Alma Mater

My name is André Mikhail, and I am a college dropout.

Off putting, isn’t it? Don’t feel bad, as I’m susceptible to the prejudice, too. So much so that, for some years, I’ve made every effort to hide my conspicuous lack of diploma from whomever possible. Believe when I say, then, that the hardship involved in stating it publicly — on the internet, for all to see — is hard to believe.

Between you and me, I’ve been more than a little reticent about posting this for fear of displeasing future employers, who will hopefully read on for context rather than immediately write me off.

In the spirit of overdue confessions, there was also a time when, as a sharper than average student and well-educated son of successful physicians, the notion I’d not finish my undergraduate studies would’ve seemed beyond the realm of possibility; then again, so would running riots in the Arab Spring or co-founding a small business.

Life’s entropy, I’ve come to learn, manifests elation just as it does tribulation. Yet somehow, notwithstanding my lowly academic stature, I am employed (yes, you read that correctly), although there was a substantial period of time I was not. In candor, that chapter of my life was deeply demoralizing and unequivocally my fault.

Taking ownership of this matter has been a challenging, often painful task, and in light of that recognition, I make a dedicated effort to do away with self-pity when reflecting on the adversity I’ve faced as a consequence of my actions.

Such circumstances are, after all, far from exclusive to me, and so it remains critical — both for personal growth and peace of mind — never to lose sight of the extraordinarily good fortune that has guided me through hard times.

Quite apart from having grown up in the hallowed Mecca of American academia that is New England, I’ve also grown up in a time which overwhelmingly implies that an individual’s success in life is, to all intents and purposes, directly reliant upon his or her advancement in the hierarchy of higher education — and so will have many of you reading this.

Thus, now feels like an appropriate point at which to iterate the simple truth that education and learning are coexistent, yes, but not necessarily codependent. The vast majority of us weren’t born tech minded savants who needn’t bother with a degree when they could just revolutionize an entire industry — or even mankind itself — but conversely, let’s not act like every millennial alumnus is destined for Nobel glory, either.

Said the embittered dropout.

Time spent out of school has exposed me to a great deal of judgment and disapproval for not completing my studies, regardless of the fact I’m only three semesters short of doing so. Knowing this, I would ask that you please refrain from cheerily pointing out how close within my reach that is, because it’s been done to a wrist-slitting extent.

Many a job opportunity hath eluded me (as far along as in the final stage of an interview process) at the precise moment the would be employer saw that wretched little box marked “Some College/No Degree”. Too, there have been more than a few distasteful, condescending looks from pretty but petty underclassmen with cheap vodka in their hands and expensive engagements on their minds.

The list goes on. Endless halfhearted attempts to console me for my failures by people who appear to think I’ve become an illiterate orphan in the absence of 30 something credits. Then, of course, — and let’s not dwell on this one for very long — I couldn’t begin to count the number of awkward conversations I’ve sat through with friends, let alone screaming matches I’ve fought through with family.

“Hey, Mama, I know I act a fool, but I promise you I’m going back to school.” – Kanye West

You’ll have worked out by now that this is a part of my life I am self-conscious of, albeit less so these days. Back in May of 2013, I took a trip to the University of Puget Sound, where I made the first of many ill-fated attempts at undergrad, to see my freshman crew graduate. In addition to being the place where I met two of the most irreplaceable friends I’ve had, along with my first true love, it was also the first environment in which I felt a real sense of belonging among others.

I vividly remember sitting alone and uncomfortably on a set of cold bleachers during freshman orientation, listening to President Ron Thomas’ welcome speech. He ensured us all — uncertain and adolescent though we were — that this place would one day become “a lifelong home”; and to most of us, he spoke not a word of a lie. Freshman year was, without question, one for the books. I often wonder what life would be like if I had stayed there. UPS was to be my alma mater, and for a while, I thought that it would.

But so all this meant that my visit was incredibly nostalgic and joyful and moving and….very emotionally challenging. As I watched those dearest friends cross the stage — parents and loved ones clapping and cheering like they never had or ever would — my heart couldn’t help but swell with pride for their accomplishments and eyes fill with tears for my failings.

Another thing I’ve found to be true: at this point in my development, anyone who would judge a person for dropping out of college probably isn’t someone I need in my life — especially when privy to extenuating circumstances. At the risk of over-sharing, there were a number of obstacles that got in the way of the ever elusive diploma (financial fuck-ups, struggles with mental health, familial strife, general stupidity, etc.).

Nonetheless, when I made the choice to leave my third school, Loyola University in New Orleans, it was with appreciably sound mind and conscience. My grades were strong and spirits relatively high as compared to years past, but I simply was not invested enough in the classes I had to enroll in. Every syllabus read like a Victorian novel to me, viz., redundant, dry, and physically impossible not to roll your eyes at.

Part of that, as applies to so many others, was undoubtedly to do with their being wearisome pre-requisites fated from the start never to engage me — hey, mitosis and ionic bonds, fuck you — but the deciding factor was personally acknowledging the neglect on my behalf to capitalize on an abundance of resources I’d been blessed with (for which there is never any valid excuse, but sure-as-shit not in my case).

And it was that very real absence of motivation in tandem with the singular opportunity to start a company with two extraordinarily close, driven and brilliant friends of mine in Texas, that proved reason enough to set aside higher education until such time I’d be sufficiently responsible to put forth the effort and diligence it rightfully called for.

The best part of six years would not appear to be ample time for such maturing to take place.

