When In Doubt, Make a Plan

On Monday, I posted a letter I received from a reader, asking advice about whether he should stay in college.  I promised you I would post my reply today, and here it is.  I sent this response before posting his letter here, and before reading your thoughts on his situation, but some commenters will notice that my advice jibes very well with theirs; others, not so much!  I welcome your comments.  Did I do right by N?

Dear N:

I’m very sorry to hear that you’re in such an unhappy position.  I am not a therapist or a guidance counsellor (and I think it might be a good idea for you to see one of each; your college services might still be available to you, or they might be able to tell you where to go.)  That said, it doesn’t sound like your situation is hopeless at all, although you are definitely in an uncomfortable spot.

One thing that encourages me is that you say your father sometimes tells you to come home and figure things out.  Next time he says that, would you consider taking him up on it?  I think you will have to demonstrate to both him and your mother that you are not just dropping out of life, but are actively trying to figure your life out, maybe by taking a temporary job, exploring some activities you’re interested in, continuing to pursue your writing etc.  It may be that college really is the best option for you, but not now.  It sounds to me like you are the kind of person who likes learning and would enjoy college (maybe a different college or a different program?) if you were feeling less pressured and confused.

Let me tell you a story.  When I was 21, I returned to school to study education.  I was at a very unhappy time in my life, and was living in a city I didn’t like and studying in a program that wasn’t for me.  I could have completed my program in a year, but I was paralyzed and depressed.  So, less than 3 months before graduation, I dropped out.  I moved to another city, got myself a job in a clothing boutique, and spent some time just figuring stuff out.  Two years later, I went back to school – a different school, and still in education but in an entirely different program – and was very happy there.  I just needed time, experience and reflection to work out my next moves.

Now, I had the support of my parents, although they were worried.  But it sounds like you have the worried support of your mother, and that your father might come around if you presented him with a plan.  What if you said, “Dad, I need to take a year.  I’ll get a job, pay you some rent, and a year from now, I will give you some definite answers about what I’m going to do next.”  How do you think that he would react?

I don’t know your parents, but in my experience, parents are able to be a bit more flexible if they know their children have a plan.

Life without college is definitely a tougher row to hoe in the long term, (especially in the U.S., from what I understand.)  Our society is not constructed in a way, right now, to support people who take the road less travelled. However, I don’t think you need to put yourself on that road for good, at least not yet.  What if you took a year, kept busy, and explored what is out there?  You never know what opportunities might fall in your lap.

Meanwhile, some time with therapists and career counsellors might be a good idea…

I hope that is helpful in some way; I wish I could offer you a pat solution.  I feel sure, though, that you will work this out if you give yourself some space in which to do it.

Best,
Siobhan
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6 responses

  1. Dear N.

    I am a professor and I am an avid reader of Siobhan’s blog. To emphasise what Siobhan has written to you, I would like to share my experience with you. In the last few years of high school I was an average student. Then I went to college in a program I thought was very well suited to my abilities and tastes.
    After a year and a half, I dropped out without ever finishing my program or getting a diploma. I worked at odd jobs for two years and then, kind of by accident, found my true passion, which is what I now teach in college. Once I found what I really liked, I got admitted into university as an adult candidate (even if I was 21!) and from that point on, I was basically a straight “A” student, got all of the fellowships I applied for in graduate school, worked my way through university as a research assistant, completed a masters and a PhD in my field.
    All of this to say that my experience is not unusual – if you knew the number of professors who dropped out of college, you would be very surprised – and that you should not beat yourself up because you have not yet found a passion. Take time off, work, travel, read, and do volunteer work. You are young, take your time and do not rush to university in a program you are not sure about; it is a recipe for failure. Like I say to my students: take a chill pill!

  2. Solid advice, and very compassionate. I almost dropped out of college too (probably a very common problem), and I told my Mom and Dad I was considering it. They were very understanding of what I was saying, and that’s when I realized that I had their support no matter what. That made it MUCH easier for me. I decided to stay in school, and my final year was easily the best year I had.

    • Scott: it must be very tough for parents in these cases, especially when they have expectations and aspirations for their children that they’ve never really questioned. I admire any parent who can step back and tell their child, “I trust you to make the best decision for yourself in this situation.”

  3. dear Siobhan,

    I think you have good advice. It’s hard to figure out what you want to do and it’s pretty normal to go through a period of confusion…. and young people should know that they’re not losers for taking some time to figure things out. I’ve been a college teacher for about 6 years now and I have found that many young people go through this. But you know what really complicates the whole thing? Parents who project their expectations on their kids. They decide that their kind is going to be a doctor or an engineer, and they pressure their kid to live up to this fantasy… This makes things extremely hard for the kid who doesn’t necessarily want to do that– even if they have good marks in science or whatever. I’ve seen one 17 year old have a major breakdown as a result of this scenario, and I’ve seen many many others get really depressed or anxious because of it. When oh when will these parents BACK OFF and give their kids a chance to be happy by letting them figure things out for themselves? I wish I could warn them about the kind of damage they could be doing…

    • Heather:
      I sometimes wish that we, had college teachers, had more opportunities to talk to parents. (I don’t often wish that. But sometimes.) I’m not sure we could influence them, but maybe we could tell them some of our own stories and those of people we know, and emphasize how happy we and others are despite some struggles and disappointments along the way. I think those of us who had supportive parents should thank our lucky stars.

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