Law school: My story of self-doubt and self-discovery

My first day of university with my best friend
My very first day of university with my best friend (2011)

Happy new year, everyone! When I envision 2016, the thing that excites me most is the prospect of finally graduating university. I study a dual degree of Bachelor of Laws and Arts at the University of Queensland (UQ), with five years down and only one semester to go (hopefully!). I’m not looking forward to saying goodbye to the ‘uni student lifestyle’, but I absolutely can’t wait for the sense of accomplishment and relief that will come from having my two degrees in hand. It hasn’t been an easy journey for me, particularly in the first two years. It led me to completely doubt myself for the first time, forced me to totally rebuild my self-perception and, in the end, has thankfully given me a greater sense of determination. I’ve wanted to blog about this for a long time, but fear has prevented me. I never hesitate to share stories of my travelsmy dating life or even my experience with cancer, but writing about my time in law school makes me feel particularly vulnerable. And I think this post could easily be misperceived. However, in the past few months, my blog has had a greater reach than I expected and I’m encouraged by the prospect that this post may be read by someone who is going through a similar experience to mine and may give them a sense of reassurance, especially as a new bunch of high school graduates are about to start university.

My transition from high school to university was one of the most challenging times of my life. In high school, I was known for ‘being smart’. I placed all of my self-worth in being a high-achieving, straight-A student and in being seen to be more intelligent than the majority of students around me. Looking back, this was completely ridiculous, but it was so important to me at the time. It was all forced to change when I started university. In Queensland, we currently have an ‘Overall Position’ (OP) system that determines which high school students can get into which university courses, by ranking students statewide on an OP1 to OP25 scale (with 1 being the best). I received an OP2. I was pleased and I received a scholarship. However, my course at UQ only accepted OP1 and OP2 students, so I was immediately concerned that my entire cohort was as smart or smarter than me. This was confirmed when I started my law classes and began to find some course content difficult, while other students seemed to have no issue answering questions and getting better grades. It was as though the tables had totally turned since high school, like the classic saying of ‘a big fish in a small pond becoming a small fish in a big pond’. Everyone had always told me that I would find university easy (I guess they’d never studied law!), so I was not prepared.

This completely rattled me. The self-confidence I had in high school was obliterated. I doubted myself in ways I had never before. I had no sense of who I was, since I had lost the one thing I valued most about myself. It sounds preposterous to say I experienced an identity crisis as an 18-year-old, but that is truly what it felt like. There were so, so many times that I wanted to quit studying law because I did not think I was good enough. One of my greatest fears in life has always been mediocrity and I felt like I was living it. I tried to keep these emotions to myself, but it was hard at times. I will always remember coming home from one of my very first law exams, bursting into tears and crying myself to sleep, because I was sure that I had failed the course (it turns out that I passed). For the first two years, I constantly questioned why I studied law and whether I’d actually be capable of graduating. I recently found some diary entries I wrote during that time, which are quite confronting for me to read now and to remember how genuinely upset I was.

2014 UQ Law Ball
UQ Law Ball (2014)

Despite all of this, there was fortunately always a deeply-rooted sense of determination to prove myself wrong. No matter how weak it may have been at certain points, it always remained to some degree. To be perfectly honest, at times, this determination was shamefully as shallow as being scared to be a ‘law school dropout’ or being driven by the potential to have a high income. Passing all of my subjects each semester was just enough to motivate me to continue to the next semester. As time went on, my confidence gradually rebuilt. I slowly realised I was capable of succeeding. I remembered why I chose law in the first place – I wanted to challenge myself and obtain a degree that would open me to a diverse range of career paths in areas that interest me and allow me to help others. And I wanted that badly enough to continue to work to achieve it. I realigned myself with the right motivations. There was no particular ‘wake up call’ moment. It was a very gradual process. Miraculously, I stayed completely on track with all of my courses the entire time. So, five years later, here I am – with graduation in sight!

In a lecture with one of my favourite friends
In a lecture with a close uni friend (2014)

I am incredibly pleased that I stuck with it. It has been a continual challenge, but an immeasurably worthwhile one – beyond just receiving the degrees. The most important things I have learnt did not come from the classroom. Perhaps the most eye-opening lesson was that I realised how heavily I relied on external validation. I needed people to perceive me a certain way for me to be happy. That has now changed. I don’t need awards or acclamation to value myself. I know who I am and what I have to offer. That is an extremely liberating feeling. I also now enjoy the company of intelligent, motivated people, instead of being threatened by it. It inspires me. I make a conscious effort to surround myself with such people. My talented, ambitious, beautiful friends are a great reflection of this. I am so fortunate to have learnt these lessons.

AIESEC UQ Photoshoot (2013)
AIESEC UQ Photoshoot (2013)

I want to be clear that university has also provided me with many wonderful experiences. I always knew I wanted to go to UQ and I never regret that decision for a second. It is a fantastic university. The most notable opportunity it has given me is my study exchange to the University of South Carolina, which was probably the most significant experience of my life to date. I have travelled interstate to conferences for a student organisation as well and UQ subsidised my travel expenses. I am very thankful for these opportunities. I also made a few close friendships at university (not too many, as I can’t stand the egos and bitchy/backstabbing behaviour of many law students – some stereotypes are true). Studying law has also led me to part-time jobs where I have established strong friendships with people with similar interests to mine. And, of course, I absolutely love the ‘uni student lifestyle’ for its flexibility and freedom. My social life is grateful!

Law school is challenging, competitive and, often times, very dry. But the fact that it has not been easy for me has made reaching this point all the more rewarding. There will be no prouder moment of my life to date than when I walk across that graduation stage. Looking back, I am so grateful for the ways in which university has made me grow up. Would I have learnt these lessons as a natural part of maturing, regardless of being in university? Possibly, but I am grateful nonetheless. Where will life take me after I graduate? I have no idea, but I am excited by the possibilities. I just want anyone about to start university to know that you’ve been accepted into your courses for a reason. You are capable. And, if it’s what you truly want, continue to go after it, even when it gets hard. In the end, it will all be worth it. It sounds so cliché, but hopefully my honest story is proof that it is true.

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