As a 22-year-old who could easily pass for 19 on most days, I am constantly asked, “So… are you in school?” For the first few years after high school, having to answer “No” caused me extreme anxiety. I was intensely worried that people would consider me a deadbeat, lazy, unintelligent, unmotivated or worse. So I would say, “No… Not right now, at least. I know I’ll go back eventually but…” and proceed to tell people the long story of how I moved out the day after I graduated, had to take a semester off to work, had to adjust to being completely financially independent and how I soon realized that working full-time and going to school full-time wasn’t an logistical option… for now, at least. This always resulted in uninterested head nods and changes of conversation, because likely the person only asked out of small talk and really didn’t care either way if I was a student. However, my feeling the need to validate my lack of a college education to everyone who asked still remained. I even managed to convince myself for a couple of years that college was ultimately where I would end up, because, in all honesty, I couldn’t imagine society or certain people around me accepting any alternative. I was 18 then and I was the only person in my group of friends who didn’t go to school. I had been an all A’s student, got extremely high SAT scores and had been enrolled in all honors and AP classes my entire life. College seemed the natural fit. The problem? I didn’t want to go. It didn’t feel like the right decision for me.
I had absolutely zero desire to spend money I didn’t have on classes I didn’t care about and wouldn’t ever apply to jobs I actually wanted to do. I didn’t want to waste months of my senior year working on scholarship applications, because my parents made too much money to qualify for government assistance but too little to fund my studies themselves. I didn’t want years of debt payoff ahead of me. Sure, I applied to UT, because that’s what you do when you grow up in Texas and spend your childhood listening to stories about how great Austin is. Hook ‘em! How exciting?! Right? Well, for some, maybe. But for me, the idea of the college experience didn’t excite me. I didn’t want to live in a 10×10 room for two years with a person I’d never met. I didn’t want to move away from my family so soon. I didn’t want a lot of the things I felt like I was supposed to want at that time in my life. So I started thinking about what I did want. To work hard, get my own apartment, a job I liked, gain independence and more than anything—freedom. To me college didn’t signify opportunity; rather I pictured the chains of years of study, choosing a major, and debt holding me down. I wanted to act, to write, be in the entertainment industry. I wanted to be an artist or an entrepreneur, to grow beyond the cage I felt like school had always kept me in. I knew my potential, and bouncing from one sheltered institution to another didn’t seem exciting to me at all. But as an intelligent, logical person I knew the facts: College-educated people make it in the world and uneducated people don’t. Or that’s what they drill into you from the start.
The problem with that is that it isn’t necessarily true, and I am so lucky to be one of the few people with parents who actually took the time to ask me what I wanted instead of telling me. I’ll never forget the day I finally and reluctantly decided to enroll in a few community college classes after being waitlisted by UT. My dad went with me to registration, and in the waiting room the click-clack of the keys on computers as people selected their classes was the soundtrack to my growing anxiety. I felt like I was in line to jump off a cliff. “YOU DON’T WANT TO DO THIS,” one part of me shouted. “BUT IF YOU DON’T, YOU’RE A LOSER,” another answered back. My dad sensed things weren’t OK. He’s always been able to read me. He said, “You know what, I’m hungry. Let’s go get lunch.” Now? I’m only in the middle of deciding my future. “There’s a Chili’s in this parking lot. Let’s go.” So we left and I was never more thankful for a plate of Baby Back Ribs in my life. Over that lunch we discussed why I wanted to go to school, if I wanted to at all and what it was I really wanted to do in life. I only wish more kids out there were able to have open discussions with their parents like I did with Dad that day, because that lunch at Chili’s saved me in a lot of ways. Without that talk, I would have gone against my intuition and forced myself to go to school. Knowing myself, I would have succumbed to the illusion that post-degree you automatically get a job and a life. I would have gone into nursing or something “guaranteed,” instead of taking the risk that ultimately resulted in getting me to the wonderful place I am today. Over some skillet-queso and Dr. Pepper, it was decided that I should do what I wanted and trust myself that I would be successful no matter what. The entertainment industry didn’t rely on degrees for employment. All I had to do what work hard and prove that I was worth it.
