It’s the time of year when many people consider tertiary education. Acceptance letters are sent out and arrangements are made for student accommodation, rent, modules and classes. For many it can be an exciting time. For many others it is terrifying. Some of us sit under the weight of parental pressure to do well, or because we are the first in our family to attend university. Some of us get bursaries, others have to manage side hustles just to have enough money for living. Various challenges await students. On top of those, there are a host of questions and not a little confusion: What work will I do afterwards? Will I get work? Am I studying the right thing? What if I change my mind?
University can be an exciting time. For many others it is terrifying.
When I started university, I had zero desire to study beyond high school. Yet I now sit with a bachelors degree and I’m part-way through another. I’ve spent a good deal of my recent years studying. The years that I haven’t been studying, I served in full-time student ministry on our local university campus. Almost my entire adult life has been spent around tertiary education, and despite my initial stubbornness I have learned a few things along the way. Below I’ve arranged those under two points. Two things your university lecturers are unlikely to teach, which we all need to learn.
1. Studying at University is Valuable, but so are You
In short: human value isn’t attached to academic excellence. This is true of yourself and your classmates. Whether you are getting 13% or 83%, you are loved by God, made in his image. That never changes. Let that comfort you when you don’t do well in tests, exams, projects, and the rest. Your value as a person isn’t reflected in your academic progress. If your classmates are struggling academically, they too are loved by God and made in his image.
Nothing good can come of saying, “I’m not at the top, but at least I’m not like…” Such an attitude comes from viewing others as less valuable based on their academic achievements—or lack thereof. This is true across degree programmes. If you are studying Computer Science, do not look down on those studying to be teachers, and vice versa. Nobody is enrolling into university to become more human.
Nobody is enrolling into university to become more human.
Christ was fully human, yet we could also say he was “unlearned,” though many were astonished at his teaching (Mark 1:22, 6:2). Jesus attended no formal school, not even a theological college. He didn’t train with the religious elites of his day, which is why they were utterly shocked by his grasp of God’s truth which he declared with authority. Yet it was this man, not the scribes or Pharisees, who would change the world forever. When we contemplate our reasons for studying, we must remember that academic prowess in no way makes us more human nor is it the only route to having a meaningful impact on the lives of others.
2. Life doesn’t Provide any Practise Runs
You will most likely only get this chance once. According to the World Bank, only 9.4% of the total population of the 1 billion plus people in Sub-Saharan Africa were enrolled in tertiary education in 2020. Part of this is because safe and affordable access to education at any level, especially for college and university, is extremely difficult to come by. Education is expensive, even before you add other expenses such as textbooks, transport, food, and rent. Some are blessed to receive a bursary, but most bursaries only cover tuition, without even looking at anything else.
You will most likely only get one chance at university.
I simply share this to make it clear to those who have been fortunate enough to enter tertiary education this year, that you should really treasure this chance. Give it your best. In my first attempt at studying I didn’t take the privilege seriously. At the end of my first semester, I had an average of 13%. That was enough to exclude me. Thankfully someone somewhere in the organisation showed me grace and placed me on academic probation. That worked, and I finished my degree in time, getting marks that would allow me to apply to study further. Many people will not have that gracious someone who will give them a second chance.
Don’t Waste the Gift of University
Consider with me for a moment, the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27). The master places talents into the stewardship of his servants while he goes away. When he returns he rewards the servants who used those talents well. These grew his investments wisely. But the master also denounces the servant who squandered the talents, calling him unfaithful. In a likewise manner, some of us are granted the time, ability, and the means to study. We should make good use of these gifts, using them to the fullest extent. For one day the God who afforded you the opportunity to study will return and ask what you did with that gift.
When you make a mistake, remember that God still loves you, and that the world hasn’t ended.
And that continues into life. You get no practice mode, like you do in some video games. There are no warm ups like there are in sports. This is your shot. This is your chance. Enjoy your time at university, work hard, ask questions, and when you make a mistake, remember that God still loves you, and that the world hasn’t ended.
Be warned, however, focusing and devoting oneself to studying can be a bad thing. Ecclesiastes 12:12 calls too much studying a burden, a weariness of the flesh—one can only assume he had no access to a strong espresso. Micah 6:8 too reminds us that studying is not required to have full access to God, and to see his kingdom flourish. Remember, your value is as an image-bearer, and the good in this world might be aided by tertiary education, but it fundamentally stems from doing justice, loving kindness, and walking in humility with the God who made you.