What are you going to do with your life?!
October 19, 2007 2:36 AM   Subscribe

I dropped out of college after 3 semesters. I want a degree, but I'm not sure if I'm "ready" to go back to school. Help!

I graduated from high school when I was 17, and thanks to my designation as a National Merit Finalist, I got a full scholarship to a pretty reputable public university. Due to a serious struggle with depression, I ended up dropping out after three semesters. I wasn't flunking out, but my GPA wasn't stellar either (around 2.75). I loved my major (linguistics) but I realize that a large research institution probably wasn't the best choice for me, as I'm rather shy and I felt somewhat lost in the shuffle.

I left university in December of 2006, moved halfway across the country on a whim, and I'm now taking a couple of classes at a local community college while working ~30 hours a week at a fun-but-uninspiring customer service job. My depression is now under control, thanks to cognitive behavioral therapy, but I feel like my life is on hold. I turn 20 next month, and I have no idea where to go from here.

My parents would be thrilled if I decided to transfer to a "real university", but I feel sort of panicky whenever I even think about it, and I'm not sure why. I think I'm just not "ready" to try again, but I have no idea what I should do instead. I enjoy my job and have close relationships with my co-workers, but it's not really challenging and I can't see it becoming a career. I'm a trust fund kid, so finances aren't a huge worry for me anyway. I enjoy earning money, but it's not my main concern.

The way I see it, my options are these:
1.) Transfer to a local university (inexplicably unappealing)
2.) Look for rewarding work that doesn't require a college degree
3.) Live/teach abroad (I speak Italian and German fairly well)
4.) participate in a large service project like City Year, or
5.) your suggestion here!

I'm female, and I live in Washington DC, if that has any impact on your advice.
posted by arianell to Work & Money (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I started university when I was 17. Dropped out, went back, dropped out, went back, dropped out, went back, dropped out. Finally I got the message and left for good (or so I thought) in 1986. Travelled, became a woodworker, built a house, got married... After 13 years I went back to school. Now I'm almost 44 and in my final year of a PhD. My advice? Follow your heart. At age 17, being in university was a waste of time and money for me, but not at age 40.
You are VERY lucky that money isn't a big problem. So use your privilege to make yourself and the world a little bit better and happier. Make your life quiet enough for a while that you can hear what that inner voice is suggesting, and then do it. Most importantly: other people's opinions don't matter (unless you want them to).
posted by arcadia at 2:47 AM on October 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

Don't DON'T go back to college if you don't want to. You can tell the kids who don't want to be here - they don't study, so they do badly, and then they fail/quit. I would like to vote for going abroad, partly to live vicariously through you, and partly because it's a great experience for a young person (especially one who can afford it). And if you don't like it after a reasonable settling in period, just go home. My second recommendation would be the large scale volunteer project. Or why not combine them,do this or one of the many similar options?

It doesn't matter if your life is 'on hold' at 20, that's the best bit about being young - you have time and space to do nothing. That feeling that you should be doing something productive is exactly what people are referring to when they say 'youth is wasted on the young'.
posted by jacalata at 3:24 AM on October 19, 2007

Go do teaching. Its what I fell into at Uni and it was an interesting, but pretty low stress degree that was very broad. I had a lot of fun at uni, and felt it was a good place to do some growing up. Doing a career sort of degree gives you easy answers when people ask what you are up to, it gives you a fall back job if you ever do need some money, it is a genuinely rewarding career and is pretty interesting.
I didn't end up a teacher, but the things I learnt help me all the time in white collar jobs.
I agree with follow your heart as advice, but when I was 20 I didn't really know what my heart was saying, and to be truthful I'm still not sure 15 years later.
But you should be doing something, even when you are making up your mind, so you can have some adventures along the way.
When you are studying there is *lots* of time to do all sorts of stuff-just hanging out, or travel or whatever. It is a free pass to have fun and do flaky stuff that you kind of miss out on if you study when you are older.
posted by bystander at 3:25 AM on October 19, 2007

If it's the type of university that stresses you, rather than just the idea of university in general, try checking out more alternative universities such as the ones in Colleges That Change Lives or Outside The Lines.

I am passionate about this very thing and have collected way too many resources for it. Check out the book Delaying The Real World by Colleen Kinder, she has bazillions of options. Transitions Abroad is a top source for anything international/travel related.

