Growing up, I knew I was expected to go to college. Coming of age in the late '90s, college was billed as the one and only path to success by my family, teachers and community. I did my best to meet their expectations, and went to college without even considering any other possible directions for my life or career.
I’m a parent now, and my ideas about college have changed. Much of this attitude shift is due to my stepson. In the year since he finished high school, he’s been working in retail rather than attending college classes. And he’s perfectly OK with that. I’m perfectly OK with that. It took me many months — and several heated discussions — to get to this point, but here I am.
Making the choice
School wasn’t always easy for my stepson, especially during his last year of high school. He often struggled to stay motivated, especially as the school year progressed. As my stepson’s grades began to suffer, we realized we needed to have an honest talk with him about his post-high school plans.
He’s not a little boy anymore, and it’s time for me to let him lead the way.
When he first told us he didn’t want to go to college, I balked. I felt as if I had failed. Had I not provided him the support he needed? Would this choice mean he never attended college? What would he do with his life without an education?
But I’d forgotten something: my stepson’s strong will. When he finds something he wants to do, something that motivates him, he follows through. College may not be part of his plans right now, but he may end up deciding to give it a try down the line. Or maybe he’ll never choose to go to college, and will find a different path instead. As his parent, I’ve finally accepted that the decision is ultimately his to make. He’s not a little boy anymore, and it’s time for me to let him lead the way.
Since my stepson made the decision to bypass college, I’ve recognized that I need to let go of the idea that college is an automatic path to success — or that not going to college always leads to failure.
My life is filled with people who never obtained a college degree: my mother, my mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, a close family friend. All of them have found success in their respective careers, and all have served as role models for my stepson. There’s also no shortage stories of successful businesspeople who never attended college: Steve Jobs, Rachael Ray, Richard Branson. They show us that the absence of a college degree doesn’t have to be a limitation.
There’s more than one way to get to where you want to go. My stepson’s current dream is to move to New York City. To do this, he needs to save money and make a plan — not earn a college degree. Self-discipline, planning and self-motivation are the skills he’ll require and while college can help build them, so can experiences outside of school. If my stepson fulfills his dream, he will have mastered some very useful skills that will help him no matter what he decides to do in the future.
As a society, we need to redefine the notion of success. It’s more than income or job title or square footage. Success can be your ability to change someone’s life. Success can be achieving something that you’ve worked hard at for years. Success can be even be as simple as getting to a point in your life where you’re satisfied with what you have.
For me, success is supporting my stepson. I may not agree with his choice not to go to college, but as a parent, I will try my hardest to support him and help him achieve his goals.