Many high school leavers feel under pressure to meet certain goals by a certain time, but one Wollongong graduate says it doesn't have to be that way.
Rhys Smith started a university degree twice before, once in 2014 and again in 2015, before taking a four-year break due to anxiety.
Fast forward to this year, the University of Wollongong (UOW) graduate has been awarded a medal for his honours degree.
"You've got to do what works for you and there is no right way to get a degree," Mr Smith said.
In 2014 he started a classics history degree at the Australian National University, before switching to a degree in nursing and paramedicine at a different university the next year.
"I lasted a year [in my first degree], but lots and lots of really bad anxiety panic attacks. I just couldn't sit down and do any work, and that was just really, really debilitating and terrifying," he said.
He then became very sick a couple of years after starting his second degree and moved back to the South Coast to live with his parents.
"I wasn't able to work, I could honestly barely leave the house. I was just so, so anxious. It got pretty dark for me," he said.
One in seven Australians are currently experiencing an anxiety condition, according to Beyond Blue.
The turning point for the Wollongong resident was being diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and receiving treatment.
After taking a break prioritising his mental health with a support network, he went back to university, graduating in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts (Dean's Scholar) with a major in history and minor in philosophy.
"I remember when I got my undergrad, my Bachelor of Arts, it was just the digital one, the digital degree that comes in your email and when I opened it up I just sobbed," he said.
"It just felt so ridiculously unlikely and also amazing that I actually finished a degree. I just never thought I'd do that."
Once he completed his bachelor degree he continued his university study by completing a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in history.
His honours thesis focused on how masculinity and colonisation intersect in the far-right movement in former colonies in Africa.
On Tuesday, April 11, he was awarded a University Medal from the University of Wollongong with first-class honours in his degree.
Mr Smith said it's important for students to have the courage to do what they need to do, whether that is, for example, deferring university or studying part-time.
"It's important to say like I'm very, very lucky in the support that I've had and I know a lot of people face structural barriers that I haven't," he said.
For Mr Smith, heading back to university to study a topic he is passionate about was important.
"Coming back and doing what I loved and pursuing my passion was just so critical to doing well and feeling like I'm thriving and I'm so much happier than if I tried and forced myself to do accounting or nursing or something that I didn't actually love just so I get a job."
The 27-year-old started a job straight after finishing his undergraduate degree. He worked at the University of Wollongong library and assisted with student support while studying his honours degree part-time.
"You're probably going to do better doing something you like and are actually good at, even if it might not be technically as employable as if you did something else," Mr Smith said.
He is now moving to Melbourne, to travel, work, and enjoy some reading.
The graduate said he isn't finished with university study just yet, with the possibility of a PhD on the horizon.
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