Life as a student in the 21st century

In the past decades it seems that the concept of “student” has suffered from a slight deterioration. When you say “I’m a student”, to someone you just met, the first ideas that will come to mind are “parties”, “no duty”, “the good life”, “happiness”- and when you say you’re doing an Erasmus, well all you have to do is take the previous concepts and multiply them by themselves. When you’re a student, you’re in that weird grey area of your life stuck somewhere in between leaving teenage bliss and entering the “adult world”. You start getting a better picture of certain responsibilities, priorities, and values. It’s not until you sign your first rental contract or get your first electricity bill (whether it’s with your money or your parent’s money) that you acquire a more practical perspective on what lies beyond the era of academics.

I’m not going to lie, life as a student is amazing, especially if you are studying something that you find enriching. Students have more flexible hours and timetables (no, I’m not talking about those sleepless nights before exams trying to stay awake in the company of what seems to be your only friend, coffee) compared to those who have already crossed the golden gates of the so-called professional world. This allows us to be able to take a trip every now and then, and explore other cultures with less preoccupation in regards to responsibilities awaiting us once we get back home- we are often told to “enjoy it while you can, you won’t be able to these things once you start properly working”.

At this point, I would like to make a small observation on the previous statement and disagree with people who tell others that they won’t have the chance to go on trips or see new countries once they embark on their careers because I beg to differ. This is the era of globalization, the era of “use and throw away”, the era of Made in China and, amongst other things, also the era of airline charters! This means that you can catch a flight on a friday night after work, arrive to your destination the same night (assuming it is in geographical proximity which, in Europe, gives you many option) and get to know a new city during Saturday and Sunday, and then fly back on Sunday night for a good sleep before heading back to the office on a Monday morning- and guess what? You can do all that within a budget of 100 euros. This would imply that you buy a charter ticket- and there is an endless variety of flights such as Stockholm-Amsterdam, Amsterdam-Warsaw, Budapest-Vienna and so on- and stay in a hostel where you share a room with other people. Sure, it’s not the most luxurious accommodation nor will it be cheap to eat if you go to a city like Geneva, so I admit that this philosophy isn’t bulletproof but bear with me and stick to the big picture. Having said that, this is the era of globalization but this is also the era of a big financial crisis in Europe therefore not everyone has 100 euros spare in times like these. However, if you REALLY wanted to achieve something you could save one euro a day and within 3 months you’d be able to buy a low-season charter airline ticket for, say, 25 euros (and there are cheaper ones too) and pay for a hostel for two nights in, for instance, Budapest. And voilà, you are a working person who has visited a city in a weekend.

Anyway, going back to my initial topic: student life. Yes, student life is good. The partying, the flexible hours, the bliss of youth. Most people look back at their university years with bitter nostalgia and those of us who are still living it rarely want it to come to an end.

But let me tell you something, being a student in the 21st century is no easy task (or the sake of avoiding too much generalization, I’m going to refer mainly to those of us living in Europe, as I lack first-hand information on what university is like in other continents).

The fact that Europe has, for more than 4 years, under a black cloud of austerity and economic depression has lead to a consequent moral depression. Now more than ever students don’t want to finish they studies, but not just for the easiness of student life; what is more frightening are the professional prospects- or lack thereof . In a system where retirement age is being prolonged in most countries, those who are considered fortunate enough to have a job leave very little room for the new generation.

Companies and organizations are employing less, which means that competition for those few precious job-vacancies is no walk in the park.

So what do you have to do if you want to get a job (and in the current economic climate a very select few afford the luxury of being picky about the job they want)?You have to have amazing grades so that you can get admitted to a so-called “respectable” university that has a good ranking and reputation for your BA or Masters- giving you a better chance for what comes later, undergo various internships (preferably in well-known institutions) where you acquire a variety of skills that range from learning how to operate an office coffee machine to reading endless amount of paperwork, and try to be the best of the best. And sometimes, not even that is good enough.

Why ? Because we live in constant fear of someone smarter, more qualified or with more experience will get into the university we want or get accepted for that internship we’ve applied for. Not to mention that in an increasingly interdependent and globalized world we Europeans are having to deal with competition with Asians. (Before I go any further here is a disclaimer: I lived in Asia for various years and not only does it feel like home but a lot of my friends are Indonesian, Korean and Chinese, so I mean no racism, please). I don’t want to follow stereotypes but I have lived first-hand the experience of being in a math class with Asians, and it is not a nice experience. As nerdy and math-prone as I was, the Chinese boy next to me was 3 steps ahead. In some areas they are just that much quicker, and they also have more discipline which brings them to have a great advantage. This doesn’t apply to all professional and academic fields because, on the other hands, Asians lack certain social skills, giving us the “advantage”. These observations may seem shallow to some, but this is reality, these are factors that have to be taken into consideration. Not only are the numbers of job vacancies shrinking, but along with those so are the numbers of students accepted for Masters programs.

