By Margaret Zheng
One day after school, I happened to overhear a conversation between a sophomore and freshman I somewhat knew. The freshman had asked for general advice about how to navigate her first year of high school. Eager to give counsel, the sophomore answered that she should be sure to get involved in clubs, especially those for which she might eventually seek a leadership role, and to sign up for some volunteer opportunities since “colleges like to see that.”
Just then, the sophomore had to answer a phone call. I, sensing that the freshman was not excited by the sophomore’s advice, took the opportunity to assure the young student, “It isn’t all about college -- high school’s a time to explore yourself.”
“Yes,” she responded, “explore before going to college.”
Out of curious daring, or daring curiosity, I then asked her, “Is college something you’re interested in, or is just something expected of you?”
Turns out, she personally did not feel any need to attend college -- she, after all, aspired to be a farmer, one who plows and sows and harvests so that we may eat. Now, in her case, college may in fact help her greatly in her dream -- say, if she were to attend Penn State’s School of Agriculture, or more unconventionally, the deeply environmental College of the Atlantic (where all students major in Human Ecology but study it through various disciplinary approaches, from literature to mathematics to farming & food systems). But still I wonder, how often are we so brave or introspective as to ask not where or for what to go to college, but rather why at all?
If you know me to any degree, you probably are now wondering, why I of all people would ask such a question. You may see me as an ambitious achiever, a righteous student, one who has so much in store for her via the expected college path. Why, the question shouldn’t be if I shall go to college, but rather, to which Ivy League school.
Rest assured that though I heartily disdain blind worship of the prestigious Ivy League eightsome (which, may I mention, got their title simply from their athletic conference), I do intend to attend college, and indeed, an Ivy League school is on my application list, among other institutions that excite me.
Why? A host of reasons: because my parents said so, because my teachers implied so, because I crave to learn, because I so desperately need to get OUT of my home and my neighborhood and this public school thing so to be finally free to develop and rely upon my own self -- if that fickle time-blind self learns to be reliable, that is. But really, even I have no inherent need to go to college.
There are plenty of valid reasons to aim for college, one of which is to get a good job and earn a good income. That may rightfully be very important for you, yet the common wisdom that college grads are getting all the jobs these days is not as clear-cut as we would wish. There is certainly a chance that with an undergrad or even graduate degree you will still be lost in the job market, heaving debt upon your shoulders as you seek any work whatsoever to pay your rent.
And according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 20% percent of “good jobs” still only require a high school diploma, and 24% percent require only some college, an associate’s degree, or other type of “middle-skills” job training. Maybe you don’t care -- after all, college is an experience just as much as a potential job credential, and perhaps you don’t take to a job in manufacturing or “skilled services.” But...think about it.
In a world of opportunities, there are wonderfully many paths that one could stride besides the well-worn trail of college. You could start a business, attend a trade school or apprenticeship program, join the military, volunteer for AmeriCorps, hone your craft as an artist, become a healer in yoga and holistic medicine, go hike the Appalachian Trail.
Or if you’re just not feeling like college now and want a break after 12+ years of schooling, you could take a gap year. There are really cool programs like UnCollege and LEAPYEAR that even provide you college credit for a life-transforming year of travel, internships, and personal or spiritual growth, but you could also design your own hiatus from brick-and-mortar education.
One person I know spent her gap year hosting workshops at high schools across America to hear what students had to say about their education -- and now as a college student, she continues her work in youth empowerment as the Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Student Voice.
If you do decide that college is for you, there are still a plethora of options to explore, beyond the schools that you always hear North students and teachers talking about.
Have you heard of Goddard College, a low-residency school in Vermont where you decide what and how you will learn? Or the Wayfinding Academy in Oregon, a two-year program that upturns the traditional college system, guiding you in discovering your capabilities and passions before immersing you in real-life internships and experiences to begin living your purpose? Look up “unconventional colleges” and you’ll get a long list of many other quirky schools that don’t just prepare you for an economy, but rather for life.
Not everyone wants to try something daring or offbeat, and probably not everyone should. But perhaps you do. If so, explore your options. Your life is yours, so set out upon your own path and find what brings you value.