Words of Advice from a Two-Time College Dropout

Graduation Cupcakes!

High school graduation parties can be cool, but what if life seems all downhill from there?

Like anyone with a working Internet connection, from time to time I find myself completing online surveys about various companies or products, whether for fun, for freebies, or in hopes that the survey will include an essay question that you can use as a soapbox to unleash a thousand-word tirade about the last time their services ticked you off and ruined your day. “That’ll show ’em!” you think to yourself as your carefully crafted vitriol is forwarded to the survey company and assimilated into the results database containing hundreds of thousands of other surveys, someday to be skimmed by a distracted HR rep who might raise an eyebrow at your poison-pen screed, if you’re lucky.

Every such survey has the obligatory section whose questions are designed for demographic pigeonholing of your results. I don’t mind revealing my ever-advancing age, blissful marital status, or conspicuously dull bloodline. My least favorite question is always, “What is the highest level of education you have completed?” It sounds simple and uncomplicated, especially if you earned a degree. Sometimes I wonder if those who attended graduate school and/or who hold multiple degrees receive a little bonus from the survey company in return, to thank them for bolstering the results with certified demographic classiness.

Mine is the humble ignominy that requires me to check “Some college”. It’s always a multiple-choice question, never a write-in field, so you can’t fall back on the standard glib answers such as “school of hard knocks” or “school of life”, joke answers such as “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” or “Hogwarts”, or even obscure answers such as “School of Fish”, in hopes that someone in the survey company will agree how cool a song “3 Strange Days” was. Every time I spot the bland, undecorated phrase “Some college” on a survey, I wince for a second and have to shake off the reminder of a young adulthood that wandered astray.

Every time someone asks me why I quit college, I can usually give a different answer every time. Partly that’s because I had the nerve to quit twice — two different colleges in the space of three years. Partly that’s because I can’t point to any one mitigating factor in either situation that my mind seized upon at the time and said, “This is all the excuse I need to walk away.” No one expects me to answer them in essay form (a geek reflex I can suppress if I must), so I spare them the soliloquy, select one factor at random from either experience, and distill it into a soundbite that provides narrative closure for the unfunny detour in our small talk.

If I had to advise a college student today how not to walk in my footsteps from two decades ago, I’d proffer the following meager tips, some of which sound so, so simple at first glance. If only they had been.

Be absolutely, positively certain of what you want to do. In my first college stint, I lasted 2½ years as an English major. In high school, without much direction or guidance outside the voices in my head, I decided I wanted a career in publishing. I actually wanted to write in some manner, but that didn’t sound like full-time employment with benefits. “Publishing” or “editing” sounded to me like a step in the right general direction, one that would offer insurance and pension in exchange for doing what I wanted to do. I sensed my objective might need reexamining every time I told someone my major, because one of two responses was guaranteed inevitable: either “What do you plan to do with that?” (read: “Are you sure you thought that through?”) or “Oh, planning to be a teacher?” (Um, no. By which I meant NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE.) After a while I lost confidence in my choice, especially after seeing how much more intellectual the other English majors were.

In my second stint, I lasted a semester-‘n’-a-half as a Computer Science major. It sounded more economically practical and it had computers in it. What sounded like “win-win” to me turned out ho-hum. The initial classes taught practical, fundamental concepts underlying how computers do what they do — binary code, flowcharts, and other joy-killing concepts. They also taught us programming in C++ language. Both drove me nuts and pushed me well beyond the borders of my attention span.

Whatever your major, make sure you chose it wisely, and that you’re prepared to make something of it for the next several decades, freely and cheerfully.

Balance your schedule with some semblance of common sense. First college stint: I took 16-18 credit-hours per semester while working 40-45 hours per week. Second college stint: nine credit-hours per semester while working 45-50 hours per week. Two different recipes for burnout yielded identical results.

Remember choosing more years of homework was your idea. Maybe you thought high school was a bummer. You went because your parents made you. Homework was a total drag that you did only if someone pointed a metaphorical gun to your head or threatened to toss your gaming console out the window if you didn’t shape up and do something with your life. So you put in the minimum effort to skate by, keep your parents off your back, shut your teachers up, and nab the diploma at the end of your twelve-year sentence as if that in and of itself was the one thing that mattered.

College is optional. It was, generally speaking, your idea. It required you to sign forms indicating that you consciously want to be there and are prepared to do what’s asked of you so that you can eventually reach your life’s next level. You, in short, implied willingness to do the assignments given, take the tests as they came, and not scorn them like a Sweathog. If you’re in college and still viewing homework as a burden imposed upon you by The MAN that must be shirked because you’re stuck in that poisonous mindset of “NOBODY TELLS ME WHAT TO DO!” then I’d question why you’re spending a five- or six-digit sum to keep choosing that contentious imposition to be your very lifestyle for four years or more.

After my first two years, I struggled with that. My junior year, I wrote essays at length for the classes I loved most. Some of my best works were for a seminar on literary satire, a.k.a. Best Class Ever. For the other classes that I chose but regretted, I wrote absolutely nothing. I still recall the brief conversation with a World Lit professor willing to tell me to my face with a helpful bluntness that turning in zero essays meant I’d failed World Lit. That was a shocking comedown for a kid who was once valedictorian of his sixth-grade class.

Realize that college professors never use gold-star stickers. Feedback, encouragement, and especially approval were important to me. Teachers in the lower grades were fully equipped and expected to supply all of this as needed. In college, most profs aren’t there to pat you on the head and reassure you that you’re special. If your paper earned an A, the letter grade is all you received from them, no positive reinforcement. If your paper earned a C-minus, the letter grade was all you received from them, no positive reinforcement. If they were generous, you might receive some constructive criticism on the side that you, as a stubborn young adult, would then dismiss because clearly old fogies just didn’t get you.

