The Return to Uni: Going Back, or Moving Forward?

There is this thing I’ve known for the last few years: one of these days, I’ll have to return to Maastricht to finish my studies. I started university in the summer of 2010 and dropped out in November 2013. This had consequences.

Today, I arrived back in that city that gave me so much pain.

For those of you that have followed my journey for many years, you’ll know that my blogging journey started under the nom de guerre ‘Escapist’. Because that’s how I really felt. I was escaping the horror of my student life in Maastricht that had left me far beyond depressed.

I wanted to die—or escape.

I’m happy I chose to do the latter. The rest is history. But now, after two years in South America, it’s time to finish this enormous burden I took on at the age of 19.

TW: this piece contains lots of whining, mention of suicide

A Crushing Debt

The years I’ve spent trying to get a Bachelor’s degree in Whatever™, I’ve managed to build up a debt. Contrary to popular opinion, studying in the Netherlands isn’t free of charge. Behind the scenes, I was building up a debt with the Dutch government. Back in 2010, the rule was that if you graduated, this debt would be erased. This isn’t something I was aware of when I signed up. And I thought the only payment was the tuition fee, which is a burden my parents shouldered.

They’ve changed a lot of rules in the time that I was away, which has left me with little security in the how and what of coming back to finish. I’m from the old guard; which means that once I obtain my degree, most of my debt will be wiped away. The kids that start their studies in the Netherlands today get treated a lot more hostile than I was. That sucks for them but is great for me; if I graduate, my €20.000 student debt to the government will be wiped away—new kids will have to pay back everything.

At the moment I don’t see how I’ll ever have that kind of money, let alone be willing to hand it over to a system I don’t agree with, in a country I don’t particularly associate with. You can see that €20.000 is quite an incentive to graduate.

sea of graduates with lots of student debt

My Privileged Ass

Some people might be angry with me that I got such an opportunity to receive an education and advance in life—and squandered it in order to take free rides with strangers.

“You’re ungrateful,” they said.

But how grateful should I be for receiving the opportunity to loathe myself so much, to the point I saw death as the better choice?

“You chose it,” they said.

Did I choose to go to university in the first place?

“Take responsibility,” they said.

If my contentment is my own responsibility, didn’t I do the right thing by getting the fuck away from that toxic environment?

Privilege or not, if it makes me suicidal, it’s not an ‘absolute good’.

Makes you wonder why they had me in the first place when they’d just saddle me up with all these bullshit hoops to jump through.

 

Smiling but dead inside as a student in Maastricht. This resulted in lots of drinking and smoking to cope with things. Drinking was the basis of friendship in my (and every other) sorority. And every three weeks there was an in memoriam in the university newsletter of some student who had “sadly passed away”. It always mentioned the cause of death if it was an accident or health struggles, never when it was a suicide. Accidents and health struggles were rare.

The Life Script: Why University Never Felt Like a Choice

In the final year of high school, I had to choose what path I’d take in life. They told me there were two options: work for a year and then go to uni, or go to uni now. Yes, they’d pay for my education.

Maybe I could have tried harder to think outside of the box. But does an inexperienced 18-year-old land at the paved and well-lit runway that others trust, or does this teenager fly to a more difficult landing spot that no one had ever spoken of and maybe only exists in theory?

I didn’t make this decision in a vacuum; my whole prior existence had been one scholastic hoop after another. School was all I – and most other kids – knew. And graduating from the highest level of high school automatically opened the door to universities. Not going to university seemed, in a way, rude; I had this opportunity that others didn’t, and it felt like a duty one must take on to not be ungrateful.

There was this story of a child somewhere in the Netherlands who graduated high school some years before me. He probably had the highest scores nationwide, with an average grade of 9.6. This boy I never met decided to become a city bus driver instead of… you know… curing cancer. People I looked up to called this “a waste” and judged this stranger.

Add to these factors the lifelong message that I was smart and gifted. Besides being a character-murdering thing to do to a child, it sets them up to look at their futures with a reckless optimism. Optimism for what? Most of the talented kids end up burned-out and depressed as adults. We all peaked too soon, strained by the norms we’ve been regurgitating without question. Is any office job really better than all manual labor? Are leadership positions actually desirable? Is money really the goal?

