It was the summer of 2003. I was 18 years old. I'd graduated top of my class from a magnet program in media arts and technology, and I had a full ride to The University of Texas to study at the prestigious McCombs school of business. Life looked pretty good for an immigrant kid who'd landed in the country at nine years old and wasn't even sure if she'd graduate high school.
Except there was one nagging issue. While I loved technology, I also had another (almost secret) passion...cosmetology. When I wasn't in the computer lab tinkering with hardware and software, I hung out in the cosmetology room. Yes, my high school luckily was progressive and smart enough to offer technical training in many areas. That's not to say I felt fully welcome in either room. The girls often gave me the side eye for "what's the AP nerdy kid doing here?" And, on the flip side, my fellow computer geeks didn't quite get why I'd ever venture that side of the hallway. Let's just say while we encourage our girls to pursue careers in STEM, we still don't exactly have t-shirts that say "I love science and lip gloss." When it comes to education or career paths, we mostly focus on this OR that. It took me years before I embraced the AND.
Back to my dilemma at 18. I was excited about college and I was equally excited about perhaps a career in cosmetology. Bear in mind, this was before the YouTube make-up artist celeb era. Facebook and Instagram hadn't been invented yet and social media wasn't even a phrase. Like most kids at that age, I turned to my parents. Now, I come from a fairly traditional Indian family. so many people are shocked when I say I had zero pressure from them to ever be a doctor, engineer, or <insert traditionally accepted career choice here.> My parents were unique in the sense that they ever only prioritized their kids' happiness over their own preferences. At 18, they encouraged me to pursue whatever I felt most passionate about. They didn't care that I had a full ride to a prestigious university. If I loved the beauty industry they said, then I should go for it. However, my boyfriend at the time thought it was a terrible idea and that no one should forego a college education for technical schooling! It wasn't that he was an elitist so much as that he did come from a traditional background where college was pretty much a prerequisite. It was expected. Like many 18-year-old girls, his opinion weighed heavily and I ended up going to college.
Five years later, I'd graduated with not only a Bachelors but a Masters in Organizational Communication and Technology from one of the finest universities in the country. I never regretted this decision and I credit deeply my professors and the school for much of my career success today. I went on to start a global marketing and PR firm, Zen Media, wrote two best-selling books, and become a keynote speaker sharing my expertise with millions in 20 countries (and counting) so far. At one point, I asked my parents why in the world had they been so ok with me skipping college in lieu of cosmetology school. Their answer was simple and a little shocking. They said: "No matter what you chose, you would have worked hard and made it a success. We never doubted that." They went on to point out all the examples through grade school and beyond where I found success in my own way by following my passions and working hard, whether that was oratory competitions in high school or creative writing contests in middle school.
Now, I was never a brilliant student. I didn't qualify for the Gifted and Talented program. (That was actually my sister.) But, I did work hard and I loved learning. I was good at "life hacking" and even found a program which allowed high school juniors and seniors to take community college classes for credit. By the time I graduated high school, I already had enough credits to practically enter as a junior in college.
Lately, the college scandal we've all been hearing about has had me reminiscing about my own collegiate journey. For those who haven't heard, in a nutshell, multiple high profile parents from CEOs to Hollywood actors have been indicted for bribing various elite college officials. All in an effort to get their kids admitted into a prestigious college. While this has sparked a national debate and outrage about privilege and gaming the system, I think we are missing the greater point. I am not arguing that privilege doesn't exist nor am I naive enough to think life is fair. I also believe people should act with integrity. The more laughable point here though is that we as a society still think college is what it takes to be successful in life - to the point of committing crimes for it. A kid who struggled in high school who somehow makes it to college, and perhaps even through college, is in no way guaranteed success or happiness. In fact, the most successful entrepreneurs I know today didn't go to fancy schools. Some didn't go to college at all, others went to schools they could afford and worked very hard to make it a valuable experience.
Let's face it, we all know people who took six years to graduate with a degree they have no idea what they are going to do with and spent most of their college years getting drunk and "living it up" - whatever that means. One of the most common questions I get asked from students today is, "what should I major in?" My honest answer is, it doesn't matter as long as you apply it to the real world and don't expect it to be the golden ticket to all your dreams. I entered UT Austin as a business major and quickly realized that I loved the communications program. I went to my business school counselor and asked to switch programs. She told me in no uncertain terms that she didn't recommend that move and that there was a waiting list full of students trying to get into business school. No one switched out! In fact, she wouldn't even file my paperwork until I'd given it some thought. I came back the next day and told her I'd thought it over...and to please switch my program. It wasn't the "popular" decision but it was the right decision for me. I thrived in the communications program. I made lifelong friends, I took classes I really cared about, and I immersed myself in internships and conferences where I could see how academics met the real world. I recently went back and spoke at my alma mater - which today boasts an entirely new building devoted to new media.
I am not opposed to college. Done right, it can be an amazing place of discovery and opportunity. I am glad I went. It was the right choice for me. As someone who is soon going to be a mom, I now think about what I want for my own son. I want what's right for him. It may be college and it may not. There is no one guaranteed path to success, in fact, there are no guarantees at all. All we can do is raise our children to work hard, embrace learning, and seek out opportunities based on their own merit and passions. We can teach them integrity by embodying it ourselves. What we can't do is continue to expect and act like college is the be all and end of all of the world - theirs or ours.