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Mental Health

When Did It All Start? Reflection on My Long Academic Journey

I have recently taken to studying in the evenings with Gilmore Girls playing in the background. The academic year is coming to its end – and so is the first year of my master’s. I couldn’t help but reflect on the long journey I have had in the higher education world and the one year that switched it all up. I was battling one question. When did my academic journey start?

I am 6 years old; I have just learned to read and my mum takes me to the library for the first time. I get a bunch of books, fairytales mostly, but none of them spark my interest. But luckily, a friend of mine shows me this cool book about a wizard boy, and I get lost in the magical world of Harry Potter. I never came back to fairytales but had a book with me ever since. People always said it was a good thing. 

I am 12 years old; I get straight A's at school, spend all my free time reading, start learning English and everyone praises me for my dedication to studies. A few years later, I take up extra English and French. I have shelves of books at home, a crazy study workload and big dreams about university. 

But you know what else I did when I was 12? I was watching Gilmore Girls. Rory Gilmore has been my adolescent role model. I imagined myself doing what she was doing – going to classes, studying at the beautiful libraries, spending afternoons in parks reading books. Whenever I had a chance to travel to Europe, I would always go by the university, dreaming of a day I would study in a place like this. 

I have never questioned getting my university degree. I was fortunate enough to get free education at one of the universities in my home country, as well as a monthly stipend, all thanks to my excellent academic results. I considered my bachelor’s to be a step towards getting my master’s abroad, something I knew was it for me. It took me 5 years to get my diploma (yes, in Russia, you must study for that specific amount of time for some majors). Although I spent so many years studying, it wasn’t in a place that had a lovely academic vibe. Eventually, I received my desirable certificate, took a gap year and applied for my master’s. The day I received my admission and the grant-awarding letter was one of the happiest in my life. To me, it was the invitation to the world of my dreams. I thought I would finally be able to study the way I always wanted; I had my hopes high – but they were interrupted by the pandemic.

There is no doubt that this year has been challenging for students. It was also a weird year to relocate abroad. I moved to Helsinki last summer, not aware of the fact that I would only attend the campus once and spend my first of two years studying from home. It was a year in front of my laptop, a year that feels unreal and reminds me of a dystopian novel rather than reality. I still struggle to make sense of it. It has also been hard to accept the fact that half of my degree is up and I don’t even know what the inside of my university looks like and I have never seen my professors.

The thought that I would get my master’s degree remotely has been overwhelming. How do you get over the substitution of the well-rounded campus experience with a zoom call? The loss of the opportunity, which is so rare and unique, was disappointing. But it also made me ask myself uncomfortable questions. Who am I if I don’t get to sit in classrooms discussing literature? Who am I without this image of me as a student? Do I have to be a student to gain the experience I have longed for? 

Those questions left me puzzled. For the first time in my life, I realized how tightly I was holding to the academic part of myself. I assume at some point in my life, be it at 6 or 12, I started measuring my self-worth based on my accomplishments. At the end of the day, my academic achievements have always been the most distinguishing feature of mine. With time, I became a perfectionist over-achiever, who was unable to lower the bar (and watched Gilmore Girls way too much). Now I feel sad thinking about campus moments that I was supposed to experience but never did. Yet I am happy to finally reconsider my own relationship with academia. I am excited to see where it would take me and one thing I know for sure: you don’t have to be enrolled to go to the library or read in parks.

Leila Askerova

Helsinki '22

English major with a love for slow life and all things cozy.
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