Sparks – a look at creative spaces on campus

This week, UCC sent out an email that does seem ever so slightly out of place. It doesn’t take a genius to find out how, considering the subject line reads “Drop Out & Start Up”. It takes a little while to understand why the university would drive its students away.

As someone who’s been floating alongside the startup community for a long time, I’m not entirely sure if that’s great advice. Not everyone is going to be the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Not everyone has great ideas the first time around. For every college dropout story of success there are a million examples of reasons not to take the same road.

Sending the universal message to “Drop out & start up” at once implies a lack of courage in the university system, and it’s not exactly thrilling to see that the university is making this grand gesture. It’s worse to see it come from the very top.


[stag_dropcap font_size=”40px” style=”normal”]R[/stag_dropcap]Reading a little further, we see the origin of the message comes from an interview by Silicon Republic with the college president, Dr. Michael Murphy, on the creation of the new Blackstone Launchpad, an new space on campus for entrepreneurs. He explains “It is designed to provide walk-in support to any student or graduate who has an idea and to mentor them and encourage some of them to drop out.” and develops the concept further to explain that people who leave college to explore these ideas should “be encouraged to do that at an early stage — because they can always return to education.”

Starting a startup and pursuing it full-time is a risky and expensive process. By no means is your return to education always guaranteed; in fact, no safety net exists at all. Brian Caulfield, head of the Irish Venture Capital Association, stated in light of the new Budget that “Ireland [is] a good place to be a large, mature, high tech business, and a truly dreadful place to be an entrepreneur… and in this budget very little has changed.”

UCC’s message to students to “drop out & start up” is to encourage students to go without a degree as it becomes necessary in the workplace, and to thrust themselves head-first into almost-certain failure. Indeed, according to a Startup Genome report, 92% of startups fail, and many fail because they attempt to grow their scale beyond their means.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

— Samuel Beckett

[stag_dropcap font_size=”40px” style=”normal”]F[/stag_dropcap]Fail again, fail better is the goal. Learn from failures, and adapt from them, and learn how to potentially find some greater success the next time around. If UCC wants to grow the next generation of innovators, it needs to encourage that sort of persistence and iterative thinking. After all, isn’t that what university is for?

University gives us a platform to engage and develop our skills while offering us a safety net at the same time

Going to university is not about sitting in rooms being lectured at. That simply isn’t worth the monetary value, especially when so many of the facilities and resources that form significant parts of the university experience feel like monolithic slow-moving bureaucracies.

We connect to a global database of the world’s knowledge on a daily basis. And more and more of us each day are taking Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs for short) in our own time as a form of learning. Open Source Society have prepared a list of courses promising a “path to a free self-taught education in Computer Science”. Online, one blog details one man’s process to completing MIT’s four year CS course in one year. And it’s easy to see this sort of movement progressing far beyond computer science.

The purpose of university has often been stated as teaching how to learn, how to best develop and adapt to the information that surrounds us. However, the reasons not to drop out expand far beyond the academic. University gives us a platform to engage and develop our skills while offering us a safety net at the same time. It gives us free time to learn and explore within the context of societies and student organisations, or use our spare time to follow creative pursuits while this youth we hear so much about still lives within us.


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UCC Music Society’s “Coffee & Jam” event is an example of a fantastic way to promote creativity on campus.
[stag_dropcap font_size=”40px” style=”normal”]M[/stag_dropcap]My personal experience in college has given me access to platforms that would have been completely out of my reach had I dropped out when I first thought about forming a startup. In the time since, I’ve entered Startup Weekend twice helping others bring their ideas to life, and had working prototypes developed at the end of each weekend. I’ve started getting involved with the Enactus society where each week people bring forward and work on their ideas for positive social change. I’ve gotten involved with Motley, and through the new website helped to spread fantastic stories and articles written by students. I’ve brought more students in to get involved with my radio show on UCC 98.3FM and encouraged more people to get what they can out of broadcasting. I’ve taken on a role in UCC Netsoc trying to change the shape of the society and celebrate the creative aspects of technology; encouraging students to learn and to build and to hack away out of joy for creating and for exploration.

The best student organisations target that same joy. The new Music Society gathered in the Fresco Bistro under the Glucksman for their first edition of Coffee & Jam; an informal jam session designed to bring musicians of all sorts together and encourage a little bit of serendipity. I lack all semblance of musical talent, but it was a joy to watch, and to observe that particular spark that happens when good ideas are given a space to develop and grow. Events like this are a unique opportunity to watch creativity in motion.


[stag_dropcap font_size=”40px” style=”normal”]G[/stag_dropcap]Good ideas don’t have to change the world; they can exist on the smallest of scales and do their tiny little bit to improve the world around us without us having to live up to the Steve Jobs personality cult. Good ideas can also definitely be worth following up on without them being worth any money or being scalable to the whole world beyond.

The “drop out & start up” message comes almost as an insult when some of the best and brightest ideas in the university seem to be ignored by the people on top.

It’s why I’m a little worried about how our university treats creative spaces. While the development of the Blackstone Launchpad and the continued efforts to encourage students to embrace startup culture and follow their ideas are definitely good things, it’s worth embracing creative spaces that enrich the university experience in other ways — especially as we look to the construction of the new Student Hub.

Ideally, the message coming from the university shouldn’t be “drop out & start up”, but “let’s see what you can do”. To encourage the best possible efforts from students to further their ideas within the university environment. To give them the opportunity to try, and maybe fail, but overall to learn, to try harder, to fail better.

The “drop out & start up” message comes almost as an insult when some of the best and brightest ideas in the university seem to be ignored by the people on top. When the college magazine’s office has to worry about mice running around, the campus radio station is tucked neatly out of sight, and some societies often struggle to get promotion and notice while others thrive. When it seems that the best ideas that are struggling to come to light aren’t given the space they need while work continues at pace in other spots.

It’s time we phased out “drop out & start up” for a better message. Something a bit more encouraging, a bit more inclusive.

It’s time we strived to make sure more people feel welcomed and accepted and involved in campus creative spaces.

It’s time that we encouraged the little sparks, and see what shines.