsure about my course; days when the deadlines and reading lists seemed never-ending; days when I took a step back in a mini-existential-crisis sort of fashion and thought to myself “is 4 more years of education really what I want?” University is built up to be this huge, life-affirming, amazing experience, but in the cold light of day, sometimes it just doesn’t work out like that.

People’s reasons for dropping out can vary hugely, and I for one have had two close friends make the decision that Exeter, at this particular time, just isn’t for them. In many ways, their courage and decisiveness was in part what inspired this post – I respect them both hugely for their decisions, and wanted to make sure their stories were heard in the hope of dispelling any myths surrounding why people drop out. They were kind enough to share their thoughts on the process with me:

1.  What were your reasons for dropping out?

J: “My reason for dropping out was simply that I really didn’t feel the course was right for me and I wanted to choose something that would suit me more. I tried to switch courses at Exeter, but I was too late as all the places in other courses had filled up at this point (after the October reading week). In the end I had to take the other option and drop out with the intention to reapply on a different course for next year.”

B: “I was really struggling with stress and anxiety from the workload and frankly it was making me very depressed a lot of the time…at first I tried to just push through it but gradually it got worse, to the point where I had no real motivation and was just stumbling through each day. All this just had me asking myself the question, “What am I trying to achieve with this?” and suddenly it seemed obvious that University was not something I had to do – I had always asserted that I did not want an office job and had often pictured myself in a more vocational career, plus I knew I wanted to start travelling again soon. When I properly started to research other options, such as vocational apprenticeships, I started to feel hopeful about the future once more and as soon as I made the decision to leave, I felt like my old, happy and confident self again, which is something I had not felt in months.”

2. How did you find the ‘dropping out’ process?

J: “I felt the process logistically through the University went smoothly and there were lots of people to advise me on what to do and they were supportive of the fact I was certain that the course wasn’t for me and I would be happier on a different course. Emotionally I felt fine about the process, my parents were supportive too and I just knew it was the right decision. However reapplying for university on UCAS was very daunting.”

B: “The process was not too bad logistically – there was a fair bit of going to see various people, such as senior tutors and people in the administration offices, but they were all quite friendly and the Guild advice unit were really helpful on the nuts and bolts of student finance and the like.  Emotionally it was a bit of whirlwind…I think about 75% of the time I was confident that I was doing the ‘right thing’ but there were definitely times where I thought, “Holy crap, what am I doing?”. Talking to people definitely helped though – I also think being open about the whole thing prevented any irrational feelings of embarrassment or shame over dropping out.”

3. Looking back, do you still feel your decision was the right one?

J: “I definitely still feel my decision was the right one. Even though I do miss University, I knew I wouldn’t have been happy continuing on with the course I was on for the next three years of my life.”

B: “Yes. Whenever I feel uncertain I look back at diary entries from the last few months or think about how much time I spent crying down the phone to my Mum and then look at how much happier I am now. That’s not to say I don’t have uncertain moments or even moments when I miss my course, but when it comes to rationally weighing up how much happier I am it seems like it was clearly for the best. I also do not think though that coming to University in the first place was the wrong decision either as I have had a really valuable experience – I’ve met new people, tried new things and apart from anything else I have found out what it’s like. But I don’t think it would have been worth me pushing through the next three years in the state I was in when there is so much else I would like to do with my life.”

4. How do you feel about the future now?

J: “Even though taking a gap year isn’t what I thought I was going to do, I’m still going to get a degree so I don’t feel too differently about the future.”

B: “Nervous but optimistic. I have just found my first full-time job and I have big plans for the next few years, although I am still figuring out the details. So yes, I am looking forward to the future and more importantly, I’m enjoying right now.”

With these two testimonies in mind and from talking to others, I’d like to offer up three key things I think affect people’s decision when it comes to dropping out.

1)   Course – is it the right thing for you?

In a lot of cases, course is a big influencing factor in people’s decisions to drop out. You can have loved your subject through GCSE and A level, but at degree it’s a whole new ball game. If you realise you chose wrong early on, there is some flexibility to change, but usually before reading week. If not, there’s absolutely no shame in admitting it isn’t right, and taking the decision to drop out. Better that than face around £30,000 worth of debt for 3 years of misery.

2)   Support – if you’re struggling with adjusting to university do you have the support, emotionally and practically, that you need?

I imagine some people sail through university without ever dropping their Personal Tutor an email or visiting the Student Health Centre. I also imagine that they’re probably the minority. Support is there, just not always immediately obvious. When I first asked about support, I was genuinely amazed at how much there was – everything from deadline extensions to taking extended leave and returning in the new year.

