To whoever needs to hear this: It’s okay to fail

What it was like to fail in college

By Nick Hawks

It was a warm summer night in 2011 when I sat down at my family’s computer desk to check my email for the first time in months. 

Three Days Grace was blasting through my headphones, a detail I remember because sometimes, something so impactful on your life happens that you get stuck replaying it over and over. I found an email from The University of Akron stating that I would be placed on academic probation and barred from enrolling in classes for one year, just weeks before the semester was set to begin. The music from my headphones drowns my surroundings and my body becomes numb, while a question echoes in my head: now what?

The truth is, my case is not as rare as you might believe. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, just 58.3 percent of students that began college in 2012 had any type of college degree six years later. 

I can’t speak for the other 41.7 percent of college students, but I can tell you that based on my experience, I simply was not ready for college in the fall of 2008, when I enrolled at 18 years of age.

The thought of what I would do with my life had never really occurred to me during my senior year of high school. Everybody I knew — my parents, my teachers, my neighbors, the mailman — told me, “Go to college! Find yourself! Have new experiences!” OK, I’m here. Now what? It’s like being told to drive to a foreign country without a GPS and a vague instruction of an upcoming left or right turn. Nobody knows how, but you’re just supposed to eventually figure it out. A four-year plan is mapped out for you, and before you’re even old enough to legally consume alcohol, you’re supposed to know what you want to do with the rest of your professional life. 

After my first semester of college, I was doing fine, at least on paper. I had a 2.75 GPA as a Communications major. I had nothing lower than a C in any of my classes. 

Yet, in December 2008 and January 2009, I had never felt so lost. I felt like I was wandering aimlessly in the desert starving to death, and the only thing within 100 miles was a cactus. That was the first moment in my life that I realized I had depression. 

In the spring of 2009, my grades plummeted. I didn’t go to class. I didn’t go out. I couldn’t have cared less. I put on weight as I struggled to figure out what my next chapter in life would be.

Over the next few years, I tried to figure out what would satisfy me. I joined the Army National Guard, looking for a higher purpose to serve. It became just another job. After my year of academic probation, I re-enrolled at The University of Akron in 2012, only to drop out one year later. I worked odd jobs, where I realized what it meant to struggle.

To make the situation worse, much of my self-worth was tied to social media. The most discouraging part of being a college dropout is when your peers post screenshots of their successful report cards, their new job or their new house that’s nicer than the one you grew up in. It can be a dangerous influence when you are struggling. I know it was for me.

Despite all of this though, I moved out of my parents’ house, went to Cuyahoga Community College and in the fall of 2017, transferred to Cleveland State University. Here, over a decade later, I am finally at a place where I feel like I belong.

High school failed at preparing me for the world. We had a counselor talk to us about college maybe once a year for 10 minutes, and that was it. If it were up to me, every student would meet with a guidance counselor for a one-on-one session at least twice a year, because sometimes, getting to know yourself falls on the backburner, behind high school football games, parties and popularity contests. Nobody ever asked me who I wanted to be — least of all, myself.

Some of you reading this may identify with these words. You may be floating along aimlessly, perhaps because of the pressure you or your loved ones have placed on you to obtain a college degree.

Some of you will end up dropping out. It’s just statistics. It doesn’t diminish your worth. 

Get to know yourself. There is so much pressure placed on us when we’re 18 to make decisions that will impact us forever, but it’s important to remember that you’re never too old to start over. After all, not everybody uses the same map.