While walking away was impulsive and perceptibly ill-advised, I stand by the notion that it would have been neither prudent or wise to have carried on wasting time and money on an undertaking neither my heart or mind was devoted to in earnest — and that’s to say nothing of the invaluable experience I gained in learning to build a business.

Quick side note: who’s to say I wouldn’t have spent those years unemployed like all the other struggling graduates? Anyway, my hope is that, in due time, there will be a notable shift in societal outlook on higher education, one accounting more adequately for the myriad nuances distinguishing millions of students who have long been perceived as little more than faceless slaves to loans, sources for profit.

To wit, if you are someone from a different time who thinks millennials should just suck it up and deal with the myopia surrounding this subject, I’d politely direct you a few years back to the admittedly rare story of a young girl so intent on attending Duke University that she resorted to pornography as a means of affording tuition.

Sure, it’s easy to write my generation off for being whiny and self-pitying when it comes to job security and student debt (considering how oftentimes we are) but it’s hard to identify with anyone denying the prevailing system for higher education is fractured — if not verging on broken — when eighteen year old girls are literally sucking dick to pay for a semester of cheap beer and Psych 101.

These days, I take a bizarre sort of pride in being a college dropout, choosing to look at it as a discerning quality rather than cause for embarrassment (like Cindy Crawford’s beauty mark, only not really). While that could easily be marked up to a feeble attempt at masking shame and spinning undesirable circumstances, part of me is resolute in that pride — and not just because I need to feel better about myself.

I will concede that there may be little more to my name than a shitty GPA and entry-level paycheck, but those will do just fine for now.

Bringing me to the crux of this. If you are a college graduate, I respect and envy your achievements — sincerely, I do. If you are a college dropout, whether for my reasons or ones more insurmountable, I respect and envy your defiance of them. This statement feels nigh as clichéd as those generically motivational speeches delivered in an elementary school auditorium, but there can be no achievements without failures.

Had I stayed in college, stuck with it, things would surely have been different; but this is my life, and I’m grateful for living it as is, including all the many banes and beauties that go along with being able to do so. Besides, I can freely admit the silver spoon I was born with never once left my mouth until a short while ago, so it’s about damned time I had something working against me.

Less distinguished perhaps than those of my peers, the accolades I can claim are intangible ones. They are not printed on paper or framed on the wall of a corner office — which may not make me look very sexy on paper, but I’ve learned to savor being the underdog in an already ruthless job market. In a presently indescribable way, the role somehow suits me.

To name a few:

  • I have debated with a U.S. Congressman and won (three martinis in, no less).
  • There’s no Pulitzer awaiting V. André Mikhail in the foreseeable future, but I like to think I know my way around the English language.
  • I have watched world history being made from atop a stolen motorcycle.
  • I have slept on the streets of a foreign country, living solely on day old bread, and surprisingly enjoyed it.
  • Never once has anyone accused me of being boring [the real world value of which is up for debate].
  • I’ve gotten punched in the face, then resisted the urge to punch back.
  • I am a damned good older brother.
  • I have been terminally in love.

All the above would seem to indicate that the below is merely misled optimism fueled by what is more plausibly denial; but again, it is a sentiment I believe to be true. And seeing as I’ve made myself quite comfortable on this little soapbox of mine, I’ll go so far as to ask that you give me the benefit of the doubt.

Dropping out of college, giving up or however you want to label it was a very impactful life decision I made as a consequence of questionable judgment in my youth. As an adult (and we’re using that term with the explicit understanding it only applies because I’ve been alive for 25 years), my conscience has vacillated over that decision and its ramifications more than any other in memory.

Here it is, though — and again, try to hear me over the affectation — that decision does not define me.

Being a “dropout” is not my identity; it is a part of my story (an old part, I might add). Commit this shit to memory if you’re reading this with no degree and a job that withers your spirit — which can often be worse than no job at all — there is no room for regret or shame in a happy life, and there’s certainly none for it in yours or mine.

Hey, I’m serious, if you’re down on yourself about not being a member of some alumni organization or an employee at some Fortune 500 company, don’t turn to exalted Steve Jobs parallels in order to justify your circumstances, because more often than not, they are direly disproportionate.

Instead, just remember and truly internalize that, at day’s end, all this relentless fuckery academia puts the lot of us through is ultimately rather trivial. You, my friend, are alive — hell, you’re able to read. What’s more, you are your own person, which is a literally anomalous accolade that needn’t be framed in order to be recognized.

Own that shit, in other words. I won’t delve any further into the clinically insane condition of higher education in America, nor will I take up any more of your time indulging the loud mouthed chip on my shoulder (though in my defense, these sentiments have been building for half a decade).

What I will do — and hopefully never stop doing — is continue to define myself not by grades, jobs or degrees, but by the way in which I treat other people, the lengths to which I go to help those less fortunate, and what honest good I strive to put into the world. I will also thank you for reading this, because writing it has been a much needed exercise in catharsis for me.

To wrap it up, though, I will ask you one last favor, and it’s this: that you challenge the notion — both in mind and open dialogue — that a person’s individual worth, success, or intellect can ever be contingent upon something so facile as a fucking diploma, or indeed upon any tangible thing at all.

Should you have trouble with this endeavor, I’ll assure you once more — that’s okay. To some of you, my thoughts may not count for much (particularly in the eyes of lifelong academics) but I like to think they’re worth giving mind. Such as it is, you need only consider these, my very sincere words to you, for what they really are.

Confessions of a college dropout.


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