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Notes from a former college dropout

By Salve Villarosa Published Jun 10, 2022 5:00 am

In 2017, I found myself joining the esteemed ranks of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. All right, so I didn’t revolutionize the tech industry or create a product that would forever change society. Instead, five years ago, I followed in their footsteps and made the big decision… to drop out of college.

Up until then, my relationship with higher education had been rocky, to say the least. After being diagnosed with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder at 17, attending school became a bit like doing the hokey-pokey: one foot in, one foot out, then a dip in my mental health would inevitably shake things all about.

For every semester I spent on campus, I spent twice as long on medical leaves of absence. Eventually, it seemed wiser to take myself out of the running altogether. Although I’ve since found a treatment plan that works for me, it never seemed worth disturbing my hard-won inner peace to go back to school.

I found myself constantly daydreaming about going back to college. I loved my last school — it was definitely an “It’s not you, it’s me” situation when it came to leaving.

Luckily, none of my goals in life required a degree. I didn’t harbor any ambitions of saving lives or winning court cases; instead, the creative industry where I dreamed of working was more than happy to welcome dropouts. In 2019, I started freelancing in the local theater industry. I felt like I was finally on the right track… at least, until everything came to a screeching halt in March 2020.

College was looking more and more like the sole parachute on a plane: a terrifying yet necessary exit strategy.

As the months went by, it became glaringly obvious that theater, reliant as it was on mass gatherings, seemed like it would be the last industry to get back on its feet. At the same time, I found myself constantly daydreaming about going back to college. I loved my last school — it was definitely an “It’s not you, it’s me” situation when it came to leaving. And yet, for the last three years, returning was never an option. My mental health had finally achieved some sort of stasis and I had so many other things going on, so why risk returning to a trigger-heavy environment like college?

Yet as the year drew to a close with no clear signs of improvement, it seemed equally detrimental to my mental health to live without a fixed purpose. College was looking more and more like the sole parachute on a plane: a terrifying yet necessary exit strategy. I could only hope that when I finally jumped, it would carry me to safety instead of sending me into free fall.

For years, I had fought both physically and mentally to earn my place back at the table. I owed it to myself to give this second chance everything I had.

In November 2020, I reached out to my school’s admissions office, and before I knew it, I was re-enrolled and officially a college student once again. After having my first semester online, the university announced that they would be resuming in-person classes in the fall, which meant that in August 2021, I went from not leaving my house in over a year to jumping on a 15-hour flight to LA.

The geographical divide wasn’t the only one I had to straddle. Being away from college for four years meant that I was now a millennial marching straight into Gen-Z territory. Luckily for me, I soon discovered that the generation gap was not as stark as the internet would have you believe. Look, I could make any number of tired “they’re so young, they don’t even know who (insert artist) is!” jokes, but the truth is, I’ve found my time with them to be very enlightening thus far.

I don’t know what they feed kids these days, but I was definitely not that self-assured and well-spoken at 19. As much I’ve learned from my professors, I’ve found that I have just as much to learn from my classmates — even if they do refer to Glee as “like, a really old show.”

Despite all that, I still wavered when it came to divulging my own age. For the first couple of months, I was doing my best Edward Cullen impression: “So how long have you been away from college?” “Erm… a while?” There was a part of me that was deathly afraid of being ok boomer-ed, of being told that I was too old and that I should act my age. But once again, those darn zoomers managed to subvert my expectations.

Being away from college for four years meant that I was now a millennial marching straight into the Gen-Z territory.

At the start of 2022, I was cast in one of the spring theater productions. While trading zodiac signs backstage during tech week, the question of birth years inevitably arose. Having spent the last two months in daily five-hour rehearsals with my castmates, I finally felt comfortable enough to reveal that I was born in a whole different century than them. To my surprise, aside from a couple of questions about skincare — what can I say, Asian don’t raisin — and genuine curiosity about why it took me so long to finish school, I happily discovered that it didn’t really matter to them at all.

Apart from navigating my new social landscape, it was a relief to find that the classroom was one place where my age offered ease rather than confusion. Having taken such a long gap between my studies meant that I didn’t jump straight into college after a decade of mandatory schooling. This also meant that I wasn’t burned out by academia like a lot of my classmates might have been, and I was determined to use this to my advantage.

For years, I had fought both physically and mentally to earn my place back at the table. I owed it to myself to give this second chance everything I had. As any theater kid will tell you, the key to a successful performance is to “make bold choices.”

So that’s exactly what I did. I eagerly dove into every reading, every paper, every random out-of-the-box theater project. What was busywork to my peers was a chance for me to learn, and I relished every second of it. I went on every audition the theater department held, earned my introductory certification in stage combat, began learning to read and write in ancient Greek, and declared a minor in Classics & Archaeology.

This fall, I’m flying back for my last full semester of college. And although I have a newfound appreciation for all things Gen-Z, I now wear my own age like a badge of honor. Going back to school at this point in my life is something I’ve learned to be proud of, because this time around, it feels well and truly earned. And even though the diploma I hope to receive won’t allow me to deliver babies or preside over courtrooms, to me, it will represent something of equal value. Something worth a thousand times more than the paper it’ll be printed on.