I went from playing in Dubai’s only ska band to being a clueless college freshman in Milwaukee. I don’t want this to be a sob story, but some of my first few years in college were pretty sad. Academically uninterested, obsessed with smoking, and utter culture shocked. I’m pretty sure that’s not what my parents wanted. In retrospect it’s not what I wanted; but I choose to try and plow through when I wasn’t really up to it. Although I went to a private American high school in Dubai, I was unable to escape age old traps of student loans, coaxed disinterest, and peer pressure. I went to college right after high school. Is going to college the year after high school the right choice for everyone? Absolutely not. It’s probably not even the right choice for the majority of high school graduates.
According to a recent study, up to 80 percent of college students change their major at least once. A majority of them will change up to three times. Why should anyone have to go through such a process and accumulate those terrible loans? Sure, some students will get a free ride to their school of choice, but most will simply wish that they did. There is an unspoken pressure in American society to attend college immediately after high school. I think there are a number of reasons for this. Most importantly, there’s the feeling that one should follow the generation which came before. Both of my parents (one a professor) were college educated. They told me outright that I had to go to college. They weren’t exactly jumping at the idea of me taking a gap year.
This concept of the gap year is less popular in the United States but is increasing. A lot of times a student accepted to a school can defer their enrollment for a year to take the time to learn about themselves before they dive in. This is totally a great call. If you’re on the fence, take the time to land on the side you want. School can really be diving in deep for some; circumstance is everything. My case is a little exceptional, but not far from the experience of many. Everyone’s life changes when they go to school. My family moved to Dubai in 2000 when my dad accepted a job as a professor. I grew up surrounded by people from all around the world, an experience that has always stuck with me. I moved to Milwaukee in 2008 to attend the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.
Many of my peers dreamed of traveling: I dreamed of finding a home like I had in Dubai. Milwaukee simply was not able to conjure this sort of circumstance for me: I didn’t even know that was important to me at the time. I tried to make Milwaukee as comfortable as I could, but I couldn’t shake this feeling of being very removed from everything I knew. I also had to go to class. I had to pay tuition. I had to make new friends. I had to learn how to live in the United States. As a matter of fact, despite trying really hard to care about what I was doing in school, I didn’t. Underneath it all I just wanted to play music. I’ve been a musician since I was 14 years old. I didn’t know how to go into a career around music. My life has changed since then. I’ve learned the value of time for reflection. Not everyone gets to be as lucky as me though.
I think that living out your dreams is important. I’m writing this partially to document but also to weigh in on a lively debate. Should high school graduates be college-bound? I had to compromise my love of music because my academic interests were specific and narrow. I struggled to pass math and science classes because I’d never been so bored. I remember the first science class I took at UWM. The first thing the professor told us was that 50 percent of the 100 of us would fail the class. I failed it to spite him; and for lack of attending lecture. There were some bright spots too though.
I had the great fortune of taking a wonderful freshman seminar at UWM on the “Best Writers of the 50s and 60s.” This sparked a passion in me for reading and writing that I had only marginally nurtured in high school. It was really the only class I enjoyed. I didn’t know how to “pick ‘em.” Journalism seemed really interesting; but all the really interesting topics were gated behind massive-enrollment, and broad survey classes. You may ask— why did I even go in— in the first place? I decided I had to go to school because a lot of my peers in high school did and guidance counselors made a big deal of it. A lot of my peers went to Brown, Columbia and other prestigious Ivy League or near-that-level schools. This wasn’t me; it couldn’t be. A part of me that wanted to impress other people wanted this too. That was my first big mistake. I was trying to do college for someone other than myself.
College Freshmen are usually 18 years old. Could you imagine having to make a life altering decision at 18? I certainly could not. So, I coasted into complete auto pilot and found myself taking, four years to simply find a major I enjoyed, two years to finish it, and two years more to retake all the classes I failed on autopilot. I almost got expelled. I stressed about finals. I was a smoker. I couldn’t believe I only played in two bands. I think that I probably should have done some more music while I was at UWM. The only reason I didn’t was because of an arbitrary decision I made after not getting accepted to a certain private university with a great music program. I was 18 and thought, I could choose which way I wanted to go, forever. So, when I didn’t get into the music school (I got into the state college), I told myself I would stick with an academic study. Little did I know, I wouldn’t get interested in seriously studying English literature until I was 22. So, four years crept by and I struggled to get a foothold in school. I became distant from my professors and worked some less-than-ideal (non-music) jobs.
I know I’m not alone in this. I feel like it’s important to develop a credible platform to recommend you don’t send your children to a place where they won’t be taken seriously or to a place they can’t take seriously. If I could recommend how to go about it to recent grads, I would say this: don’t take the only offer that bites, take some time to get to know yourself and work somewhere. There’s a lot of value in holding a full time job, not just monetary, but in understanding how a business operates. Businesses are a massive part of our society. Unless you’re going to school for business, chances are you won’t be able to fully recognize everything that goes into one until you start your first internship.
I don’t think this advice is for everyone. I graduated high school with some kids who really wanted to be doctors, and many of them did just that, as I’m sure some graduates will always do. One of my high school band members wanted to be a professional guitar player, he did just that. However, some of those students that went to Ivy League schools hated them. Some of my musician friends changed majors. Some of them simply felt that same culture shock that I felt in moving from Dubai to Milwaukee. College is what you make of it. You’ll get your degree, but all that time spent could just have easily been spent somewhere else too, and that experience would also be what you made of it. If you know exactly what you want, go and get it. However, if you have questions and concerns about tying yourself to education for at least another four years, walk away. You can always go back to school later, find what you want from school first. If you aren’t deliberately making the decision to attend a university for yourself, take the time to figure out what you want.