2.5 A vicious cycle

From the transcript of my undergraduate studies, anyone would have guessed I was a mediocre student. My marks were in the average. After three years of studies, I lagged considerably behind the schedule with my study programme.
Despite all that, I never considered myself dull. On the contrary, I liked to think I was quick in grasping concepts. I often found myself catching the meaning of the lecturer’s words with ease. I enjoyed attending many lectures: understanding new concepts and ideas made me feel elated. Classes were very large, with hundreds of students. Occasionally I would sit in the rear of the room, among the less interested part of the audience, sharing their boredom and dejection. Other times instead, I would advance to the first rows, and stuck around the small group of outstanding students, those handful over hundreds, admired and even feared by the others for their unmatched brightness and and unforgiving sharpness. I liked to be among them. They were terribly enthusiastic about everything, and used to discuss all topics at length in the corridors, at pubs, anywhere. They were indefatigable workers. Boredom never touched them. They were simply exuberant. They saw opportunities everywhere. They discussed the power of ideas or how to start a company. By hanging around them, intellectual challenges presented continuously. Their exuberance was contagious, and I shared their enthusiasm.

Yet, exuberance is not all. When facing an exam sheet, more than enthusiasm and intuition, discipline is what makes the difference. The discipline to prepare myself thoroughly on the subject is what I had still to learn. On the exam day, those topics I had not studied would reveal the gaps in my preparation. Insecurity would creep in. Knowing A and B to perfection did not make up for not having considered C. Yet, even with some gaps in the preparation, one can handle and pass exams. What I needed was more trust in the system. I had to learn the power of devotion and discipline to excel in all respects.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, things started to unravel in the wrong way, and before I knew, my university performance was going downhill. As I came to know how exams where conducted, I got terribly disappointed. The procedures during examinations were extremely arbitrary, and marks had a tremendous variation according to chance. A top mark in a written exam, for example, had to be confirmed by an oral colloquium. But if the professor was busy, an ill-disposed assistant, never seen before and never to be seen again, would make his appearance and turn down top marks into fail or low marks. It happened to many of my classmates, and it happened to me too. And it happened more than once. These aleatory procedures were indeed against the official academic regulations, according to which oral examinations had to be carried out by three members of the staff. But those regulations were never put in place. Students had no tools to complain, except that of retaking the exam at a later date. The more determined and stubborn students would indeed often retake exams to compensate ill fortune. But not all had the guts and determination. The struggle against chance soon started to have an impact on me, especially on a subtle unconscious level. Rationally I knew that perseverance and constant effort would prevail, that one bad mark could be fixed by other good ones. I knew that in the end the good student prevail over chance. But the repeating of unfortunate blows, inaccuracies, petty disputes over marks, and the contemptuous attitude of professors progressively undermined my trust in the system. Although I recognised that doubled effort and determination would take me through, a listless attitude and demotivation started pervading my days. My effort would double, but my belief in the effort would halve. My enthusiasm was faltering. In addition to that, as my marks got lower, lectures, who would frequently enquire students on their average marks, would appear more and more unreachable. I often felt being treated with lack of respect, or being dismissed because of my marks.

My exuberant friends of the first years had successfully applied for scholarships abroad, and left. I started devoting myself more and more unwillingly to my studies. I struggled on my books. No matter how much I studied, my mind was unfocused. I drifted away continuously. I did not believe anymore in the educational function of the university. I didn’t believe I was leading anywhere. My effort was now aiming at gaining the degree, the piece of paper. My marks got worse, my dreams of excellence were far gone, far as those brilliant students who went away. I had entered a vicious circle.

In that period, not all was gloomy and sad. When I had no faith in the university, I cultivated a number of other interests. I started playing guitar and improved very quickly. I even made new friends among professional musicians, spent hours in recording studios. I took up the hobby of photography. I read a lot, and wrote poems which I would share with equally minded young “artists”. Without being fully aware, my desire for success and appreciation was causing a change in my interests that shifted further and further from my university courses. Whereas university would give me a feeling of inadequacy and oppression, my hobbies gave me satisfaction.

Yet, my attempts to find an escape in hobbies were risky. I was not a professional musician, nor a photographer or a poet. Those fields take years of dedication. I was simply a student who, as many other classmates back then, had been demoralised and inhibited. My university education had become a battle. Me against the power of lecturers and what I convinced myself was a hideous system. Perhaps I shared some responsibility in this, but I now know that those academics who treat students with scorn, or express careless judgements with disdain and derision, fail miserably in their educational task. Whilst their task is to stimulate the intelligence and desire of knowledge of all students, they instil insecurity and dislike for their subjects. They cause remarkable damage to the lives of their students by dismantling their self-esteem, choking their enthusiasm, and seriously compromising their chances of success. I was surely meant to be one of those unfulfilled personalities, an enthusiastic teenager turned into a despondent, languid adult. But something very lucky and unexpected happened to me. Something that saved me from a mediocre future, and drastically changed my life.