On the other hand, some numbers are increasing: tuition ! While some countries like Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands have a rather supportive policy in terms of financial aid for their students, some countries are raising tuition fees by the minute. The United Kingdom has always been expensive in terms of university tuition, but tuition fees were increasing by a few thousand pounds a couple of years ago. On the other hand, countries like Italy and Spain are ever-increasing the registration fees at public universities, to the point where some amount to an annual 2000 euros. And Masters programs.. where to being? The majority of them all over Europe, with the exception of Scandinavian and Northern European countries, generously overcome the 10.000 euros a year checkpoint- without counting living expenses.

Moving on to another dilemma: internships. While some students such as those in France or the United Kingdom, finish their academic year in late May/early June and commence at the beginning of October, others such as those of us studying in Italy, Spain or the Netherlands, don’t finish exams until late June/early July, only to begin the new year in early September. This means that some of us don’t have 3 month for an internship, which is the minimum amount of time required from any candidate that applies for an internship position. This means that if I’m Italian (where not only do I have very little holidays in summer but I also live in a country where people are not as internship-orientated as other countries are, especially because teachers and institutions don’t stress the importance of internships) and I show up to a job interview in the UK, I’m going to be freaking out in the waiting room because I know for a fact that the French guy in front of me has a lot more work-experience.

This brings me to another 21st-century-student-dilemma: work vs. experience. A lot of us wonder what companies value most: good grades or work experience? I once worked for HR in a company and my boss told me to “throw away all of the CVs with no experience” and at this point I would think “okay, companies evidently value experience over GPA”. BUT no, we also need impeccable grades otherwise we won’t make the cut for the admission requirements for a possible Masters program- and meeting the requirements doesn’t imply that I’m going to pass the arduous selection.

And social networks: what is wrong with companies who look into the profiles of possible candidates only to exclude those with “compromising material”? Social Networks such as Facebook, despite the profitable platforms that they have become for advertising and talent-hunting, were once invented to simply share pictures, in other words, they concern the PRIVATE life of a person. Just because someone gets drunk off their face while on holiday in Ibiza doesn’t mean that they don’t know how to behave in a work environment or be the best employee a company is ever had. And as if the people in human resources doing this social-network-candidate-scan haven’t had a drunk night- please. Not only was everyone “once young”, but everyone has had a drunk night, with drunk pictures, or funny poses in comical moments that tend to get photographed. Just because you’re the CEO of Goldman Sachs doesn’t mean that you’ve never had an embarrassing picture or gone skinny dipping in a spare-of-the-moment decision so for companies to drive people to change their Facebook names for fear of their professional life or academic life being compromised sounds unfair to me. We’re all human, lets be real.

Nowadays we also live a judgmental world where Business, Political Sciences or Social Studies are seen as studies that people get into when “you don’t know what to study”. Not only, when you say that you study something like Political Sciences or Sociology, the general question is “tell me, what will you be able to do with that?” .

I admit to having a chip on my shoulder because I am a student of International Relations, and as a personal experience I can tell you that, when deciding what to study for university my uncle warned me that “Political Sciences is what my secretary studied”. I can assure you that when i find myself amongst Italians of my age from so-called “good families”, I don’t ask them what they study, I simply ask “what do you study: law, economics or medicine?” . Because that is the safe-zone where some people are confined to; whether it is because those fields of study will give you better chances of finding a job, or because they are seen as the only respectable options (there’s also architecture or engineering for the really adventurous ones). In a country like Italy there is very little respect for people in relatively new fields of study; when I tell people in Italy that I want to study “Security Management” after my Bachelors, they look at me as if I had instantly grown three heads. Sometimes Italians are so drenched in their history and tradition that they are incapable of incorporating new concepts or ideas, even when it comes to fields of study.. Anything slightly more innovative represents uncertainty and is therefore avoided or snubbed. This happens on other levels in Italy, apart from education, and only recently have some politicians been realizing that, but it will be a while before the population will start to come to terms with certain concepts.

And this doesn’t happen only in Italy but in other countries too, but I am grateful that certain countries are more open to new concepts because it means that they accept and embrace diversity and innovation, allowing me and others to pursue a field of study without the fear of hearing “you’re not going to get a job with that degree”.

A few days ago I was talking to a man (that I will call Mr.X in order to respect his anonymity) who told me he had studied Agriculture and Political Sciences (as two separate Bachelor degrees) before embarking on his impressive professional life and eventually become Minister of Defense of what one would consider an “important” country. Of course, Mr.X was studying Political Sciences at least 20-25 years ago, and back then Political Sciences was less common and there were more opportunities for young professionals.

Yes, years ago things were very different; being a student was very different.

But when I feel discouraged I remind myself that, despite the gargantuan efforts that being a “successful” student requires nowadays, I am lucky enough to be able to study, whereas some people don’t have the choice. I remember once coming across a documentary on French television about a French woman going to Ethiopia for a month and living with a local family in a village (I wish I could remember the name of the documentary but I don’t); the two boys of the family had to walk 5 kilometers every day in order to go to school and they were eager to do so. Every morning they would get up, put on their best shirt and grab their prized books that their parents’ hard work had bought them, and go to school. At the end of the documentary the woman asked the eldest boy “what is your dream?” and he simply said ” I want to study”.

At the risk of that story about the “poor African boy” sounding cliché, it’s something that I like to remind myself and others about. Because let me tell you, it’s no walk in the park being a student in the 21st century.

Chiara Romano Bosch.

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