Post Secondary Option: What does a “college dropout” have to offer?

I find it so shocking when, in this day and age, I hear people comment on how someone who didn’t pursue college as a post secondary option is “uneducated.”  During the last elections, I lost count of how many times “uneducated” and “does not have a college degree” were inaccurately used interchangeably.

“If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance.  And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.” – Sir Ken Robinson

We have so many examples of highly intelligent and educated people in our community that did not pursue college as a post secondary option for a variety of reasons.  And even though I grew up in the Silicon Valley, no one talked about how some of the biggest influencers were college dropouts.  Instead, “college dropouts” was constantly used negatively.

As educators, it is our responsibility to help students understand they have options. Students are tasked with major decisions at the age of 17 and 18 – and the majority believe they only have one post secondary option.  But college is just one of many post secondary options.  It is a great option for many, and a terrible option for many.  Yet the latter feel immense pressure to pursue college, because of how stigmatized the term, “college dropout” is.

I graduated from a top university.  My partner dropped out from one.   And I can confidently say that the experiences he had as a college dropout were the ones I needed to learn from the most.  Fortunately, he’s a sharer.  And I strongly believe that he’s taught me many of the things that contribute to my success today.

Here are just four of those things:

1. How to actually think critically

I took an Operations Management class during my time at USC.  If you know my fiancé, you know he’s all about ops and efficiency.  As soon as I brought my final home, he wanted to have a look.  Not just a look… he wanted to take it.

I had aced it (93%), but only after taking a semester-long class that required me to memorize lots of formulas.  But I let him take a stab at it – left him alone for 60 minutes (how long the final had taken me to complete).  When I checked back in, he was still working his way through it.  So I gave him a bit more time, suggesting that he could not possibly ace it without knowing all of the formulas.

30 minutes later, he was done.  And he aced it. 100%. I couldn’t believe it. I had him walk me through some of the problems, all of which he approached logically by applying the concepts he had learned through real world experience. He didn’t have the easy way out – he didn’t spend months in a classroom learning formulas that sped up the rate at which he could solve problems.  He actually faced these challenges in his daily life through his work, where he was forced to critically think through each scenario and understand all aspects of a problem. So while it did take him a bit longer to find the solutions on this particular test, he demonstrated his ability to think critically, a skill that will last him a lifetime.

I reflected back on my own critical thinking skills.  I had spent four months going through countless problem sets, memorizing formula after formula like I was instructed to do… but never did I stop to think if I truly understood the approach. Nor did anyone ask (or test) me on the logic behind the formulas.

I have spoken to many people on what they believe the purpose of college is.  Job security? Nope. Too many underemployed or jobless graduates. Connections? No… not enough students possess networking skills.  Career exploration? Not sure if declaring a major with little to no exposure to it in the working world counts as exploration. Critical thinking skills? That seems to be the answer people agree on.  Yet I remember being asked to memorize formulas (none that I remember today), rarely being given the time to critically think through any of the concepts.

Luckily, I met my fiancé while I was still in school, and give thanks to him for my ability to think critically.  He educated me on a crucial life skill.

2. The power of mentorship

A big part of my work includes promoting mentorships. In 11th grade, my Humanities teacher identified a characteristic in me that pushed me to consider Business as a college major (one I had never considered before then). In college, a professor pushed me to actually launch an idea I had considered silly.  I’ve now dedicated my full-time career to this idea (hi, Skillify).

But here’s the kicker: I hadn’t sought advice from those adults.  I was just fortunate enough to be in an environment where that guidance was present.

It wasn’t until I met my fiancé that I realized the power of mentorships. He sought out mentors from an early age because he had to. He didn’t have a fancy college with robust programs. When he launched his first business idea, he couldn’t rely on an entrepreneurship program at a university to guide him. He wasn’t surrounded with professors or experienced alumni. He was in the real world, starting from scratch.  So he had to identify and connect with people who could help him. He had to to take initiative, and ask for help.  He had to put himself out there and advocate for himself.

Those mentors supported him, gave him the tough-love when he needed it, and exposed him to resources he lacked.  And he developed an incredible skill: self-agency.

Meanwhile, I assumed there would always be someone to help me, that I could wait for adults to ask me about my ideas and guide me. And unfortunately, I see a lot of schools contributing to this misconception. There is so much investment in bringing better guest speakers to students, and helping parents communicate better with their children, but what about teaching students how to take initiative and seek help?

Now that I’m in the working world, I’ve seen firsthand how much people genuinely want to help each other, and especially those younger than them. But I also know what a difference it makes in both a mentee’s development and a mentor’s motivation when mentees actively seek out advice and have a sense of agency, versus waiting for mentors to direct them.

3.  The importance of finding answers, AND knowing what answers to find

My fiancé googles EVERYTHING.  And he reads A LOT.  He also talks to anyone and everyone.  When we meet people, or just make eye contact with strangers, he engages in conversation immediately.  He asks tons of questions.

Why? Because he understands that has to learn wherever and whenever he can.  He didn’t have a class with a rigid curriculum that told him what to study and how to study it. If he needed to learn something, he had to figure out how to learn it. Most times, he didn’t even know what he should be learning – he had to figure that out by reading everything and talking to everyone.  I, on the other hand, was spoiled. I became accustomed to being told what answers to look for, and how to find them. What questions to ask and who to ask.

Going back to my earlier point – a big advantage of being able to think critically is being able to identify how to think and learn. In college, I was given a set of classes I had to take to “learn business.” But when I actually started building Skillify, I realized early on (thanks again, partner!) that I couldn’t wait for someone to give me all of the answers. I had to identify what answers I needed, and then go find them.

4. How to always be prepared

I’m sure you’ve heard of the common saying, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” I first heard it from my fiancé. I can always tell from his facial expression when he’s running scenarios in his head. He’s actively thinking through all of the possible outcomes of a given situation. He’s preparing for all of them – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

When I first met him, I would get frustrated. I mistook his preparation for worry. Why did he need to worry so much about situations? Why couldn’t he just wait to see what happened? If I wanted to achieve something, I followed a sequence of steps. One linear path. This made it difficult for me to think through all of the possible paths that could exist to get to a goal.  And when it came to situations, I had a hard time thinking through the possible outcomes.

But my fiancé – he had no paved path.  He didn’t have a college counselor that mapped out his four-year plan.  Therefore, he wasn’t conditioned to taking one step after another, walking straight to reach his goal.  He built his career by carefully analyzing all possible options and paths.  And as a result, he developed a transferable skillset that allows him to take the same approach when evaluating any situation.  So now, he’s always got a Plan A, B, C, D, E…. wouldn’t you want him by your side through the good, the bad, and especially the ugly? 🙂

Don’t get me wrong…

I am very happy that I pursued college as my post secondary option. It was the right option for me.  But I am SO happy that my fiancé didn’t.  Because frankly, the skills he’s taught me in the last five years – those are truly life-long must-have skills.

So here’s to my favorite college dropout and my greatest mentor – thank you.  Thank you for taking a chance on yourself, and on me.  Happy Anniversary.

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