Taking time out of uni

When I was younger, I thought of life as a linear path. A series of steps on the career ladder – school, college, university, career, retirement. So when I took my first ‘gap year’ in September 2018 after finishing my A-levels, I already felt like I’d done something a bit rebellious. During this year I worked and volunteered, gathering valuable experience for my CV, as well as doing a bit of travelling. I started studying Biological Sciences at the University of Surrey in September 2019, feeling more ready and equipped to move away from home.

For the first few months, I enjoyed my newfound freedom. My school and college years were overshadowed by my mental health issues, and so university was a chance to experience all the things I had missed out on during my teenage years. I made new friends, enjoyed my course, and pushed myself out of my comfort zone, attending different events on campus and experiencing clubbing for the first time. I was only a year older than most of my peers so I felt like I could blend in fairly well, and I was proud of what I had achieved in my gap year.

However, halfway through my first year at university, a mysterious virus swept through the UK. I had just about adjusted to my new life in Guildford, and now it was being threatened by a strange new world that none of us had ever experienced. In March 2020, I got the email that I had been dreading for weeks, saying that the university was to switch to online learning, and we would need to leave our accommodation. I took what I thought I would need, convinced that this would all be over in a month or so. Later in the month, the UK entered the first lockdown to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Over the summer, my mental health deteriorated. With such limited access to the outside world, I felt isolated and life seemed meaningless. Lockdown took away all of my motivation, stripping me of the things I had worked so hard to have in my life – attending university, living away from home, meeting friends, having new experiences.

However, I was yet to receive the most devastating blow. On the day I was due to start my second year of university online, I was asked to attend a meeting in which I was told that I was not well enough to remain at university and would have to take a year out to work on my health.

This news sent me further on my downward spiral. My university education was the only thing I had left, and now this had been taken away from me too. Looking back, although I was extremely angry with the university at the time, I can see why they made the decision that they did. I was in a vulnerable state of mind and needed to that time away from education to work on myself.

The pandemic was the catalyst for the complete restructuring of my life, but on the other hand it allowed me time to reflect on where I was at. They say you have to hit rock bottom before you can make your way back up, and this was certainly true for me.

After a year in intensive mental health treatment, in September 2021 I made a huge decision. I wrote to the university and asked to defer my course for another year. This was incredibly difficult to do, and I went back and forth with the idea for a long time, but I knew deep down that I was not ready to return. I didn’t want to sabotage the progress I had made by coming back to university too soon. It also felt important that this time around, I chose to take time out rather than being told to. I felt empowered to make positive changes in the following year so that I could return to university in a better place, giving myself the best chance to thrive there.

September 2022 came around, and I moved back into university accommodation, 3 years after moving in for the first time. I knew a couple of people on campus from my first year, some of which I reconnected with, some I had drifted apart from. It was quite nice in some ways to start afresh and leave who I was in first year in the past.

Of course I still struggle with my mental health, and final year has proved quite the challenge, but I know that those 2 years out set the foundations for me to get to where I am today, to cope with the stresses and to fully embrace all aspects of university life. I still sometimes feel ashamed when people find out that I’m 24 and in third year, because I feel like I should be further ahead by now, and I feel a lot of regret for the years that I lost. But deep down I know the time wasn’t wasted. I learnt so much about myself, and I would not be where I am in my recovery today had I not taken those years out.

If I have learnt one thing over the last few years, it is that life doesn’t have to be linear. You’re allowed to take different paths to wherever you want to get to in life. You might even discover that what you thought you wanted isn’t what you want anymore, and that’s okay, too.

If anyone reading this feels they could benefit from taking time out of education, I would encourage you to take that brave step and start asking questions. I was in contact with the wellbeing centre, but you can also talk to your personal tutor.

University will always be there, no matter what age you are when you resume your studies. It is not worth sacrificing your wellbeing for the sake of completing a degree in the ‘normal’ time. What is most important is that you prioritise you and your health.

If you need mental health support, please reach out to services. You are not alone.