If you like performing (doesn't mean you have to be good at it), community service, and travelling, check out Up with People. It's not at all religious or conservative like it used to be in the past and I had the time of my life. AFS may have programs for older people.

Semester at Sea and The ScholarShip let you gain a semester's credit of university on a world cruise. I've had friends that travelled on the similar Peace Boat and they loved it.

If you're willing to spend 3 years overseas, and you're interested in business and social enterprise, apply for the KaosPilots.
posted by divabat at 4:10 AM on October 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

First let me apologies for the length of this reply. This is a subject I feel passionately about. You must, must, not go back to school unless you want to. In my opinion, Robert Pirsig the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance put it best. Please note that the “Church” he is referring to in this passage is the “Church of Reason”, and not organized religion.

“Phædrus' argument for the abolition of the degree-and- grading system produced a nonplussed or negative reaction in all but a few students at first, since it seemed, on first judgment, to destroy the whole University system. One student laid it wide open when she said with complete candor, "Of course you can't eliminate the degree and grading system. After all, that's what we're here for."
She spoke the complete truth. The idea that the majority of students attend a university for an education independent of the degree and grades is a little hypocrisy everyone is happier not to expose. Occasionally some students do arrive for an education but rote and the mechanical nature of the institution soon converts them to a less idealistic attitude.
The demonstrator was an argument that elimination of grades and degrees would destroy this hypocrisy. Rather than deal with generalities it dealt with the specific career of an imaginary student who more or less typified what was found in the classroom, a student completely conditioned to work for a grade rather than for the knowledge the grade was supposed to represent.
Such a student, the demonstrator hypothesized, would go to his first class, get his first assignment and probably do it out of habit. He might go to his second and third as well. But eventually the novelty of the course would wear off and, because his academic life was not his only life, the pressure of other obligations or desires would create circumstances where he just would not be able to get an assignment in.
Since there was no degree or grading system he would incur no penalty for this. Subsequent lectures which presumed he'd completed the assignment might be a little more difficult to understand, however, and this difficulty, in turn, might weaken his interest to a point where the next assignment, which he would find quite hard, would also be dropped. Again no penalty.
In time his weaker and weaker understanding of what the lectures were about would make it more and more difficult for him to pay attention in class. Eventually he would see he wasn't learning much; and facing the continual pressure of outside obligations, he would stop studying, feel guilty about this and stop attending class. Again, no penalty would be attached.
But what had happened? The student, with no hard feelings on anybody's part, would have flunked himself out. Good! This is what should have happened. He wasn't there for a real education in the first place and had no real business there at all. A large amount of money and effort had been saved and there would be no stigma of failure and ruin to haunt him the rest of his life. No bridges had been burned.
The student's biggest problem was a slave mentality which had been built into him by years of carrot-and- whip grading, a mule mentality which said, "If you don't whip me, I won't work." He didn't get whipped. He didn't work. And the cart of civilization, which he supposedly was being trained to pull, was just going to have to creak along a little slower without him.
This is a tragedy, however, only if you presume that the cart of civilization, "the system," is pulled by mules. This is a common, vocational, "location" point of view, but it's not the Church attitude.
The Church attitude is that civilization, or "the system" or "society" or whatever you want to call it, is best served not by mules but by free men. The purpose of abolishing grades and degrees is not to punish mules or to get rid of them but to provide an environment in which that mule can turn into a free man.
The hypothetical student, still a mule, would drift around for a while. He would get another kind of education quite as valuable as the one he'd abandoned, in what used to be called the "school of hard knocks." Instead of wasting money and time as a high-status mule, he would now have to get a job as a low-status mule, maybe as a mechanic. Actually his real status would go up. He would be making a contribution for a change. Maybe that's what he would do for the rest of his life. Maybe he'd found his level. But don't count on it.
In time...six months; five years, perhaps...a change could easily begin to take place. He would become less and less satisfied with a kind of dumb, day-to-day shopwork. His creative intelligence, stifled by too much theory and too many grades in college, would now become reawakened by the boredom of the shop. Thousands of hours of frustrating mechanical problems would have made him more interested in machine design. He would like to design machinery himself. He'd think he could do a better job. He would try modifying a few engines, meet with success, look for more success, but feel blocked because he didn't have the theoretical information. He would discover that when before he felt stupid because of his lack of interest in theoretical information, he'd now find a brand of theoretical information which he'd have a lot of respect for, namely, mechanical engineering.
So he would come back to our degreeless and gradeless school, but with a difference. He'd no longer be a grade-motivated person. He'd be a knowledge-motivated person. He would need no external pushing to learn. His push would come from inside. He'd be a free man. He wouldn't need a lot of discipline to shape him up. In fact, if the instructors assigned him were slacking on the job he would be likely to shape them up by asking rude questions. He'd be there to learn something, would be paying to learn something and they'd better come up with it.
Motivation of this sort, once it catches hold, is a ferocious force, and in the gradeless, degreeless institution where our student would find himself, he wouldn't stop with rote engineering information. Physics and mathematics were going to come within his sphere of interest because he'd see he needed them. Metallurgy and electrical engineering would come up for attention. And, in the process of intellectual maturing that these abstract studies gave him, he would he likely to branch out into other theoretical areas that weren't directly related to machines but had become a part of a newer larger goal. This larger goal wouldn't be the imitation of education in Universities today, glossed over and concealed by grades and degrees that give the appearance of something happening when, in fact, almost nothing is going on. It would be the real thing. “
posted by Morgangr at 5:02 AM on October 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm in the same boat as arcadia. Started, dropped out, started transferred, stopped, worked, finished BA. - Now finishing my MBA (in June!) in my mid-thirties.

