How Students Become Empowered by Finding Direction

How Students Become Empowered by Finding Direction

Part II of Elli Miller's case studies on the theme of 'Directions'.

This piece is actually the sequel of sorts to another Et Cetera article I wrote up last month titled “Why it’s Okay Not to Have Direction (Going Into University)”. There, I recounted two stories from close friends of mine, discussing how they weren’t too sure what they wanted from their degrees, but found their ‘Direction’ at the end of the day.

This piece, “How Students Become Empowered by Finding Direction” will introduce two more of my friends who I interviewed all the way back in February. While the theme we discussed back then was Direction, I still believe that we can extrapolate the source material to discuss Power.

I believe that lacking Direction can leave a person disempowered… to a degree. I can’t help but imagine Hansel and Gretel losing their trail of bread crumbs and realising they are utterly lost in the deep dark woods. Until they find someone, a witch as it happens in a Gingerbread House, who they hope can give them direction. In that tale by ya boiz the Brothers Grimm, Hansel and Gretel were hoping to find someone who could give them the direction, and hence the power to find their way back home. And to a degree (get it 😉), I believe that that fairy tale reflects life. When we’re lost, we look to the nearest thing to reorient ourselves. Because when you’re lost, you need advice, counsel, direction, from others to find your way home. And that is the way you empower yourself.

In that naïve respect, I believe that when freshers, jaffies, incoming university students go into the big enchanted forest of ‘University’ with a notion of what steps to take, they still look for advice, counsel, direction so they can make their way back home. Because sometimes you need help from others to empower yourself.


Now, I hope that reading these stories will provide you, whether you’re a first year unsure of whether you’re in the right degree in week 8, or whether you’re a third year trying to figure it all out, the direction you need.

Alex in Year 12 had some ideas of what he didn’t want to do career wise. But aside from that, he really didn’t have much of a goal.

“I wanted to do well going into my final year of school. I didn’t think I was anything super special. I wanted to be involved in Science somehow because my favourite subjects in high school were Math and Chemistry.”

Alex reasoned that if he went into a Science degree, that would give him three more years to decide what he wanted to do. In the end, he had a lot of directions that he could take, but not a single direction he was dead set on. For some reason, the image of Gandalf trying to figure out how to get through the Mines of Moria crossed my mind.

When it came down to preferencing his number one choice, he picked Biomedical Science at Melbourne.

Alex overall had a laid back approach when it came to preparing to enter university. He knew that he was going to be happy regardless of what he was going to do. But he also felt sure enough in himself in that he would get what he wanted to do.

But when offers came out in January however, Alex thought “Ah fuck, oh well.” Because he hadn’t changed his preference order once results had come out, he had forgotten to change his second preference at a different university to something at Melbourne University. But he didn’t really mind. What concerned him more than anything was that he didn’t know anyone else who he’d be studying with.

That social thing proved to be quite a challenge for Alex going into university.

“The first semester was really hard. I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t good socially. I didn’t think I belonged in Biomed till like six months up… I didn’t think Biomed really clicked with me till second year. Then I founds things I was really passionate about and decided this was a field that I wanted to work with, once we got out of the basics; overall, it took a while to think that Biomed was one of the right choices for me.” 

But when offers came out in January however, Alex thought “Ah fuck, oh well.”

Alex took a generally laid back approach to university, explaining to me that as long as the outcome was satisfactory, he’d be a happy chap. He went in, made friends, did relatively good academically.

“I feel like I came out okay and that’s all I can ask for.”

Alex is currently studying Medicine at The University of Notre Dame, a several hour plane ride trip from his hometown of Melbourne. I asked him whether it feels like the perfect choice for him. He replied that it’s a good spot, definitely not easy academically, or socially being so far away from home. It’s not perfect by any means, but most of the time it’s okay. But then again,

“I don’t know what the best spot would be for me… It’s definitely not where I expected to be. If you told me that in Year 12 I’d end up studying a postgraduate degree in Perth I’d reply – what have you been smoking?”

The chance to go and study interstate was a daunting one, but one that he ultimately decided he’d regret if he didn’t at least try. He explained to me that he’d rather not live with a ‘what if’ mindset, and instead rather try and take the chances that presented to him.

“University (both undergrad and postgrad) has overall been one of those chances, and I’ve been lucky in many senses.”

I asked Alex if he had advice for any incoming university students, and he definitely was not lacking. So apologies Alex, but I will have to take the liberty and summarise what you had to say in five dot points. For a full transcript, feel free to email me at [email protected]

  1. “You’ve put this burden on yourself, this timeframe that you have to keep. That’s bullshit. You have so much time. At the end of the day, a career is a long time, you may not have to be able to enjoy it but you have to be able to do it consistently.” – in regards to knowing what you want to be straight away.
  2. “If your career isn’t bringing you satisfaction the rest of your life should.” 
  3. “Build a good social support network! At school and at university!”
  4. “You have to have fun. You can’t let your studies be your life.” – especially for studying Medicine.
  5. “Own what you do. In many cases, you are the master of your own fate. The consequences of which are all yours… You just have to walk out and be you.”

