In my first week of university, I noticed small stickers pop up all around campus. “1 in 3 students will not graduate,” the stickers said. I later learned this startling statistic was true: many of us would end up dropping out of college.
“That won’t happen to me,” I thought. I didn’t think I’d drop out because I was so damn excited for university: I loved academia and studying, I had classes with some of my closest friends, and I was very hard-working.
I come from an upwardly-mobile working-class family: I was the first person in my family to attend university, thanks to government-subsidized student loans. At my semi-private high school, it was almost a given that everyone would go to university if they were accepted into one. My school career felt like it led up to me going to university; I could never have anticipated the challenges I faced once I got there.
Looking back, university encompassed the worst and best months of my life. For three and a half years, I met fantastic new people, learned exciting things, and worked on my freelance writing career in between studying. During those years, however, I also struggled with PTSD and depression, navigated toxic relationships, and got into a great deal of trouble for protesting on campus.
My downfall wasn’t that I wasn’t hard-working or passionate about my work. It was that college turned out to be an awful place for my mental health.
I tried to stay in university. I went to therapy, I transferred universities, and I moved across the country to give myself a fighting chance at staying in college. It didn’t work, and I eventually had to leave university, a few months short of completing my degree.
Dropping out of college was terrifying. I had never met a college dropout who was successful. Yes, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were college dropouts, but they seemed like the exception, not the rule. I was a normal person, not a brilliant entrepreneur. I didn’t want to be a billionaire, but I wanted to survive. I had no mentor, no blueprint, and nobody to tell me that I’ll be okay.
As most college students from working-class families will tell you, college often feels like the only way to escape a lifetime of financial worry. When I dropped out, I felt like I would be bound to that struggle.
But this wasn’t the case.
As soon as I dropped out, I started freelancing full-time – I mean, I needed to pay rent. After a while, I realized that writing full-time wasn’t just my dream: it was actually a financially viable pursuit. While I had written regularly for a few publications before that, I never thought writing could be a viable full-time career. This was why, despite writing being my first passion, I was studying to become a teacher.
I dropped out two years ago. I’m now 23, and I can safely say I have my dream job. I’m financially independent, and stable enough to help my family out. Most importantly, I’m in a happy and healthy mental space. Ironically, dropping out of college launched my dream career.
This isn’t me shaming college dropouts who haven’t ‘made it’. I have privilege (I’m a white person living in post-Apartheid South Africa, hello), and while I had to pay rent to stay with my family, I’m lucky I had a place to stay at all.
I’m also pretty lucky that I could achieve my dream without a degree. I didn’t need a degree to write, which was my passion, but if your dream is to become a surgeon – well, that’s a little different. Still, it doesn’t mean your plan B can’t be an exciting and fulfilling career choice for you.
But I want you to know one thing: it’s okay to drop out. Dropping out of college doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It doesn’t make you a loser. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to be successful. It doesn’t mean your career can’t be fulfilling. It certainly doesn’t mean you won’t be happy.
I shudder to think about how many people stay in university, to the detriment of their mental and physical health, just because dropping out doesn’t feel like a possibility to them. I know I’d have left earlier if I knew it was possible for me to be this happy.
To all college dropouts, whether you consider yourself ‘successful’ or not, know that you’re not a failure just because you left college.
And to everyone who’s struggling through university only because dropping out seems like giving up, know that it’s a possibility. It’s possible to drop out and still be happy – in fact, dropping out of college is sometimes necessary for happiness to take root within you.