It doesn’t help that both my parents (and virtually one whole side of my family) are or have been educators. They’ve taught at primary school, high school, vocational school, and yes, universities too. So when I tried to quit in my second year of studies (2012), they were quick to dismiss the idea.

“But! Without a degree… you can’t…”

Fill in the blanks. They mean it well, but parents are truly dangerous people; they’re too invested in our success or failure. But wanting what’s best for us isn’t the same as knowing what’s best for us.

It took me another year (2013) before I quit. Without consulting them (I had learned) and without telling anyone else, I just… fucked off.     

Negotiating my Return

Over the past months, I’ve been discussing my return in February 2018 with the people from my faculty. While bashing the concept of degrees and questioning the necessity of having one, I’ve always kept a line of communication open with a few people from my faculty. Despite them working for an institution I hate, there’s nothing wrong with these people; they just want to see everyone who was once accepted graduate. They believe I can do it because they trust their admission procedure. To my regret, they’ve been kinder to me than I’ve been to them.

And it feels awful to take away a spot at university from a kid that actually wants this. This education is wasted on me.

I’d forgotten how much fucking work it is just to sign up. When I left my curriculum was already a mess, but four years on it’s become much worse. I didn’t have all my data on the courses I had passed and the courses I still had to do. Email after email, I’ve begged people to send me information so I can present a plan of action. I think I’ve used up all my favors with the staff by now.

Once I got everything together, I worked for days on a plan for February till graduation – fingers crossed – in January 2019. My curriculum resembles Swiss cheese or a book with plot holes—and it was a real puzzle to find courses that fit the requirements for me to enroll. With some pride, I present you the following incomprehensible mess:

matrix university graduation

Orange and red are what I still need to do. ECTS = study points. I need 180 points to graduate. I’m currently at 132.5

To my surprise, they thought this was a sign of dedication and being well-organized. Perhaps I am doing this adulting right? Don’t hold your breath…

Jumping through Governmental Hoops

Once this got greenlit, I had to sign up with the governmental branch that is responsible for tricking us into thinking that a degree is going to help us in life somehow—or else, one gets the lobotomy. To sign up, I need information about myself I can’t remember for the life of me. So I called the one and only person who knows more about me and is good with bureaucratic nightmares: my mom.

My mom is currently a student herself. She’s pursuing a part-time degree and she’s crushing it.

The one smart thing I’ve done since the last time I’ve seen her is connecting her phone number to everything important in my life. A little about my phone use: I hate being called, I don’t comprehend phone balance and contracts, my phones get stolen, and I never have the same number for more than five months.

If there was a way to have a virtual SIM card to receive a text:

To sign up for my degree, I had to use the Dutch identity verification system also used in paying taxes (ugh). I never use this, so of course, I’d forgotten my username and password. But my mom managed to log in for me and sign me up far ahead of the deadline of December 1st. This totally defeats the purpose of the ‘identity management’ tool, but I couldn’t have done it from Colombia myself.

Mom saved my ass.

A Silver Lining

The one happy thing is that my partner Jonas is coming with me back to Europe. We’re together and he will often be with me in Maastricht. Unlike the last time I studied, I am not alone in this.

You might know that we wrote the Digital Nomads Guides together. We’ve grown very close over the years and work well together.

One of the most recent photos of us, kayaking in the Caribbean Sea at Old Providence (Colombia)

He’s actually looking forward to this change as well since he has also been in South America for two years. He’s looking forward to ordering stuff from Amazon, such as a laptop stand and one of those Google Cardboard virtual reality goggles. And he doesn’t mind not traveling fast for a while.

Tickets to Europe

Y’all know I hate flying. It’s bad for the environment, it’s not as glamorous as hitchhiking, and I consider myself lazy for getting on a plane in the majority of circumstances.

What you don’t know is that one of the reasons I postpone getting a ticket home until the very last second is that I can’t enjoy where I am, once I know I’m going back. I am overwhelmed by it all, but I had to do unfun things that make me feel powerless.

