What’s the Big Deal About Having a Degree?

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When I told my mother that I wanted to take a year off, after secondary school, before going to university, she tried to be okay with it. When I finally enrolled, and she found out that I signed up for a certificate programme, instead of a degree, she was not pleased. I could tell by the snide remarks she made about me wasting her time and money.

Like any other working-class mother who was born with a wooden spoon in her mouth, she was adamant that “education is the key”. And I believe that. Just not the way she was trying to say it.

But what is university all about? Getting a degree in anything, taking any entry-level job that pays the bills…I

’m going to spare you the trivial chat about how many great people either dropped out of university, or never got in. The point is that modern society has placed a great deal of emphasis on getting a degree. But what is university all about? Getting a degree in anything, taking any entry-level job that pays the bills, and then trying to figure out how you can be fulfilled with your life, while you’re halfway into living it?

A spoken word, poet friend of mine has a piece on YouTube called “Paper Thing”. It’s about his experience at university, spending all his time and energy fighting for a degree, instead of actually learning. We think that the point of university is to spend three years to “get a piece of paper that says we’re entitled to more paper”, according to him.

Secretly, we all know that’s not the purpose of going to university. We all want to learn something new and interesting, and have that motivate and inspire us. But it’s either we get scared that others will get more qualified than us, or we simply give up on finding that subject of our dreams.

…we get scared that others will get more qualified than us…

My mother frequently brings up my decision to take a year off. In her eyes, there are only three options for a 20-something year old – go to school, learn a trade, or get a job. I did none of the above, so I ‘did nothing with my life’. But I’ve gotten so much more than a job, in the short year between finishing Form 6, and applying for a Certificate in Journalism.

My year off gave me time to realize whether I really wanted to do the things I thought I wanted to do in high school – in my case, Sociology, History and Literature. I realized that, as lovely as those subjects were, I had no intention of using them for the rest of my life. In fact, I stumbled on the things that I’m interested in during my time away from school. I became educated about myself, and what it was I wanted to be educated in.

I found myself acting in the Best Village Trophy competition, directing for the Secondary Schools Drama Festival, and teaching Theatre Arts (a subject that I never even did at secondary school) at Trinity College East.

After two years of studying something that I thought I’d do in university, I ended up being more passionate about something I’d only done for six months – theatre. And that still wasn’t what I ended up doing in university.

In the year I didn’t go to school, I also became an activist, travelled to South America, and even got sponsored by UNAIDS to go to Mali, West Africa, as the sole Trinbagonian representative at the Youth Summit on HIV/AIDS. I got to meet amazing people from all over the world. That year off, I did what I thought was important for me, and what I thought could help other people.

…are you prepared to do the degree thing all over again?

Often, we just end up going to university to do something that a teacher told us we were good at, and our parents said would make good money. But we never really feel comfortable doing it. Still, we put so much emphasis on a degree, instead of learning something that challenges and empowers us.

Think about it. Does your degree reflect what you’re passionate about? Or are you doing it because that industry pays well? Do you think you’re studying what you want to do for the rest of your working life? If not, are you prepared to do the degree thing all over again?

Everyone should strive to get the education that they want and need. It’s empowering. It makes you feel valuable and capable. But you don’t need a degree to get those feelings.

There are some things that you don’t get to learn about yourself, and what you want, from a university classroom. While I was in school, I was also a student journalist for The Student Press, and I decided to do that more seriously. That meant actual work hours, travelling from home to Port of Spain, ever so often, and dealing with a boss who had a very…particular disposition.

In that time, not only did I learn what I would love to make my career, but also how I’d like to work. I was able to set my standards about the kind of place I’d like to work at, what sorts of values I want out of the work environment, what I want out of a boss, and even whether I’d like full-time or freelance work.

These are not things that you ever get to learn at a university.

Instead, you have to figure out what sort of job you like, after you already have no choice but to take what’s offered.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do like the idea of a degree. I might even get one, after I take another year off, when I complete my certificate studies. But if I do, I’m certain that I’ll use it to create a more interesting job for myself, as an activist and a writer, and give me room to explore my other passions. I value formal education as the place where I learn and try to apply things that I can’t teach myself.

If you look hard enough, you’ll find that you don’t need a degree to be successful. What you do need is to focus on what you want out of life, and what will excite and motivate you, while you do that. In fact, don’t be afraid to skip university if your heart’s not into it. If you decide that you need university to fulfil your goals and dreams, go. But focus on the learning and achieving that builds you up, because, ultimately, your degree, by itself, won’t get you where you want to go.