3)   The Bigger Picture – is university just not for you?

It can be hard sometimes to think against the grain, but the reality is that the university environment is not for everyone. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If the course isn’t the issue and you’ve sought out support but it still just isn’t working, university just might not be your thing.

Whatever the motivating factor, I’m a firm believer that dropping out of university isn’t nearly so shameful or embarrassing as it seems to have gained the reputation of being. I think the experiences of my friends are both important examples to bear in mind; although some might hype up the idea of dropping out of university to be ‘the be all and end all’, sometimes it’s just the right decision.

Putting Things into Perspective: Reflections on a lecture from Moazzam Begg

When American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001, the world could only watch. Something shifted in American consciousness, shock, incomprehensible horror, national grief, and then – anger. Anger towards the nameless hijackers who had brought about the deaths of 2,753 Americans going about their daily lives, anger, and a desire for justice and revenge.

Daily life came to an end that day on the other side of the world too.

-Moazzam Begg, born and raised in Birmingham, had moved with his wife and children to Afghanistan in early 2001 to build a girls’ school, and recalled the day the bombs started to fall on Kabul. The daisy cutter craters that swallowed whole streets, shattered every window in his house and killed thousands. Eventually forced to evacuate to Pakistan, Moazzam’s life was yet again turned upside down with a knock on the door at midnight, 31 January 2002.

Arrested on his doorstep by American soldiers, handcuffed and hooded, Moazzam would not see his family for 3 years. Just under 2 of those would be spent in the highest security detention facility in the US: Guantanamo Bay.

IMG_2285As guest speaker of the Arabic and Middle Eastern Society at Exeter, news of Begg’s visit to the University gained a lot of publicity in the past few weeks. Over a thousand people on Facebook said they would be attending the event, and queues on the night extended outside the Forum doors. I was fortunate enough to have been in a lecture in the Alumni Auditorium beforehand, and so was able to save some friends and myself seats on the 5th row from the front.

While it was only an hour long, I think it’s fair to say it was one of the most inspiring, horrifying and mind-altering things I’ve ever witnessed.

In many ways, much of Begg’s recollection almost sounded like a bad film; surreal, ridiculously violent and bizarrely comic at times. Begg spoke of the dehumanizing shaving process he endured, the trophy photos taken of him by American soldiers, and in the same breath recalled a conversation he had with a US soldier about his visit to Stratford Upon Avon. He recommended the documentary Taxi Drive to the Dark Side, inspired by the murder of a taxi driver by American soldiers that Begg himself was witness to, and managed to make the audience laugh with the implication that it had won an Oscar thanks to his performance. He interrupted his description of 2 years of solitary confinement, of press-ups and poetry and nightless-days of boredom, to recall the time he ironically ended up comforting his guard whose girlfriend had left him through the bars of his cell.

Guantanamo-BayMuch of what he said though, particularly about the acts of US soldiers, palpably shocked the auditorium, and this was in many ways perhaps empathetic of the shock that Begg himself had experienced. “We thought the Americans were the good guys. We couldn’t have been more wrong.” He spoke of how Guantanamo guards were supposed to swear that they were ‘honour bound to defend freedom’, but the irony of the fact he was padlocked in chains was lost on them. He described the brutal beatings from American soldiers who swore at him in badly accented Arabic, and he recalled word for word the first thing he was told by a senior officer upon his arrest:

“You are now the property of the United States. You have no rights. You forfeited those on September 11th.”

Begg constructed a visceral narrative, hard to listen to at times, and impossible to imagine how it would have been to endure. Yet, despite the difficulty of the topic and the very political nature of his situation, Begg managed to put humanity at the forefront of his lecture.

He spoke of the ex-Guantanamo guardsmen he now considers friends, described the time a female soldier brought him a Cadbury’s Crème Egg in solitary confinement, and recalled the tears of his eldest daughter the first time he saw her after 3 years of imprisonment. Begg argued that it is easy to hate our enemies from a distance, but once up close it is all too easy to empathise with their suffering. He also raised the difficult and unpleasant truth that while we know that 2,753 individuals were killed in 9/11, those murdered by the bombs dropped by Americans were never recorded.

I won’t pretend I know much about the situation in Iraq, or the controversies surrounding Guantanamo, aside from what makes the BBC news website or comes up in my Googled research. From this perspective, I can’t comment on the factual accuracies of Begg’s narrative, and I will say that some of these, particularly the details surrounding his arrest, remained unclear at the end of the lecture – though this could well have been due to time restrictions.

