Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, p. 17
There is little doubt that completing a post-secondary education increases one’s chances of finding employment, so that success in the college or university environment is usually measured by whether you graduate or not. This is an appropriate measure, but not the only one.
Success comes in less concrete — but not less significant — forms while negotiating and managing the campus experience, and success can be found in each experience (formal or extra-curricular) along the way to accumulating credits and graduating. A student also has an environment where he or she can develop aspects of personal mastery — most if not all required to achieve graduation — relating to such varied areas as self-management, self-awareness, skill-development, stress-management and social relationships.
As for graduating, available data from existing supported education programs shows that students with psychiatric disabilities graduate (although they take longer than others to do so). But being a student is a challenge, disabled or not, and thinking of the micro-successes or ‘small wins’ within the process of learning in a structured environment might help the prospective student see beyond the daunting prospect of higher education.
Graduating was never foremost in my mind while at school. Coming from a troubled background, I escaped to university drawn by the idea of the university in its ancient sense: as a place for the gathering of scholars and the exchange of ideas. It was, as a colleague derided, a contrived existence. But for me it was a wonderfully-contrived environment — a seed ground for social, intellectual and psychological experimentation and growth, a fluid mini-society rife with successes and mistakes. Graduate I did, but it is the less tangible successes that have benefited me the most.
Those experiences are varied, such as the time I walked into my first lecture (coincidentally, an introductory psychology course) thinking I was in the wrong place. It was a concert hall, and I found myself surrounded by 1200 fellow students. The lecturer got our attention by firing a starter’s pistol. I dropped the course: the first accommodation I was to make for myself at university as there were no services for psychiatrically disabled students at that time. The experience was a success in that I set boundaries and became aware of my limitations — and of my intolerance of crowds and explosive noise.
The course that taught me the most was my least academically successful. I would listen in awe to the instructor — the legendary literary critic Northrup Frye — and then, with assignments left undone, fly off on tangential quests for knowledge. I failed the course, and learned of my ‘distractability,’ but also found a rare source of satisfaction in intellectual adventuring. My measure of success in a course became not the grade I achieved, but the amount of inspiration I got from the material or the lecturer.
In arts courses, I learned written and oral communication skills that have helped me express myself. These skills have been of great value as I manage the emotional and cognitive distortions that are the hallmarks of my illness.
In science courses, I learned critical data-interpretation skills that allow me to understand and interpret information relating to psychiatric issues and research, again an important aspect of managing mental illness.
Colleges and universities are known hubs of social activity (and activism) and socially I could participate, observe or interact as I felt. Be it the transient nature of campus life, or its removal from the ‘real’ world, social mistakes are not too costly.
Another critical success came at the point where I realized the difference between conflict and constructive debate. It is a lesson that I’m not sure I would have learned as readily in another environment.
When I look at it objectively, successes such as these have been more influential and useful in my life than having a degree. Unfortunately, access to post-secondary education remains limited by one’s ability to pay or to find funding, but thankfully, through supported education programs, being a student is made manageable for those with psychiatric disabilities, and distance education makes further education possible for those who are unable to attend a campus.