And I did. These last four years I’ve spent as a young adult in the real world have taught me more than college classes ever could. I worked my way up the ladder, and continue to do so, knowing that I am where I am regardless of not having a degree. In the last six months I’ve seen where all of my friends who went to school have ended up, degree in hand, and see that they are no different than me. Some of them have great jobs and some of them don’t. Some are on their way to achieving their dreams and some aren’t. The point is—the degree isn’t always the deciding factor. The person is. Work ethic and motivation got all of us where we are, no matter what road we took to get here. I applaud graduates, and concede that there are professions out there for which you have to go to college. Lord knows I don’t want a doctor who never went to school operating on me! But I think there is something to be said about on the job experience and knowing what you want and how to get it that is too undervalued in this day and age. I am happy with my decision, and no longer fear telling people I didn’t go to school. Because I know I made the right decision for me. I get to work in the industry I love, write and edit for this fantastic blog and have a bright, bright future ahead of myself—all things that are far more important to me than whether or not I have a framed piece of paper from my local university.
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Hi! I just read this post and I wanted to tell you how inspired I am. As someone who just graduated high school in May and had no idea what to do with her life, I really appreciate your story. I’d always wanted to go to college, but the practicality and logistics aren’t there and from reading others’ stories, I see that it’s not a degree is not the master key it’s supposed to be. I decided to start a blog because of my lack of direction, and I just wanted to thank you for your post.
Thank you for reading, and I am so glad that you enjoyed the piece. Congratulations on your blog! Would love to check it out sometime!
Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m currently a freshman at a university and I’m totally not feeling right here. Thank you for showing me that it’s okay not to follow what everyone else is doing and encouraging me to follow my intuition.
I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment! Believe me, I understand the feeling of being unsure and uncomfortable in terms of college. Remember that you are capable of anything and what is most important is following your heart and being true to yourself. Best of luck!
You are so right! I’m 29 now got pushed into college by a system that we have in this country. After 2 years I had enough. At age 22 I got lucky and got a union job. I’ve refined my skills over time and could walk in many industrial plants and go to work and I still make more than most people I graduated with by far… Point is the trades were for me and if my high school had presented it not as something “losers” do but a real option I wouldn’t have wasted 2 years and all that tuition
Hi! My name is Taylor. I’m currently a freshman Directing major. It’s an intense major. BFA that requires 128 credits to graduate. I love this college, and I love the idea of having a piece of paper that says “I’m qualified to direct” but I feel like I have so much pressure on me to do this, I don’t know if it’s worth it. I’m spending $30,000 a year to learn in a controlled environment what I could be learning in the real world. I know there are wonderful advantages to going to college, but I’m having second thoughts. Theatre is a cutthroat world and I am concerned that if I really want to make a living on it, it would be best for me to have a degree. But I’m so overwhelmed by money and social pressures. I just want to do theatre. I want to live theatre. Not student debt. Do you have any advice for me?
As a guy who was not into a traditional four year degree college, my experience in a Community College at one point was bad, but I’m back in it and doing the Community College thing again to be a Welder. Briefly I worked for Walmart for a year, went to Orlando and then to India on a two month mission’s trip, I returned home, worked at a warehouse, fast food even, another retailer, then another warehouse, a year went by, then I decided to go back to Community College, good decision.
Thanks for this, Kirstie. After almost two years of the classic 4-year B.A. program I’m beginning to wonder if I’m wasting my time. I’m losing patience with having to go to class along with a huge student body that doesn’t want to be here, yet will still graduate with the exact same worthless piece of paper that I will. It’s hard work but it isn’t worth it if literally everyone else will graduate on the exact same level as me. I hate the negative environment, I hate the watered-down coursework made easy for whiners who shouldn’t be here but think they have to, and I’m discouraged by the enormous stacks of diplomas I see on stage at every commencement. Why do people think college will help anymore? How does anyone get a job when literally everyone else has the same education? I have a lot of thinking to do. I just want to be a musician. Do I stick with it or do I make my own way?
I understand how you feel, John, as do many others out there. I think the choice is a deeply personal one and can only be made when you block out the white noise of the familial and societal voices that scream what choice you “should” or “shouldn’t” make. Best of luck to you in finding the choice that is ultimately most right for -you-, and know that regardless what you do, you’re not alone in the feeling the way you do.
Wow, thanks for sharing your story. This is exactly what I needed to see right now.
Thank you so much for this, it really kept me going. :)
How did you get to where you are today. I just decided to not continue college and accepted a job as a sales associate at a spa. I love health and holistic healing and want to grow into the industry. Any advice?
Reading your experience felt like taking a deep breath of fresh air. And this being I’ve just graduated high school and am already suffering from, “what now” syndrome, a quick breather is exactly what I needed. Thank you.