What I can assert with confidence though, is that what he had to say gave me an awful lot to think about.

I don’t think I’ve been so profoundly affected by something of this nature in a long time. I was 5 years old in 2001; I can barely remember 9/11, but I do know that the conflict stemming from it has shaped the news stories of my childhood and adolescence. The on-going terrorism of the Middle East and the West’s dubious interventions are a fundamental part of my generation, and I feel almost duty-bound to gain as many perspectives as I can on the issue.

Moazzam Begg is a controversial figure, but was undoubtedly an inspiring speaker and obvious advocate for the continued plight of human rights. I’m very grateful to the Arabic and Middle Eastern Society for organising the event, and that I was able to hear his side of the story.


“Still the papers do I pen,
Knowing what, but never when –
As dreams begin, and nightmares end –
I’m homeward bound to beloved tend.’”

‘Homeward Bound’- Moazzam Begg

Staying Fit at University

So I’ve been planning on a post like this for a while, because although you would never have found me advocating sweaty exhaustion while at secondary school, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of regular exercise while at Exeter. There’s usually a lot going on at university, socialising, deadlines, house-hunting etc, but in my mind there are three things outside of all that that we could all do with prioritising a little more:

• Eating right
• Sleeping right
• Regular exercise

Now, eating is easier if you’re in catered accommodation, but for self-catered I’ve been in the quite entertaining position of having to remember the food groups for the first time since year 7 science lessons and realising that I’d managed to pretty much miss out on protein for a week and a half. Meal-planning and consideration of things like ‘vitamins’ will hopefully keep that in check. Sleeping well is another one that can be tricky, but getting into a semi-regular cycle that ensures you get at least 7-9 hours is essential for keeping up your energy for the whole term and making sure you don’t crash in that final week of deadlines.

With those tackled, it’s just that little exercise one on the end.

To the uninitiated, Exeter might seem like a slightly exercise-obsessed environment. In many ways, it’s hard to get away from – everywhere you look there are guys in rowing/badminton/korfball stash and girls in fluorescent leggings and trainers. Half the student population here seem to live in sport kit, and while that can be intimidating, I’ve been reliably informed that a lot of people exploit the trend for comfort purposes and have yet to actually set foot in the Sports Hall.

If we’re being honest though, there are plenty of ways you can keep up the exercise. Hiking up Cardiac/Forum hill on a daily basis is a pretty good starting point, but if you’re like me and have no desire to commit your precious free-time to competitive team sports and the thought of a gym environment breaks you out in a cold sweat; consider something else.

The simple jog.

The idea of ‘going running’ on a regular basis was terrifying when I first considered it, particularly as I had no idea where to start. At this point, I’m going to massively plug the NHS Couch to 5km podcast, which takes you from absolute couch potato to running for 30 minutes solidly over a 9 week plan. It’s an easy-build programme which anyone can do, so with the ‘I don’t run’ excuse out of the way, here are 6 reasons why running is the way to go:

1. Get fit

This is pretty self-explanatory, but not to be underrated. With the whole overhaul of starting a new life at university, why not add in a couple of New Year-esque resolutions too?

2. Avoid gaining weight

It might seem obvious, but they don’t talk about the Freshers’ 15 for nothing. It’s pretty easy to gain weight at university what with the microwave meals, greater alcohol intake and the temptation of Dominos on a tri-weekly basis. It might go against the grain of stereotypical ‘student living’, but building regular exercise into the university routine around lectures and socials is a good way to if not combat, at least minimise the effects of an erratic diet.

3. Avoid the scary gym fees

I can’t actually speak with much authority on this point, as I’ve never voluntarily been to a gym in my life, but I do know that memberships can cost a hell of a lot. Unfortunately, the university gym is no exception, and if you’re covering accommodation and food bills with your loan, shelling out on a membership you may/may not use seems a little excessive. In praise of the lowly run, the only investment you really need to make is in a decent pair of trainers.

4. See more of where you’re living

Finding a route to run can be a challenge, but an interesting one. The first time I tried to follow my 5km route I ended up getting hideously lost, running about 8km round in circles, and having to ask, red-faced and sweaty, a bemused passer-by which direction the Cathedral was. Some months later though, and I’m now aware of a whole host of back routes and side-alley short-cuts around the city centre which minimise my exposure to the public but can take me on some decent-length routes. Running around town has also meant I know a lot more about Exeter than I would’ve otherwise – international food shop? Just along Old Tiverton Road. Need to get to the Quay? Here, take this scenic short cut.

