Saying yes to a system I swore off at 7
My face was frozen, my heart was thumping irregularly, and my stomach danced to its own beat.
Despite the odds, I had managed to squeeze myself into Minerva Institute at KGI — the only college I had ever wanted to go to and a place I was pretty much sure I had no chance of getting into, after all, the acceptance rate was depressing, and they had already smacked a no in my face once.
And yet here I was, a year after the rejection that sent me to India instead of college staring at a letter that welcomed me to the class of 2023. I was ecstatic, and… unsure if I wanted to go anymore?
No one talks about the second choice you’re given on acceptance, or how it messes with your head. When the decision I thought I made when I applied binding enrollment was undone and I was asked, “Do you really, really want to go?” The option to say no sent me reeling into a pit of second thoughts.
Neither of my parents went to college. There were times when our family didn’t have much, but there were also many times when we were doing just fine. And even when we were down and out, my parents were still some of the smartest people I know.
My dad an entrepreneur and a pastor and my mother a jack-of-all-trades who switched fluently from a banker to a mother to a secretary to a student without missing a beat. And for sure, they had no specialties and their jobs were rarely stable — we were a start-up kind of family.
We would create our own businesses in which to work, or we’d find another young company to join. But it wasn’t because my parents couldn’t have found a job that wanted them, that was just how we were, the excitement of building something flowed in our veins. It was one of my favorite things about growing up — we were always on the edge of a big break, or a big fall.
I couldn’t help but think that maybe that risk-taking spirit had come in part because of my parents’ lack of education not in spite of it. And because I loved this energy so much, we kept eating, and my parents were brilliant, I convinced myself college was useless.
It’s odd I know, college isn’t a thing most people see as irrelevant. But somehow despite dream to become a veterinarian and the subsequent understanding that I had to go to college, I was disenchanted with the whole thing.
College for me was a mere continuation of the evil system I had been saved from as a homeschooled kid. A system that didn’t care and that didn’t teach. A system that was so far from optimum that it crushed other kids curiosity and it sent them into the world unprepared for anything.
(Young me wasn’t interested in defenses of the public education system — scale still didn’t quite make sense and I couldn’t see why schools couldn’t teach 30 students the same way my mother taught me. Public school was a great evil second only to the devil himself.)
And for me, college was the same. College was the extra four years you had to pay for. It was more soul-crushing education divorced from curiosity and learning all for a piece of paper I had decided was useless. All those memes about the most expensive piece of paper and whatnot had gotten to me and that piece of paper went from a very expensive door to a glorified paper towel — something you use to try to sop up the telltale signs of ignorance.
I still knew what the paper meant. I knew it meant someone had certified you to do some work, but I was pretty convinced that you could learn all of it by yourself anyway — a near truth made available by the YouTube I grew up with — and so long as someone was willing to give you a shot and you could work hard, a degree was nearly useless.
Unless you were me. Or someone like me who wanted to go into medicine. Despite my hate for the system I grudgingly accepted I would have to go to college. Even if I could learn surgery on YouTube at some point I would need some credibility to be trusted with people’s animals.
As I grew, my militant conviction waned. Sure, maybe college and the public school system had a use beyond just certifying doctors, but it still looked to me like a weak system. A system made to keep students who made poor decisions in high school — and honestly, who hasn’t — from the coveted paper that opens so many doors.
I couldn’t see how you could decide who deserved that academic scholarship, or who should be admitted into your college by checking which kids had aced the public school system — a skill entirely separate from the information they are supposed to learn. After all, the kid going to public school and getting a cash bonus for every A they get may end up with better grades than the one who has to come home and take care of their baby sister because no one else is there to do it. Guess which one gets to college?
Despite my frustration with the system, I decided to go to public high school and discovered I was really good at it. I got the school to work for me, I could sweet talk my way into classes I didn’t have the pre-recs for and find ways around graduation requirements I didn’t think were relevant. After skipping a couple of stones in the first two years, I eeked my way into a selective college prep high school that would set me on a track to Tufts Veterinary College. One step further into the system I still rejected.
In hindsight, I laugh that “college prep” didn’t alert me to the fact that maybe the students at this new school would actually want to go to college but as it was, I was quite surprised to find out that the people around me were all pretty convinced that college wasn’t just a necessary evil.
