Although this post has nothing to do with college debt, changes with the new SATs, loans, and highly ranked colleges as one may expect to read off from Huffington Post College blog posts, very few posts, if any, will talk about the personal side of NOT going to college. After all, it IS the norm most particularly in the US. Now, more than ever, there's a lot of that same pressure I felt (and perhaps even more) to get into some of the best schools in the nation.
Being a young person today is much harder than it was in my generation. First, there's the heavy cost of higher education that keeps getting higher and competition for some of the spots at some of the country's best schools is intensely cut-throat. The job market for many professions after graduation is scarce leaving many graduates struggling to find work. Still, many think that if they just get that MA or PHD, they will be more of a commodity in the job market. I know of a few PHD holders who are working as janitors. Sad but true.
Nothing I'm writing here is new. There are those who stop school for a period of time and then go back for a myriad of reasons -- many are much older by the time they go back. Like many of my American peers, I felt compelled to go to college. It wasn't the right thing to do at the time but it was the only decision I could have made.
Soul-Searching for Young People: Why It's Necessary
There was always pressure to go to college and land a coveted spot at Harvard or Yale. I graduated from the famous Fame High School in New York City and I felt like a weakling if I didn't get a 100 on an essay or get a high grade on the SAT's. On graduation day, I cried in the girls' bathroom when I found out I didn't get an academic award. I had come to associate my self-worth with academic success. And the bad news was ...there was no compromise. It was that or nothing.
My peers were getting accepted in the top schools around the country and I had to settle for a SUNY school, and this feeling over the years, had not set well with me. Writing my memoir Silence helped deal with some of that emotional burden. If somebody had talked me through my anxieties just before the days when my eyes were filled with tears and the pressure took over, I may have had a wildly easier time during those last two years of High School. But because my High School environment was so competitive, I had no choice but to join the crowd. As a result, I got lost in the shuffle. And I was unhappy. So very very unhappy.
Up and down the halls of today's High Schools, there are a few leaders talking about the importance of doing some soul-searching after High School, like acclaimed motivational speaker, Jeff Yalden, but not enough. There's so much pressure, to "be it," "make it," "do it." After years of rigorous testing, achievement and standards based assessment, it's easier for a high school graduate to feel burnt-out and left-out of the deeper process schools do not teach: soul searching. Who are you really? What makes you happy? What unique gifts and talents can you bring to the world? what is your purpose here on earth?
In retrospect, the time I took off from college freed me up to possibility and purpose. I felt liberated. I lived life on my own terms. That too, felt liberating. By the time I left SUNY at Albany in 1990, I knew attending college wasn't the right place. I did however, have to go through those two tough years to figure out what my soul needed.
Over the years, I've noticed that the term soul-searching is typically associated with midlife and its crisis. My own personal reflections and questions which have recently emerged from that period as I share in my story, Om: A Midlife Universal Hymn bring me back to the "crissi" I once felt as an eighteen year old.
Unless it's coming from one's parents, very few local or global leaders an speakers are saying it's okay to delay your college studies for a year or two until you've figured out what you want. Because the decision to go to college is so personal, each person needs to find his/her own way. One can only come up with the answers by discovering them on one's own.
Soul Searching For High School Graduates = Precious Time Gained
Between my freshmen and sophmore years at Suny Albany, I was already feeling the pressure to take time off but getting my degree was the status-quo. I didn't want to feel like an outsider. Only there was still one big problem: I had no idea what I wanted to study. Still, I continued in the name of the status-quo. At one point, I opted for studying mummy feet and Egyptian archaeology. I was THAT aimless. Seriously, what the heck does a young person know at age 18?
My father at the time had shared with me a New York Times article about a woman named Abby who traveled around the world in a small boat and intended to write a book of her travels.
I resisted this idea at first but my own personal logic would soon set in: why study aimlessly for the sake of getting a college degree? Plus, I was getting unhappier. Why spend money and stay unhappy?
Eventually, this need to soul search, brought me to volunteer at my aunt's kibbutz in the north of Israel. Twenty four years later, I find myself writing my memoir from that emotional place. Once again, I'm that nervous and anxious eighteen year old kid that needs labels and degrees to feel accepted. Once again, I'm unhappy. Terribly unhappy. First, I'm at a school where there are many students who come from Long Island and I'm a New York City girl through and through. Second, there are those declaring premed and law majors and I have no idea what the heck I wanted to study.
Welcome to my world.
What I really wanted was a purposeful and meaningful experience that was not associated with a college degree. My heart and soul were craving freedom.
And I was desperately looking for someone to tell me that this kind of journey was alright..
In the opening chapter of my memoir Silence: What the Israel Defense Forces Taught Me About Faith, Courage and Empowerment, my character is trying to reconcile the opposing forces of my Dad and Mom: My mom is the fearful one from the two who wants to make sure I pursue an education so I can be a "somebody," and Dad encourages me about the importance of stepping out of my comfort zone by following in Abby's footsteps and travel around the world.
From Chapter One:
"I feel I'm shortcutting my life by staying with my Israeli family contrary to his idea of traveling around the world. I could feel the adrenaline rise like the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Aren't I supposed to travel to faraway places for an extended period of time like that Abby in the New York Times? I sort of arranged the stay on the kibbutz as a compromise between the two, but in my heart, he wants me to take off more than just the summer so that I'll really get a sense of what it's like to be super independent.
How Soul-Searching Helped
Volunteering on a kibbutz pulled me out of my American skin and this "sink or swim" mentality of college life. I traveled Israel, worked on a kibbutz and met people from all over the world. Eventually, I did go back to school after serving in the Israel Defense Forces and eventually I ended up with both a BA and MA. When I returned to school, I was more relaxed and at ease with my studies. I wanted to be in an academic environment.
In the end, life is truly what one makes of it but often this kind of messaging about soul searching can be hard for a young person to understand. For most of his young adult life, s/he has been contending with his/her peers and the status-quo.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with postponing college right after High School but this is not an option for everyone. This is why as a parent, I plan on keeping an open and balanced mind and support my childrens' decisions whether they intend to go to college right after High School or not. I would not want them to suffer as emotionally as I did. Their happiness is priceless and to secure that, I would need to open the door to their own soul-searching journey so they too, can discover their answers.