5. De-stress

There are plenty of ways to de-stress that don’t involve panting up hills, and while I advocate all and any ways people can find a little peace, exercise is a pretty good one. While when you first start running it might seem the exact opposite of calming and therapeutic, once you’ve built up your fitness I promise it is a genuinely enjoyable process. The endorphins from that bizarre ‘post-run peace’ can last a whole evening, and the sense of accomplishment in making a new personal best can be hugely satisfying.

6. Positive procrastination

Literally run away from your responsibilities/deadlines, with the perfectly valid reasoning that you’re doing it for your health.

A final note on embarrassment:

Being a beginner is enough to put a lot of people off ever contemplating running, and I was personally no exception to this. I’m not exactly the epitome of the slim/toned runner of the Nike adverts, and in my ill-fitting leggings and bright exercise-induced tomato face I felt very self-conscious at first. ‘Running-down-an-empty-residential-street-at-10pm-just-to-avoid-other-people’ self-conscious. However, in hindsight I’ve realised that the only thing people should be thinking when they see someone out running is ‘wow, look at that motivated person doing exercise’ and anything else is, quite frankly, their problem, not yours.


From complete beginner to running 5km – the NHS’s free Couch to 5km Podcasts are the way to go.

To avoid embarrassing encounters with members of the public and to keep track of where you run, how far, and for how long, I recommended Map My Run.

A Trip to the Beach

IMG_1922There are plenty of perks to living on the south coast, the most obvious one being the fact that Exeter is a short 20 minute train ride from the ocean. As I’ve mentioned before, being a midlands-er whose ‘local’ beach experience was a blustery day on a shingle beach in Norfolk, the idea of living near the coast has always appealed. Aside from a few trips with the Windriders Society to try my hand at windsurfing however, I haven’t made as many trips to the sea as I’d have liked, and I wanted to make sure I did something about that this term. The summer, guaranteed to be just as lovely as the insanely warm September we were blessed with, holds all sorts of promises of beach BBQs and ocean swims, but summer is still a fair way off.

view_from_the_cliff_pathSo come last weekend, thanks to the ever-dependable BBC weather app assuring us it would be a day of uninterrupted January sunshine (and the fact that the full term’s workload has yet to kick in) myself and some blockmates abandoned campus for the day and went on a spontaneous trip to Exmouth. As much as we love Exeter, we have lived here pretty much constantly since September, and in the absence of a car for easy transportation it can feel a little claustrophobic at times. As a result, I think it’s important to get out and about occasionally, not only for your sanity’s sake, but also to see a little more of where exactly you’re living.

chipsAnd we were not disappointed. It was a glorious day and the beach was busy with people revelling in a brief respite from the cold drudgery of winter. Deciding to go all out on the tradition front, we bought fish and chips wrapped in greaseproof paper and ate our lunch on the sea front.

Our_'grand_canyon'_selfieAfter lunch we set off on a walk along the beach, taking far too many selfies, picking up shells and at one point attempting to climb over some rocks (only to be put to shame by some far more daring 5 year olds). It was ridiculously nice just to wander along with no agenda or timeline, that ultimately we ended up deciding to extend our afternoon by walking all the way to the Exmouth cliffs at the far end of the beach. Apparently part of the Jurassic Coastline according to all the tourist signs, the reddish cliffs seem a little out of place on a shingle beach in Devon, but make a great spot for – you guessed it – more selfies.

Having climbed the cliffs we looped round and headed back to Exmouth, and 7.5km and a whole lot of fresh sea air later we caught the next train back to our local St. James’ Park station. I’m a huge fan of the train trip to Exmouth, namely because it takes you across the rooftops of Exeter and right along the riverbank.

view_from_the_cliffAll in all, it was a really great day out – maybe even one of the best of my time at Exeter so far. I couldn’t really ask for a lot more than beautiful weather, a beach walk, great food and awesome, awesome company. I feel at this point I should probably say that I’ve been lucky enough to have met some truly lovely people at university, and am even more blessed to be living with some them next year. We’ve barely known each other 5 months but such is the overwhelming, overriding, completely unique experience of university life, we’ve been through a fair bit together already, and I personally can’t thank them enough for all their support and never-ending supply of hugs. You can’t possibly predict who you’re going to meet at university, when, or in what context, but from my experience you can be pretty safe in the knowledge that you’ll make friends for life.

(My next post will be significantly less smushy I promise).