Don't be in a rush. In this day and age there's no need to hit the career market too fast. If you want to be in school stay in community college and go slow. Wait tables or do some other type of appealing work (I loved waiting table and bartending in my early 20s I'll never regret it) while doing school on your schedule.

You can always transfer and most community colleges around here actually have programs that will guarantee you entry into good 4 year universities. (I'm in Norcal where they have feeder programs where if you maintain certain GPA and take the right classes you're guaranteed admission to Berkley). The Bachelors will always come from your 4 year school so there's no prestige hit to being in CC now.

Anyway take it slow there's no rush yet. Figure out what you want to do first.
posted by bitdamaged at 5:41 AM on October 19, 2007

My parents would be thrilled if I decided to transfer to a "real university", but I feel sort of panicky whenever I even think about it, and I'm not sure why. I think I'm just not "ready" to try again, but I have no idea what I should do instead. I enjoy my job and have close relationships with my co-workers, but it's not really challenging and I can't see it becoming a career.

This is the heart of your issue. You're saying your parents want you to go to a 'real' school. And you still don't know why. (Second issue is the work one.)

Work one first. You stay at a job due to: People, Money and Freedom. You clearly have #1 and the trust fund does #2. One of those three will cause someone to stay at a job longer than they should Two factors are great. Except the second factor isn't 'real', which means you should soon look for something that drives you and excites you not just has nice people. There are nice people everywhere.

Ok, little issue done. Big issue. You're going to school (or not) due to your parents. People who really 'excel' or are excited by a particular career/major/etc. have been influenced by a great teacher, and I think, perhaps you haven't found a teacher that drives your desires yet. If you're in therapy, I'd suggest talking about the feelings you have around your parents and your education. Clearly you're feeling lots of pressure there.

But, I'm going to suggest something totally different. Go back to school. Somewhere that is larger (so they have a greater set of programs.) Pick a city that has what you want (if you want lots of variety then you pick a big city school, if you want beautiful campus, pick a large school hidden away from the big city).

Since you can afford it, Take only classes that seem interesting. Don't worry about majors. Don't want to take math? Don't take it. But what will happen is that you'll find something you're interested in. You'll want to know more about it. Who cares if you spend six years at school? You're in the position where you can just 'have fun'.

Most college students change their majors three times. Give yourself permission to have fun and pursue what seems interesting to you
posted by filmgeek at 6:10 AM on October 19, 2007

I dropped out of Ohio State in 1994, and didn't return to college for 6 years, when I was older, wiser, and had also moved halfway across the country. It was the best decision I ever made. Don't rush youself.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 6:43 AM on October 19, 2007

Similar situation for me too! I’ll keep this short…

My priorities were not school for the 3 years I attended my first college. I was more interested in partying. My grades suffered (I just didn’t study) and I left school.

