“You know going to college isn’t a must, right?” said my mother one day while we were discussing my college applications.
Both of my parents are proud graduates with engineering degrees, so this statement came as a surprise. “Although your father and I have saved up for your college tuition, if you think that’s not what you want, after all, you’re still free to choose to skip the college part and start working instead,” she said.
To say that I was thrown into confusion was an understatement. It felt like an existential slap in the face — and a much-needed one, in hindsight. In all my years of studies, I always saw college as the end goal for going to school before “real life” begins, and I remember feeling a deep sense of anxiety and fear when this belief was challenged. I’ve been primed to think of higher education as the obvious and better option. But was it — really?
Of course, there are always examples of famous people who became successful without a college degree, such as director Quentin Tarantino, poet Maya Angelou, and Tumblr founder David Karp. For me, however, these stories were easily dismissed because they only suggested that higher education perhaps wasn’t for everyone.
But what about me? Was it the right thing for me? Do I need to go to college to make it in life?
As I began to think and seek answers, I turned to the people around me, and my eyes were opened to many friends and relatives who are leading happy, fulfilling lives despite having not pursued higher education. One person, in particular, helped me take my first step in making my decision.
My grandmother loves telling her children and grandchildren stories from her childhood and working life, but it wasn’t until I was in this time of discernment that I learned to appreciate her stories. As the eldest child, my grandmother was forced to quit school by the age of 12 to work and support her family. From selling vegetables to cleaning animal barns to washing hospital linens, she held many different jobs over the years. Eventually, she found her way into the noble profession of nursing, where her service as a pediatric nurse is still dearly remembered by her patients.
At the end of her stories, my grandmother would typically include some form of advice for us to study well so that we wouldn’t have to go through the hardships she endured. From what she shared, I realized that as I approached this decision about college, I was lacking two crucial things: gratitude and intentionality.
Unlike her, education has always been readily accessible to me. Studying has been a huge part of my life as far back as I can recall, and I realized I’d come to take it for granted. Because it was just a part of the rhythm of my life, I took it mostly as a pattern of preparing for and passing exams.
At the same time, I was also treating education as a safety blanket, telling myself I didn’t need to worry about facing the “real world” because education would take care of that. In short, for me, higher education wasn’t the better option; it was merely a safer one.
Then I wondered what would happen after four years of pursuing a degree. Would I be any more ready for the “real world” than I was before college? Was it really any safer or secure as an option?
Realizing these things didn’t make my fears and anxieties go away, but it certainly helped put them into perspective. What I needed wasn’t to decide whether or not to go to college, but to make that decision with intentionality.
Then it dawned on me: Perhaps there was never a right or wrong answer to begin with. Essentially, it was a matter of making a decision and seeing it through. If the path I chose worked out, great; if it didn’t, I should be able to see more clearly then what adjustments I might need to make.
With this, my question changed from “Do I need to go to college?” to “Do I want to go to college?”
I decided I wanted to. Now, if you’re expecting an a-ha moment or some divine inspiration that helped me decide, you’ll be just as disappointed as I was. Rather, it was a gradual process of observation, reflection, feeling, and questioning that eventually led to a leap of faith. Yep, there was no escaping that part — I don’t think I’ve ever encountered any life decisions that didn’t require taking a leap of faith.
Nonetheless, if I could highlight one guiding principle underlying my decision to pursue higher education, it would be this: with freedom comes responsibility.
I wanted to learn to take responsibility for my own life and decisions, starting with my education. When school seemed like a given, it was easy to fool myself into believing that it was someone else’s responsibility to prepare me for my future. When I actually had the freedom to choose for myself whether to pursue a college education or not, I had to take ownership of my own decision and commit to making the most out of it.
So I decided that I wanted to give myself another chance at education, and I thank my parents for giving me that opportunity.
Four years later, as I await graduation, I’m glad to be able to look back fondly upon my college experience and to share wonderful memories with the many friends I’ve met throughout this journey. It may not have been all smooth sailing, but the doubts and challenges along the way have definitely developed my mind, heart, spirit, and will.
College has indeed made me a little more ready for whatever’s coming next — for me, this is why it was a good option.