“It’s going to be hell,” she declared. It was the first day of classes of the winter semester of 2012, and her foreboding statement expressed her expectations of the three months ahead. She was a St. Thomas University student, probably barely recovered from the demands of exams and multiple paper deadlines all coinciding in one or two horrific weeks prior to Christmas break. She was definitely not looking forward to re-living it. I could relate.
My university education was gruelling. It took a toll on me physically as way too many hours hunched in front of a computer screen aggravated my osteoarthritis and caused my neck to burn with pain. The hunching has also led to a weakening of my pectoral muscles and consequent overcompensation by the muscle attached to my shoulder blade, cramping it and necessitating frequent dates with microwaveable hot packs. I developed stress-induced eczema which caused rashes for the five years of my undergraduate and graduate degrees. (I was a sight to behold, at times!) Then there was the extinction of my social life, family time, and even miniscule moments of relaxation. It was enough to have made me declare in the final year of my undergraduate degree, “University is inhumane.”
I never expected to feel that way.
Having returned to post-secondary studies after a “sabbatical” that lasted more than two decades, I was overcome by emotion the day I drove up the hill towards campus in September 2009. As I caught sight of the steeple on St. Thomas University’s George Martin Hall—glowing in the early morning sunlight—my eyes filled with tears. It was really happening. I was being given the opportunity to finish what I’d started so long ago, to earn a university degree.
I remained occasionally teary-eyed throughout my two degrees, but it was usually from being overwhelmed or fatigued or stressed-out. Instead of being moved by my good fortune, I would find myself muttering under my breath about deadlines and workloads and professors who made students purchase books they never used.
And then, invariably, it would happen. I’d remember what a luxury books are. There are people in the world—757 million adults—who can’t even read a book. Millions, too, who could only dream of owning one. They wouldn’t believe tales of literate people who own books they never open.
I would also be reminded of the 124 million children who are out of school and the 24 million of them who will never enter a classroom.
Even though the right to education has been a universally-recognised fundamental human right since 1948, and completion of primary schooling for all children is a U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG), the world still faces an education crisis. In its own 2010 Millennium Development Goals report, the U.N. stated: “Hope dims for universal education by 2015…”
The sacrifices made by the parents of my friend, Emmanuel, indicate how much some are willing to give up to gain the prize of education. Emmanuel is a young Nigerian with six siblings, whose father sold part of the small family farm (their source of food and income) in order to cover the airfare and visa fees to send him to a European graduate school. Emmanuel’s church funded his education, but he had to learn a fourth language in order to study in Italy.
My Ugandan friend, Dominic, spent a portion of his vacation a few summers ago picking cotton on the border of Uganda and Sudan. He risked snake bites, land mines, rebel attacks, and numerous other hazards in order to earn enough to pay for his next semester in university. Because of their sacrifices, these two young men, like me, gained something most people on the planet can only dream about.
These reminders of the value of education reorient my perspective on what university students in the West deem unfair and unbearable. We are among the few in the world who will ever have the opportunity to stay up all night writing an academic paper, to take an exam, to earn a degree.
Post-secondary education comes with physical, emotional, and financial costs, but costs others would gratefully pay if given the means and the opportunity. I am grateful the opportunity was mine.
A version of this article first appeared in The Aquinian—St. Thomas University’s student newspaper—on 24 January 2012.
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