“The way I have gotten where I have gotten now, it’s not how I thought I’d get to where I am, but I’m very happy I got here.”


Ana had zero idea what she wanted to do going out of high school.

“There were just so many options available that I hadn’t tried out, so how I was I supposed to know what I wanted?”

Ana ended up choosing to follow a course in management “…because it seemed like the most useful thing to me which led to the most outcomes.”

Ana did a double degree of Management and Social Media, the latter seeming also to be useful as a rising industry. Overall Ana went for the useful route rather than what she liked because what she was interested in, ancient history, story-telling, film, wasn’t as lucrative.

Unfortunately, Ana’s first year of university didn’t go off to a good start.

“Year 12 burnt me out a lot. And instead of taking time off to regenerate, I just went straight into uni because that’s what was expected and what I was told to do [by parents, teachers, friends]. I went in and what I thought would be a different experience from year 12, was the same… the teachers just cared less.

“Most people were of the opinion that if you were to take a break from studying you wouldn’t want to return back to studies. No one told us what we could do instead of uni. Or that we could take a break or try something else or what we could do to gain direction. It was assumed that you’d go straight into uni.”

            As the year progressed Ana’s direction slipped for a multitude of factors. She burnt out within the year and felt trap because she didn’t know what she could do to change things or what to do next.

“I went in and what I thought would be a different experience from year 12, was the same… the teachers just cared less.”


“I went to a lot of support things… I was advised to take less subjects on, but I was too stubborn. My grades declined further, my anxiety increased, I didn’t go to classes, I skipped more and more. Basically, second year semester one I didn’t go to a single class for most of my subjects. At that point I realised I couldn’t do this anymore, I was wasting time and money and I needed to get out.”

Mental health played a large roll in Ana’s decision, and “…having no direction only increased my anxiety and my mental health problems. I didn’t feel like I was going towards place, I didn’t know whether I should change, what to change into, I didn’t know what I should be doing.”

Since leaving her studies Ana has been working full time. In that time she still doesn’t have a specific thing as to what she’d want to do, but she values her time more so now.

Working has showed her where her skills lie, what she likes and doesn’t like to do.

“It feels like things are clearing up but I’m not 100% sure as to what I want to do, but I’m getting there. If I were to go back I have a feeling I’d know what to do.”

Ana emphasises the point of taking time to figure out what you want to do.

“Take time off if you need it. If you’re ready to charge into uni straight away, that’s great props to you. If you need a break, take it, get a job, that’s the biggest thing, even if it’s something small because it helps you see what your skills are and what you like.

“For starting uni, look at all the support available, if you need help go to someone about it, teachers, tutors, they’re generally pretty understanding, and see the mental health services available.”

Lessons learned

So what have we learned?

It seems like from this and the previous piece published last month, that people going into university without a specific direction, have at least a general idea of what they are wanting in mind. They have a rough idea as to what they want to do, and to some degree where they see themselves in the future.

If I’m going to continue on with this Enchanted Forest metaphor, I’d say Alex found himself very deep in the woods, and very unsure how he was going to get back home (assuming back home is finding a satisfying career). But during his time there he made resounding friendships, and slowly and steadily found a map of sorts which put him on a journey. A journey which was very different to what he expected he’d be on, but a journey nonetheless full of surprises and meaning.

If we come back to the real world for a second, consider that Alex had two general commitments he wanted to keep; he wanted to pursue something Science orientated, and something that he could find overall satisfaction for himself. For him that meant doing well, making friends, and being happy at the end of the day. What does that mean for you?

Ana for the most part is still unsure what she truly wants to do. You could say she’s still looking for landmarks to help her out of the woods. She knows she’s going to get find her direction in the end, but she knows only time will tell, time and experience. She’s also learnt to take the time if you need the time.

For the most part, I think even the most confident of people spend their time in the dark enchanted wood, lost to some degree. Maybe everyone gets a map of sorts with how to get back home, a few more helpful landmarks, and good people you meet along the way who get you back home. But in the end, time is the only thing that will truly tell.

Now I have a message to first years about with wisdom based on my interviews with my friends: It is okay not to know. It can be scary not to know what you want to do with yourself, and scary for your family and friends around you. But it’s going to be okay. As long as you get the experience and follow your intuition, you’ll be fine. Maybe your intuition is wrong, maybe you feel that you made the wrong choice, but that’s learning and that’s life. How can you be expected to know what you want to do with yourself at the age of 18 for a working life set to last 40 years?

It is okay not to know.

At some point, whether that’s right now, or at the end of this year, or the end of your degree, you will figure it out. It takes time, but at some point you will find your direction, and with that, empower yourself to do what you need to do.

Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.

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