Here’s that video from my friend Jean-Claude Cournand.


Image credit:  http://cronkitenews.asu.edu

Brendon O'Brien

Brendon O’Brien is a writer, Spoken Word poet and performer, blogger, activist, and a host of other things. Simultaneously pursuing performance and journalism careers, he writes an almost-weekly, inspirational blog for ARC Magazine called “Operation Ante-Up”, as well as his own blog http://thezenplayground.tumblr.com, and has tried his hands at acting in the 2010 Best Village-winning “RepatriHaiti”, and directed the ASHTAR Theatre production ‘The Gaza Monologues’.


  1. Anton

    May 7, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Hey man… Trust me i understand… Did the same subjects as you in A Levels… Came to UWI.. Started doin lit… go BORED.. switched major… took a year, and now thinkin to switch my major again… The experience I think has made me the person I am today though. So sum WILL work out!

  2. Jaime Lee Loy

    Jaime Lee Loy

    May 7, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Good one Brendon and this is so true.

  3. Brendon O'Brien

    Brendon O'Brien

    May 7, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Thanks a lot you guys. And Anton, I hope you find exactly what you’re passionate about man. But you’re right – sumn bound to work out for you! Blessings.

  4. Ashanna

    May 7, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Spot on Brendon. I think many persons are spending time doing things they think they “should be doing”, when they could be using that time to do something that they really love.

  5. Desiree Seebaran


    May 7, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    So, so true … I am a firm believer in taking that year off between high school and any tertiary studies. Even if you have to work for the year, you have the freedom to do so much that you won’t have the freedom to do in ten years. And even while in university, people are so focused on ‘getting that paper’ that they miss a true university experience. I enjoyed my degree but my extracurricular activities prepared me more for life than UWI did! Great piece, Brendan.

  6. Ash

    May 7, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Btilliantly articulatedl. Loved Jean-Claude’s piece too.

  7. Kevin Campbell

    May 7, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    Very good job, Brendon.

  8. Bjorn

    May 7, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    My sentiments exactly! We are somewhat frowned upon if we don’t go get a degree. But what are we fostering? Workers or entrepreneurs? We have to learn to move away from what people tell us to do and do what we really want to do and most importantly follow your dreams! This mindset we trinis have about getting a degree Is really stifling the creativity of our countrymen and women. My $0.02c

  9. Erica George

    May 8, 2012 at 12:25 am

    An article to my own heart! Cldnt have said it better myself!

    • angie

      May 7, 2012 at 9:40 pm

      Reading this had a strong impact on me it made me rethink what i have done in the past pertaining to my degree and what i am about to do these words are inspirational touching and most of all reality which majority of young people need to hear before they start their degree

  10. Observer

    May 8, 2012 at 10:26 am

    University Degrees are ultimately about making money.
    For the student at the end (hopefully) and for the institution (definitely).

  11. Jolisa Brewster

    Jolisa Brewster

    May 8, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    I could totally relate with this article. I didn’t jump on the bandwagon because every John & Janet had one . It took me several years to FINALLY decide on what I was most passionate about and then pursue it, that ‘s what most important – having a passion. Great piece by the way.

  12. Nightangel

    May 26, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    I believe everyone should take a year after high school to figure out what they want. More importantly a four year degree is not for everyone. Everyone has different talents and ways of learning so why should everyone go to college? It is not the only way to learn.

  13. Nicole O'Connor

    June 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Excellent topic to explore…

  14. Nicole (Nyasha)

    June 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    What’s commendable is that you’re doing a lot and gaining lots of experience culturally… without the paper. It’s good when you know what you want…some folks come out with doctorates and still don’t know what they want to do with their life. I’ve been told that getting the degree shows you’re dedicated to the craft, however most of our millionaires/billionaires (Oprah, Gates etc and so on) shows us that mastering the craft comes from exposure, experience and taking risks.

  15. Yvonne

    June 4, 2012 at 4:37 am

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the matter. How do I work passed the clutter that is a degree in a field I’m not particularly excited about, and a job that pays peanuts in a totally unrelated field? I’m looking forward to a time when I jump out of bed (when my body is ready to get up and out of bed –  not a morning person) and make a beeline for this craft that I’m excited about, and that provides tangible solutions for people that need this kind of help the most?
    How to I get to that ‘Aha!’ point in this life?

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