So Jonas and I took a flight from Bogotá to Madrid. Then we spent a week in Madrid before flying to Frankfurt. The idea was that the changes would be small; Bogotá is colder than Medellín, Madrid is colder than Bogotá, and Frankfurt colder still. We had to buy gloves and hats in Madrid already.

Madrid was also a good intermediate step to wean ourselves off of South American culture; same language, similar things, different still.  Yet there was a sense of accumulative culture shock. The biggest challenge was unlearning looking at my feet when walking anywhere. That shock culminated in Frankfurt when I saw this on the floor and couldn’t breathe:

frankfurt airport culture shock 2017

From Frankfurt, we got onto the superfast ICE train to Siegburg, where we met Jonas’ family and celebrated one day of Christmas. Then we took the train to the Netherlands to celebrate Christmas with my family. I would have wanted to hitchhike, but it would have been a very tight schedule. For those who are new to it: tight schedules don’t work well with hitchhiking.

For new year’s, we traveled by car with my mom to Belgium. They dropped us off in Francophone Liège, while my parents drove on to a German-speaking part of Belgium. Just Jonas and me, we celebrated the start of 2018. It was sweet and calm and intimate. Was it a celebration? I already knew 2018 would not hold a lot of joy for me. It’s hard to celebrate something with this prior knowledge.

Today, on the second of January, my parents came to pick us up again in Liège to drive us to Maastricht. We’ll first stay in an Airbnb together before I’ll look for a more permanent space to rent. The semester will start in early February, so I still have time.

The Future is Bleak

crystal palace madrid in winter 2017

I can’t really look further ahead than one month. Do you know how some people anticipate some happy event a year or more in advance? I can’t do that. Anything beyond one month is useless to predict or look at. That’s why it’s so hard for me to imagine getting from A to B when A is being back in Maastricht and B is having my degree in my pocket. I don’t know how to start or end this. And I can’t yet get excited about the big reward at the end of this: freedom.

Oh my, I haven’t been this unexcited about something in a very long time. And it’s a whole ass year I need to do. February 2018 till February 2019. Yes, there’s a summer break and some smaller holidays in between, but the point still stands: the future is bleak. At least, that’s how it feels right now from where I’m standing. And I’m terrified of what’s to come.

Will I start loathing myself again? Can I even keep up with academic yada yada anymore? Will the other kids bully me? Will I be able to deal with the many insufferable types I’ll have to do group projects with? What should I do when I inevitably run into Professor Cunt™ from international relations again?

There is one thing I know to do better now: don’t fucking drink. Back in the olden days, the heavy drinking made it near impossible to also perform well academically. I denied it back then, but it was true. So this year, I’m going cold turkey. I had my last drink before midnight on the 31st of December 2017 in Liège.

Has Traveling been Good for me?

Yes.

I’m fucking proud of what I’ve accomplished in terms of hitchhiking and travel over the past years. It feels silly to name the things that were a positive change like a bunch of bullet points, but here are some bullet points:

  • I’ve quit smoking. That’s a habit I had picked up in my second year at uni (age 20) to cope with things. And I quit smoking at the end of the world in Ushuaia. Cold turkey
  • Got my drinking under control
  • I became less judgmental (except for everything university-related, fuck that)
  • I floss every day
  • Being on the road forced me to be better organized in every regard
  • I made wholesome friendships and acquaintances with people everywhere
  • Working on this blog has improved numerous skills

Of course, one could argue that many of these things are just a side effect of… growing up. I promise you, I didn’t.

Am I Taking Two Steps Back?

I’ve been the master of my destiny for five years now. It was nice while it lasted. I can only hope to regain this after university is done.

The system had given me 10 years to finish my studies since I started in 2010. I’m not someone who wants to push that deadline, so I’m returning in spring 2018 instead of autumn 2019.

If all goes well, I’ll be out in one year. But for now, I’ll just feel like I undid those five years of freedom.

So, will this picture be me at the end of this year? (Place your bets!)

graduation ceremony maastricht university academic dress hat

Erm, whatever I do, I won’t put on that fucking hat and robe. And I won’t go to the graduation ceremony unless I have to.

Perhaps I’ll graduate. For once and for all.

 

Some photos for this piece are sourced from Pixabay and Unsplash

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