I had a job I like that turned into a career that I liked but in about 2 years I realized I was stuck because I had no degree. I was valuable to this company at a low salary but without that piece of paper my options were limited.

On my own terms I decided it was time to go back. 1600 miles later I was in another great university and I graduated with honors. School was a priority this time but what also helped is that I went from 300-500 person classrooms to about 20 people.

I wouldn’t have done it another way BUT it wouldn’t have worked the second time around if I wasn’t ready. Do what’s best for you. Good Luck!
posted by doorsfan at 7:33 AM on October 19, 2007

You're young
You speak some German...
Why aren't you in Berlin yet?

Rent is cheap and the city is just too cool.
You could also audit courses (in English lit, for example) in Humbolt Universitaet for very little money, to dip your feet a bit into university life again.
Go perfect your German and live!

posted by limon at 8:50 AM on October 19, 2007

I'm confused b/c there is a bunch of advice about going back to school...but you are taking classes right now...why don't they count as school? I think you're in school. Your parents may not, but I do. You're a college student looking to transfer, maybe. Okay, so other schools seem scary. I think you should do a tour and make it fun. Pick schools you can drive/ fly to (hola trustfund) on a weekend, but if your schedule is at all flexible, it would be best to visit them during the week. Don't decide where to go on your tour based on where you think you can get in. You aren't even *thinking* about applying yet. You are simply visiting a fun city with a nice campus, and checking out the students and the environment. Avoid the dorky campus tours. Talk to people, sit in on classes. Something might inspire you to go back. If you feel equally blah about the campuses, then do something else interesting.
posted by Eringatang at 9:05 AM on October 19, 2007

Best answer: Seconding that you have a lot of great options at this point, and should NOT feel trapped or bad. (College teacher here.) Lots of people drop out for a while; it's completely fine and normal, especially for people who are high-achieving high school students, and especially for people who start at huge campuses where nobody knows them.

The beauty of this stage of life is that you don't have kids or other family responsibilities that tie you to one place. (I know it feels ungrounded, but try to appreciate the freedom you have to try things without a lot of consequences) So you can just go abroad for a while, move around, etc. These would be great things to do for a few years, no plan needed, and either you will find a whole new interesting life this way, or you can just come back to the US and go to school in a couple years. You will get more out of school if you're ready and want to go. Being really fluent in languages is a great tool for finding a place in a range of cool jobs.

Probably you could pick up some translating work in DC now. DC is a great, interesting place to live for a young person - a lot going on, lots of young people. You could just enjoy it for a while.

Or -- if you are thinking that you actually do want to come back to college full-time, look into small places like the "Colleges that Change Lives" schools. These places are small enough that people will know you, and will be able to throw you a rope if you start having trouble again. The only word of warning is: If you want to study linguistics (rather than studying a foreign language) you'll need to be sure you find a small place that offers it - many small places don't have their own linguistics department, though most will have German and Italian.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:30 AM on October 19, 2007

If you wait another couple of years, look into the Smith College Ada Comstock scholars program. It's a great school -- truly world class, academically -- and a well-supported program for women who dropped out of school earlier in life and now want to come back. It's in a great town. There is a linguistics major where you take some of your classes at nearby University of Massachusetts.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:34 AM on October 19, 2007

Eringatang - I know it seems like a contradiction to say one is not in school whilst taking community college courses, but I'm in a similar situation, only without the money. I have to work full-time to support myself, so I can only take two courses at a time, and at 24, it's getting depressing. It feels like I won't have a degree 'till I'm 32 at least. (Went to university at 18, stayed 3 semesters, was severely bipolar, got put on academic suspension for low grades, went back at 20, one semester, failed all classes again, was academically dismissed. I have a sum total of 31 credits now. Hooray!) I say the same thing - referring to "going back to school" even though I may in fact be taking courses.

That said, my opinion for the OP is that you shouldn't even think about "going back," i.e. going to a "real" university, full-time, until the though occurs to you on your own. Go abroad! Teach, meet people, learn things, have fun. There's a lot more to be gained for -you- in such pursuits than in forcing yourself to go and do something you're not yet personally motivated to do. As my mom puts it (we're both horseback riders), you can point the horse at the jump, set him up perfectly, be on a good stride and have a good distance, but none of those things will make him want to jump.
posted by po at 12:52 PM on October 19, 2007

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