A year ago, if you’d asked me during my senior year of high school why I wanted to go to college, I probably would have spouted some half-hearted nonsense about my love for learning.
It wouldn’t have been a lie, but I wouldn’t have given more than a moment’s pause to my response. The truth is, I had no idea why I wanted to go to college. It was always the next stop on the train to success, the stop directly after high school and directly before a living wage job.
There’s a danger in defining success by the level of education we receive. When “educating yourself” means spending more money to take more classes and earn more degrees, we delegitimize the fact that education as a whole should be greater than a classroom and a teacher. And more importantly, we expand the roots of an unequal system where people from privilege start ahead and stay ahead.
I grew up attending a private K-12 institution on the outskirts of Baltimore. College workshops began the winter of my sophomore year and continued for the next three years. In the same way that sports coaches would offer their players tactics to help win a game, our college counselors instructed us on application theory and strategy. We were taught how to “win” the biggest game of our lives: how to open the door to an elite institution with a multi-billion dollar endowment, whose name alone would be our ticket to a promising future.
Questioning the truth of that sentiment was almost taboo for some of my teachers. When I led an assembly about my gap year at my alma mater last month, I stood in front of an audience of 250 students and asked them the same question I asked myself a year earlier: What do you hope to get out of college? And sadly, as I let my words hang in the air for a moment to look out at the audience, many of the students’ faces appeared as if they’d never been given the freedom to approach that question.
As I sit in a coffee shop in Baltimore to write this, I’m midway through a gap year filled with more learning and personal growth than I’ve ever experienced through any year of traditional classroom schooling. College is still part of my plan, but it’s not my end goal anymore.
I now know how to run a fundraising campaign through my experience working in the nonprofit world. I’ve had the joy of spending more time on the things I love, like reading and art, and the luxury of spending time with family unburdened by homework. When I go to college, I will have already lived on my own, cooked for myself and traveled abroad. Isn’t that just as valuable a kind of education as learning in a classroom?
I recognize that this picture looks very different depending on your background. But whether you come from a family with an unlimited amount of money or a family with none, we all are bound to the norm of classroom-based education. College is a valuable experience, but it is not the only way to learn.
Taking a gap year, going to community college, participating in an internship or apprenticeship program and gaining work experience are all valuable educational experiences in their own right — experiences that can set us up to learn even more in college. As college decisions are released in the next few weeks, I hope college applicants keep in mind that they are much more than the colleges they get into.
Receiving a rejection letter does not mean someone is less intelligent or less deserving than anyone else. When all the dust settles, you’ll still be you, and you’ll still have a beautiful life ahead of you. There’s more than one definition of the path to a successful life, and where you go to college — or whether you go at all — is not intrinsically part of it.
Anna Connors (email@example.com) is a gap year student who lives in Baltimore.