I had a rough time adjusting to a paradigm of living in which that old reward system didn’t exist. Finding any shred of personal fulfillment required me to develop a vastly different set of criteria after graduating from childhood to adulthood.

Develop a support system — i.e., make one or more friends. When a cast of TV friends transition from high school to college, it always looks easy because their entire clique mutually agrees to attend the exact same college. They have to do this because no TV showrunner wants their Season 4 to be filled with twenty-two straight episodes of people texting or calling each other long-distance. In my version of reality, every single friend I had in high school went to a different college, all in towns far away from here. I started college with zero friends by my side, and made zero friends. At the first school, one particular upperclassman seemed so much friendlier to me than anyone else, and for no logical reason I could sense (we didn’t even have any classes together), I got the impression that one or more professors had become worried about me and assigned him to me as some kind of shepherd/monitor. I didn’t respond well to that.

Every day on campus was spent wallowing in isolation while surrounded by young adults who got along great with each other. They had the advantage of living on campus, which in turn facilitated plenty of opportunities to get to know each other. I had to live at home and commute to school because my scholarships didn’t quite reach far enough to cover housing. I attended one meeting of the school’s “commuter club” in hopes of finding that I wasn’t alone in my unhappiness. As far as I could tell, all the club members knew each other really well and had had plenty of opportunities to get to know each other. How lovely for them, I thought as I sat, silently and unnoticed, and then never returned for a second meeting.

At my second school, I didn’t even bother thinking about friends. I also had an extra level of weirdness because by this time I was a few years older than the other students. Somehow, anticipating the loneliness didn’t ease it much.

That key suggestion again: friends. Find some. Not just the Internet kind you can hold at arm’s length, if you can help it. Sharing the experience is a lot less soul-crushing than trying to bear it alone. Sadly I can’t tell you how to magically create friendships out of solitude and dust bunnies, but if you pick up any tips that work well for introverts, I’m here 24/7 and I’m all ears.

Partying is dumb. It’s my understanding many dropouts can trace their downfall to the discovery of hardcore substance abuse and thorough lack of adult supervision, effectively making the college experience a far more common ruiner of lives than some terminal diseases.

As a shunned loner I knew naught of this heartache, but I mention it here for the sake of completeness. I have uncool, alienating, overwhelmingly minority views on the subject of alcohol in particular that ensure the internet will never throw me a ticker-tape parade, but they also give me bragging rights for a record of zero hangovers, zero blackout episodes, zero DUIs, zero appointments missed due to nights of chugging, and zero Fs earned by living life like an ’80s teen sex comedy.

(Obviously other paragraphs on this page attest that I found plenty of drug-free ways to screw up my life. I shudder to think how much worse I could’ve made things if I’d ever gotten on board with beer, let alone any harder stuff. The mind reels at contemplating those far darker timelines.)

Minimize your personal baggage and major issues. First time around, I was burdened with a badly negotiated car loan and foolish credit card debt that required me to keep working full-time while in college, hence enabling the disaster conditions mentioned above. Second time around, I was a new husband and father, and wasn’t really equipped to handle either role competently, let alone juggle my schoolwork around them. I shouldn’t have been half as surprised when many aspects of my life crashed and burned. There’s a lot to be said for keeping your priorities straight. I wish someone had said any of it to me a lot sooner.

I’m more okay right now that all of the preceding might sound. I’m not as bitter about these failures of mine as I used to be. I don’t spend all my waking moments dwelling on them, like a young Peter Parker thinking several paragraphs to himself in every single issue of Amazing Spider-Man about all the woes that plague him and his fragile Aunt May. I’ve made better choices since then to return somewhat closer to the right track, especially those choices (to say nothing of divine coincidences) that led me down the path to my current wife, beautiful college graduate that she is.

One bonus life lesson took me years to accept:

If you and college do part ways, it’s not the end of the world. Yes, my second failed attempt merely added to the embarrassment and shame, generated far fewer memorable or useful anecdotes, and was an utter waste of four-digit credit card debt. I lived on anyway. A second chance at higher education might work better for you than it did for me. After losing her funding at age 20, my mom got the means and motivation later in life, returned to college, and got her Finance degree when she was fifty years old. For some dropouts, it’s all about rediscovering that drive and waiting for the right timing.

Meanwhile, after my second and seemingly final try, I floundered for some years, muddled listlessly through the rat race, eventually found an escape route to change career tracks, and at a snail’s pace inched toward a way of life where I could find purpose, fulfillment, and a solid benefits package, though not in that order.

Today my old dreams of writing, “publishing” and “editing” are sublimated through this very blog, which can be interpreted as a long-term, self-indulgent hobby or a quixotic seven-year audition reel, depending on whether my attitude in a given day is in half-empty or half-full glass mode. Either way, it’s my way of chasing the same will-‘o’-the-wisp that mesmerized me twenty-nine years ago and convinced me at the very least it was a smart idea to find a life and a calling beyond Mom’s place.

My son was a senior in high school when I wrote the original version of this entry, preparing for the seismic shifts that laid in store for him over the course of his next four years. Like anyone passing through their young adult years, he made mistakes along the way, no matter how much we tried to indoctrinate him in The Way Things Are. My prayer, then and now, was that whenever his mistakes dog him while walking his own path, that he wouldn’t be copying mine. So far, so good, for better or worse.

If nothing else, at least he can complete his online surveys with the confident answer, “College Degree. SO THERE.”

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