It is 10pm on a cool September evening in Bologna, an Italian city that is home to the oldest university in the world. I am standing in the dimly-lit entrance to a convent guesthouse, looking up into the darkness at the top of a large stone staircase. “C’è un letto (Is there a bed)?” I enquire. The figure at the top of the stairs shakes her head and I am utterly lost. I have nowhere to sleep tonight.

Two weeks later I am in a very, very long queue to what I think is the university registration office (I’m too shy to ask). I have a scrap of paper in my hand which gives me permission to enrol for this year, and 300,000 lire ($250) in cash to pay for the term. After about an hour the queue hasn’t moved at all, and I lose my nerve. I turn around and head back to the apartment I now share with two Italian strangers. Other than admiring the architecture and frequenting the popular Irish bar, that’s the last encounter I have with the ancient, much esteemed University of Bologna.

Twisting tales of ‘lost’ students

I never saw myself as a retention statistic, but somewhere on a university enrolment record I am missing in action, another international student who just didn’t turn up. In an era before student surveys and automated check-in emails, no one called to chase me up. And let’s be honest – university was so cheap back then, no one was losing sleep about a few empty seats in the lecture hall.

If asked, I might have given one of many plausible reasons we attribute to ‘lost’ students – too busy, got a job, changed my mind. The real reasons, however, are complex and compounding: navigating strange systems, being an introvert; the shock of being (almost) homeless; intense loneliness and the contrast with my social, structured UK uni experience; the pressure of doing it all in a language I had only been learning a couple of years.

Authentic ‘retention’ stories like these are not well captured, analysed or shared in higher education. They are messy, and don’t offer simple solutions or easy answers – but that’s where complexity theory comes in.

Complexity theory is a theory of change, evolution and adaptation, often in the interests of survival […]. It breaks with straightforward cause-and-effect models, linear predictability, and a reductionist, atomistic, analytically-fragmented approach to understanding phenomena, replacing them with organic, non-linear and holistic approaches, in which relations within interconnected networks are the order of the day.

Morrison, 2006

Could this theory help us to embrace gloriously muddy topics like retention, and offer ways to both accept it, and make sense of it? More selfishly, could complexity make sense of one of my own academic ‘failure’ moments?

Gaining clarity with complexity

It wasn’t until I was interviewing former international students earlier this year that I realised how different things could have been. 10-20 years after they studied in Australia, individuals from South America, Europe and Asia reflected on the experiences that helped and hindered them. As they told their stories, I used complexity theory as a framework to understand their experiences and explore four themes that connected them: systems, networks, adaptation and agency/ emergence.

You can read more about their stories in a longer report on Identities lost and found, but for now, let me illustrate with a few examples from that strange year in Bologna.

It’s the systems, stupid!

I wasn’t the first student to struggle with unfamiliar systems, and I won’t be the last. Among the many sources of confusion were:

  • University systems – I simply had no idea how things worked and no-one to ask (websites were only just a thing in 1999 and of limited use).
  • Accommodation systems – I was told to walk down Via Zamboni, a popular student zone in the city, and look for homemade posters advertising rooms for rent. I tore off the phone number strips, viewed some horrendous options and took ages to realise that giving people ‘sad eyes’ doesn’t get you picked as a flatmate (even for a terrible room).
  • Work and employment systems – When I found a job, I was paid by cheque but didn’t have a local bank account. Not all banks could cash the cheque. Cue more sad eyes and intimidating conversations with suspicious Italian bankers.

The list goes on, from legal and regulatory systems (who knew you had to register to let the City know you were there?), economic, social, and cultural. As the students I interviewed pointed out, these experiences can add up, making you more anxious and self-conscious with each encounter.

Girl, disconnected

Complexity theory surfaces connections between things (it’s what makes it so complex) and it’s no surprise that the loss of connection is a massive theme in international education. I had spent 2 years at my UK university forming new friendships and assumed I would easily find my tribe in Italy. Several months in, I hit an all-time low when found myself back from Christmas break and completely alone in the city. I had no mobile phone, there was no social media and email was a bus ride away in the centre of town, but I’m still not convinced that digital connections have made such experiences much easier today.

Adapting to survive and thrive

Given time, we can usually adapt to new systems and experiences, whether intentionally or not. Complexity theory recognises many forms of adaptation and the students I interviewed had felt themselves adapting too, finding a rhythm and ways of coping with academic expectations, or getting used to different teaching styles.

Whilst I never made it to uni, I adapted in other ways, becoming a night owl to accommodate friends who didn’t meet until 9 or 10pm for dinner, and accepting that arriving half an hour late was not the height of rudeness here. Some adaptations are also rewarding, like realising you’ve forgotten a word in your own language and finding just the right word in Italian. When my friends visited and came to watch me teach, they made fun of how animated and ‘Italian’ my hand gestures had become – and I knew I had turned a corner.

Finding agency and emergence

‘Emergence’ is one of the less tangible aspects of complexity theory, but for me it encapsulates the unpredictable outcomes where no two journeys can be the same, even when they start from the same place. For those former students I interviewed, the process of finding their agency and identity varied wildly from person to person, each triggered by a unique set of circumstances, choices and opportunities.

In Italy, deciding not to enrol in university opened a door I never expected, forcing me to find work and embrace a new identity as an English teacher. I didn’t know it then, but that decision set me on the road to a lifelong engagement with education.

What does complexity teach us about dropping out?

For me, this was relatively low-stakes. I was there to learn Italian, so whether it happened at university, work or by living with Italians, it didn’t really matter. For others, however, university credits, grades and academic reputations were at stake. Parents made sacrifices, relationships were put on pause, and home was more than a 2-hour flight away.

Complexity theory is relatively new for me, but the more I explore it, the more ways it seems to apply to the headscratching challenges that abound in higher education, including lost enrolments and retention challenges. If you’re curious, I found Mark Mason’s introductory talk Complexity Theory and its Relationship to Educational Change to be a useful primer for how it applies in education.

Next time you wonder about that student who never turned up, take a moment: could there be more to their story than simply ‘dropping out’?

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