Today, we are here to celebrate your achievements. And not just those of you receiving awards, but every student here. Congratulations on working hard, competing against yourselves, and always, always improving and looking forwards. Thank you as well, for having me. It’s really interesting to see how St Luke’s has developed, and it's wonderful to be back – though I still feel like ducking behind a bush every time a teacher sees me without a hat!
I sat for a few hours, on multiple occasions some time months ago, trying to articulate what I wanted to say to you. I could have googled “academic quotes”, but I figured we’ve heard about Nelson Mandela’s views on education often enough. I didn’t want to talk all about my own academic achievements, but rather I wanted to talk more about learning, and the way that we often inadvertently interfere with our own academic journeys. What can I say, studying political theory makes you that tiny bit too keen to go to metaphorical depths.
I thought then, about what my dad might say - and what I wish I had listened to when he probably did say it, when I was in school, when I thought I knew more than both of my parents combined.
Now, looking back, I know what he would say if he were standing here. “Don’t worry, but think.” This sounds like weird advice, but when you apply it, it’s kind applicable to a lot of aspects of your life.
Here’s an example: in ten years, your OP or ATAR won’t matter, but the way you got there will. And I’m not talking about which school you finished at, or the subjects you chose, but about your work ethic and attitude towards learning. Don’t worry and stress about what number score you get. But think about the way you approach it. If you approach your schooling as “let me shove as much knowledge into my brain as I can the night before a chemistry exam in a caffeine fueled panic”, then you’re going to get to next semester, or your university studies, and probably have to learn it again, and be even more stressed the second time around. If you approach your schooling as the pure fact and blessing of being put in a place where your only job is to learn, and you think of it as knowledge, rather than exam oriented, then you’re starting to grasp, “don’t worry, but think”.
In my third semester of uni, I was failing epically at this idea I was utterly uninterested in my degree, but I felt trapped, and I thought I had squandered my school results, disappointed my family, and wasted nearly two years. By this point, I was working in a medicolegal office, and it had gradually been dawning on me that I hated law school… it was a little less Suits and a little more 200 pages of administrative law reading in two days. The best part of my work days were talking to the doctors about their practice, meeting the patients, and reading the medical reports.
After many of those aforementioned caffeine panics, I dropped my law degree to study international relations and languages, thinking maybe that was what I wanted to do, work in NGOs or politics. It wasn’t. And also, I would have been thrown out of parliament for having four nationalities. I went home nearly every weekend, and broke down to my parents, over and over again. I worried that I had no chance to get into medical school, I didn’t have the subject prerequisites, and I was already halfway through my degree, how could I change? I had my poor dad on the phone to my family in South Africa at all hours, trying to see if they could get me a place in medical school there. And all the while I had the panicked sensation of everyone pulling ahead of me in life – graduating uni, doing what they love, earning money while I stressed about ordering takeout. It was like I was on a treadmill, running with the carrot of some future happiness dangled in front of me.
Then, when I was moving out of college for the last time at the end of my second year of uni, a friend came by to drop back a book I had lent her. “The Alchemist,” by Paolo Coelho. I read it again for the first time since I was in school, and it was like all the pressure and worry that you feel everyone is imposing on you to achieve, made so much less sense. The pressure I was putting on myself to be perfect, and to get to where I wanted to be right now at this second! was so damaging and unrealistic.
The basic premise of the Alchemist is that a poor shepherd boy goes on a search through the desert for treasure. He always has dreamed of something happening to him, some goal, that he just needed to get to as fast as possible in order to be better. And that’s the thing. Academically, we are so, so goal-oriented, that we forget the fact that we’re so lucky to have the opportunity to learn. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful, and necessary to have goals, and dreams. I fully believe that’s what drives us. But often we forget along the way that getting there is half the fun, and the experience of getting there is just as important and valuable to your growth as actually getting there. I’ve had so many missteps, mistakes and regrets in my academic life. Yesterday, I got rejected for medical school. But working towards my goals and not letting the setbacks interfere with my hopes matters. No education is wasted time. Every boring constitutional law tutorial, German grammar lesson or random and abstract political theory that didn’t make sense, has contributed to my learning to be a well-informed member of society.
I understand I might have just gotten a bit too spiritual and abstract for a Tuesday before morning tea, so my ideal outcome for this talk is for you to consider “don’t worry, but think” on the powerwalk to the tuckshop. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Think critically and carefully about information presented to you. It’s not the end of the world if you mess up one assignment, but learn from those mistakes. And if all else fails, here’s an inspirational quote I googled because I couldn’t find my copy of the Alchemist: “when you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it”. Now, of course, that’s not saying you can fire up Netflix and say, “come on fate, do your thing!”.
What I’m saying is yes, of course schooling can be stressful and scary and daunting. That’s normal! But if you work hard, you’re curious, and people around you see that you are dedicated and passionate, you can always find a way forward. School is the first step on an exciting, wonderful journey that takes you where you need to be – but only if you work to make it happen, and trust in the process.
I would love to help students know more about what to expect with university, law, language and international relations degrees, as well as general life after school – feel free to contact me via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook: Sarah Jhetam.