Having a degree is the ultimate key to success, prestige and wealth – right? Below, 25-year-old Akunna Onwu, a holder of three degrees, (one being a Master’s degree) unpacks the unpleasant and often overlooked reality of tertiary education
I was recently asked to give a talk to a group of young ladies studying at a university about bridging the gap between university and the workplace. In preparation for my talk, I reflected on the importance of such conversations and how I would probably have benefited from them, had I been exposed to such an opportunity. Nevertheless, I tackled the task with the zealousness, courage and excitement of a young varsity student, itching to know the ins and outs of the workplace. I was now speaking to my 19/20 year old self about some of the expectations to be fulfilled or left wanting, when crossing over to the land of the working class. Preparing the talk provided an avenue for me to raise some questions, one in particular being “would I have studied what I studied? Or better yet, “would I have studied at all?” Did obtaining my degrees in any way influence my career growth or were they a hindrance in my career development?
I grew up with parents who often drilled into me, that education is the key to success. And so, having a University professor as a father and a mother who headed a UN agency at the time, and who had several qualifications, including a Masters degree, it was a no brainer that yours truly would have to reach the highest level possible in terms of tertiary education, or at least surpass my parents accomplishments – since it’s the wish of every parent for their kid to surpass them. At least that was the case with mine. As such, I figured that the more degrees I got or rather the higher I went, the greater the chances of me getting a job. And not just any job, but a well paying, prestigious job. In my mind, education equaled success, but not just any success – great success! And so, being the good child that I am, wink I managed to bag two undergraduate degrees as well as a post graduate degree. I was definitely on my way to attaining my success. I had followed the formula to the Tee. My dream job was just waiting for me. Was I in for a rude awakening…
Having three degrees did not guarantee me a job. I received so many rejection letters that I stopped counting. Or even worse, not hearing from those “don’t call us, we’ll call you” job applications, made life very interesting. To say I was depressed, demotivated and angry was an understatement. I mean, I did what I was told- and look where that got me- nowhere! No job, no success, no money and most definitely no experience, which by the way, was the calling card for most job applications. Frustration became my best friend for a while, and so the comparison game began. You know, when you start looking at where you are and where your mates are, especially those who did not further their education like you did. It was like living a nightmare.
As the universe would have it, I managed to bag an internship with a well known intergovernmental organization- free of charge. Well free for them that is, since I was not getting paid. In my head, it was better than nothing. I could finally say I had that elusive requirement: experience. After my stint at the intergovernmental organization, I got a job- a “real” paying job. Yay me!! When I applied for this job, I was told that I was exactly what they had been looking for. All that studying had finally paid off! Needless to say, what they were looking for, in terms of my education, did not translate to practice. I did not use the technical aspects of my degrees at my job. I was thrown into a completely different environment and forced to, not just swim, but swim fast. And I think that’s when it finally dawned on me what having a degree meant. It was not necessarily, that what I studied was going to be put to practice, which is the case with some individuals, but rather, it was that my degree had afforded me the ability to think logically and apply myself in any given situation. It allowed me to adapt easily and be multi faceted. It stirred in me, drive, tenacity, persistence, and the ability to finish what I start. I not only earned technical skills but also critical thinking skills.
In that same breath, I became conscious that the flip side to having a particular degree could sometimes lead to typecasting. Be it by an employer or sometimes even oneself, which can sometimes be detrimental to ones career development. You sort of think that because you studied law, for example, all you are capable of doing are legal things. It can stifle you and not allow you to explore the other side of education, and so you find yourself in a rut. There is sort of a rope that holds you back from venturing further. This rope could be the opinion of others, or even your own, often telling you what and where your limits are. It’s important to then discover that your education, and in particular your degrees, are not meant to be a hindrance, but rather a means to leverage off from.
So if what you studied is not being put into practice, why study at all? I mean, you could just get the experience, since that’s what’s often been punted, instead of going the convoluted route of studying. Is there any value in collecting degrees? Well, the value in having a degree is not only measured by the degree itself but rather by the individual who gives value to the degree. In other words, it’s the competency and excellence in which the individual delivers their work or services that in part, contributes to the value of a degree.
The reality is that what you studied, in most cases, is not what you end up doing. Sometimes, as in my case, you get thrown into a completely different path that you could not possibly have imagined. I have realised that I am like a chameleon. I can adapt to whatever situation I’m placed in, sometimes easier than not.
In all honesty having a degree shouldn’t be a hindrance. My degrees enabled other skills to be discovered, and honed. They spurred on my tenacity, drive and thirst for knowledge. University degrees should rather be the platform which you leverage off, in order for you to be what you want to be. It’s only a hindrance when you make it one. Ultimately, my degrees are definitely my friends.
Credentials: BCom Law (University of Pretoria); LLB (University of Pretoria); Master of Laws (University of the Western Cape and Humboldt Universitat zu Berlin); Admitted Advocate of the High Court