2.6 A virtuous cycle

Escape. That’s the idea that loomed at one point into my mind. But how? Dropping off university was my last option. It smelled too much of failure. An escape was maybe going abroad for a study exchange. Those few exceptional students I had known in my first year had already left. For me, it was more difficult. The opportunities of study exchange abroad are normally given to the best students with high marks, and so I never felt comfortable applying. Not only had I little chances, but the system had made me believe I wasn’t good enough for it. But now I felt cornered. I knew that was my only option left. Against all odds and opinions of lecturers, I applied for studying abroad. Some weeks later, the results of the selections were out. My name did not appear where I was hoping. I found it somewhere else, under the name of a university I had never heard the name of, NTNU, Trondheim, Norway. I went immediately to the international office, and speaking to the lady at the desk, Clara, I learnt that, by a twist of fate, a vacant position remained available at that university. The place was very much in the north of Europe, only a few hundred kilometres under the polar circle, and maybe because it often fell outside most European maps, few European students considered applying there. Nevertheless the university had an excellent reputation. If I still wanted to go, there was a vacant position.

If I wanted to go? No one knows what I felt inside. It was simply terrific. I walked out of the international office my head spinning with excitement. I found a larger map of Europe and I contemplated that wonderful little spot on a Norwegian fjord endlessly for hours and hours. Even before getting there, I was sure that that was the most delightful place in the world. I had viewed many webcams showing the bright summer nights, and I had performed, with a computer flight simulator, many a landing at Vaernes Trondheim airport.

Before my departure, some months of hard work were occupied to plan all the aspects of my exchange. I found much resistance from people in my home university who were mainly concerned that my skills were not sufficient. Most lecturers also objected that the courses abroad were not matching precisely those I was supposed to take at the home university. But the prospective filled me with too much energy to be hindered by those trifles. Eventually I succeeded in obtaining all the necessary agreements and signatures. A few months later, in the middle of the summer, I landed at Vaernes airport in Trondheim, still not believing my luck. All I saw and experienced during those first days is now engraved with much detail in my memory. I remember making my way towards my student accommodation that had been already allocated to me in Arne Bergårds Vei, 18-44, in the Steinan student village. I reached my room late in the afternoon, and loved it immediately. There was a bed that served as a sofa during the day, a large desk, a washbasin, a closet, phone and internet, two windows and, being on the top of a hill, a view on the city and the fjord. I was tired after the trip, and soon I fell sound asleep. When I woke up it was 10:30PM. The sun shone bright into my room. It was a remarkable beginning, and when I think of that day, I find myself engulfed with emotions.

View of Trondheim from Tyholt television tower

Few weeks later, I had already met the people that were to remain my best friends for many years to come. Every minute of every day seemed special. It was clear that my life had taken a sharp turn. But it was the university that gave me the biggest chance of all. I noticed immediately that lecturers were remarkably friendly, and would speak to me kindly. Once a professor even held a door open for me, which nearly shocked me: in my previous university professors were shutting doors quickly not to let noxious student walk into their corridors. On the contrary here professors were easy to talk to, after the lectures, or at any time. The doors of their offices were often open. They spoke kindly to me, showing consideration and attention as if I were an important person. At first I was baffled, were they ignoring what a hopeless and worthless student I was? This was a new experience, to feel relaxed, comfortable and at ease inside university walls.

Even with the renewed motivations I had at university, I did not forsake my role of exchange student concerned mainly with socialising and partying. I had dozens of friends who would call at any time of day or night. It was difficult not to go out nearly every night, and countless barbecues were organised to enjoy every warm day before the winter. I found a music shop in the city centre, the “Tre-Fire-Fem”, and bought an exquisite Landola acoustic guitar that I often played with friends. This is one of the most important objects I still possess, and even now its sounds move me deeply.

When the first term was over, I discovered that exams were surprisingly pleasant to take. Procedures were highly standardised and all possible effort was devoted to make exams fair and equal for all. I did not find tricks in exams, and I was excited to fill in the exams sheets and answer the questions. Shortly after, I found that my marks were getting surprisingly high. Confidence started to build up again. This initial success led to take university even more seriously in the second term. I went on partying and seeing friends, but now the university was a serious thing, and I studied with enthusiasm and concentration. When the year was over, and all the exchange students were supposed to go home, for a moment I saw a dream fading. The dread of going back loomed on the horizon, like dark clouds over the shining fjord. But now I was too bold and proactive. My energy tank was overflowing, and I felt that luck was on my side. I applied again. To stay. I had heard that there was a special agreement between my home university and the new one, thanks to which I could complete my degree abroad. My application was approved. From an exchange student, I became a regular student. This meant I was to complete my degree abroad, never to go back again. I felt as happy as if I had won a lottery. And indeed I had. I had entered a virtuous cycle. Once more, this changed my life forever.

When I think back of those events, I wonder how it is possible that a twist of fate can turn a normal life into an exciting adventure. How is it possible that a poor student suddenly becomes a good one, as it had happened to me? I now think that the performance and results of someone depend greatly on whether one believes in what one is doing. Because we believe in something, we do things that would not be otherwise possible. Because we believe, we have unlimited resources, energy, and exuberance. Excitement, motivations and happiness can change the most listless student into the brightest of all. My academic records show precisely that.