For my classmates, our school cemented college as the stepping stone to their dreams. But for me, it sent my dream of being a vet into the air and forced me off the beaten path. No Ivys for me, I decided to apply to the only private college that my counselors weren’t thrilled about me attending — Minerva Institute at KGI.
But then — maybe to my counselor's secret relief — Minerva said no. But I’m stubborn, I had found a college that I was excited about regardless of my major, and I wasn’t about to give up just because they said no. Instead of going to a college that broke the mold, I just didn’t go to college at all.
And in this way — and a few others — I finished my college-preparatory high school as an odd duck. Holding my head high as I walked across the stage to accept my diploma and sit back down among the sea of students heading to Cornell, MIT, and Stanford. But everyone knew I wouldn’t be joining them, I would go to Punjab and discover more about myself than Einstein’s theory of relativity.
After all, Steve Jobs, Ellen DeGeneres, and Mark Zuckerberg all made it without college.But I was thrilled. I had overcome the pressure from my peers and my college counselors all because I had found a college that wasn’t like any other university. And I was determined to find a way to go there. Even if it meant “losing” a year in India instead of racing along the track that everyone else seemed so quick to follow.
Seven months later, I sat with my mouse hovering over the accept button having second thoughts about the college that had landed me half-way across the world. Funny how much a person can change in such a short time.
From bouncing around like a bunny and practically transcending into a trance-like state whenever I thought about this college, to a leadership position in an internship program in the states then thrown into an officially undefined position at a school in India. And then all the way back around to college, but with more confusion. My choices were expanding, and even the only college that ever convinced me to attend wasn’t an end all be all anymore.
After all, Steve Jobs, Ellen DeGeneres, and Mark Zuckerberg all made it without any college whatsoever. And even if they’ve messed some things up, they are or were traditionally successful. And I could name a million more people who would describe themselves as successful but not loaded, which is all I need.
Within my own network, most weren’t thrilled about what college did for them. It didn’t open as many doors as they had hoped, and it didn’t teach them as much as they paid for.
But the idea of college as something that could be ignored at seemingly little cost wasn’t the only thing keeping me from hitting the big green button.
My choice was also quite spoiled by another thought: if I went to college I would owe every step I took afterward to that college. For me, that was a problem.
I was quite caught up with the idea that to earn a right to my life, I had to make it alone. I didn’t want to owe my life to an institution, as awesome as that college may be.
I didn’t have long to say yes or no. I had applied early decision, and everyone assumed the decision would be easy so they only gave me seven days to seal the deal.
I compromised, hit the big green button, and comforted myself knowing I could back out if I decided it wasn’t for me when I got there. Not a noble compromise, but the one I made nevertheless.
My life was never mine to earn or to take credit for. It is, it has been, and it always will be intertwined with the other people and places that have molded me.Still feeling unsure, I joined the facebook group and read the first post I found from one of my peers. I don’t remember what she said, except that the excitement in her words shot through the page and smacked me in the face.
At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to meet this person and learn about the books she read and the places she’d been. I wanted to know about her quirks and her convictions. I wanted to stay up late engaging in debates, and talking about short hair life — things both of us seemed to love.
In her own way, she let me know I had made the right choice. She isn’t magical, and the words she said may have nothing to do with it, but the reaction I had to the words she wrote revealed that college for me wasn’t about the paper or the countries to which I’d travel. It was about the people.
I realized that I already owed my life to people. I owe my life to my parents who sent me into the world, to my friends who have shaped my views, to the family I am staying with in India which has given me another home, and the teachers who have challenged me at the school.
My life was never mine to earn or to take credit for. It is, it has been, and it always will be intertwined with the other people and places that have molded me.
College still isn’t my thing. The fact that our society is so attached to a degree still angers me. As it is, that paper is one more doorway that is closed to some and open to others through no fault or talent of those who face it. And paying money to get a degree still might not be worth pursuing unless you can’t break into your field without it.
I may still decide to drop out of college.
But it won’t be because I’m off on an ego trip trying to “pull myself up by my bootstraps.”
If I show up on some list of dropouts I can rest easy knowing it’s because the people I met and the project we were working on together was needed my attention more than the classes it took to graduate.
I said yes to college because yes kept my options open, but for now, I choose to keep saying yes because I can’t wait to owe a little bit of my life to my classmates from around the world and to the college in which we met.
Elianna DeSota is a young teacher who is obsessed with deep diving into new cultures and ideas. Right now she is on a journey to discover more about India and herself before jumping into the next chapter of her life.