College Drop-Out No More: Why I Went Back to School After All This Time

Filed under: Opinions

dori hartley college dropout

Credit: Dori Hartley

When I was 17, I was accepted to attend Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. It was a fantastic place to get a college education, especially if you wanted to be completely immersed in art and design. I signed up for the four-year bachelor's degree program, majoring in fine art and illustration.

It seemed like the right thing to do -- or, so I thought.

After all, I had just graduated from the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and it only seemed right to continue pursuing what everyone assumed would be my career choice: art.

Alas, during my second year of study, the allure of theater and film became almost too much of a distraction, and, before long, I began to carelessly forfeit my expensive education for a chance to audition for any role I could get.

My life as an art student became my life as a cigarette smoking, espresso drinking wannabe thespian. Like a true poser, I fancied myself a French film star who would one day play the role of my favorite fictional character: the Vampire Lestat. That it was a male role didn't phase me; all I saw was a hopeful future where I could do anything I wanted.

It was 1977, and the world was my oyster.

Oils and watercolors were replaced with BackStage magazine and vocal exercises. The discipline that came with acquiring college credits was replaced with the patience it took to wait in line for hours, in the hopes of some sleazy casting agent noticing me and finding me worthy enough to play "Schmucko, the dog walker" in some local production of an unknown play.

In other words, I dropped out of school.

At the time, it didn't feel like dropping out; it felt like moving on. Pencils and life drawing classes weren't doing the trick for me anymore, but standing on a stage, beneath the lights -- this was where I felt I belonged. So much so, that my lust for theatrics pushed me to chase an ever bigger rush. I wanted to be a rock star!

And, so, I became one.

It didn't stop there. I did more. And more, and more and more. I did everything. For the love of playing with many different fields, I ended up being able to experience an amazingly rich life. I've acted with the best, I've sung for thousands of people, I've written songs for superstars and I've designed costumes for Academy Award winners. But the one thing I never had was one solitary day of financial security.

And I solemnly believe this is because I broke my commitment to staying in school.

college dropout illustration by dori hartley

Illustration by Dori Hartley

When I look at my friends who graduated from college, I see presidents and CEOs of major design firms and ad agencies. My old schoolmates went on to become creative directors, publishers and award-winning filmmakers. They stayed in school and now they are reaping the rewards of their efforts.

For four, six, seven, eight years, while I was off playing vampire, my peers were fighting for their futures, in school. They put in the time and, for the most part, now earn salaries to support their lifestyles.

But I don't.

Education is not just about credits and graduation. It's about discipline. And when I quit college with big dreams and a whole lot of hubris, I left this precious gem of a necessity behind.

Four years ago, I decided to go back to school. After a lifetime of "experience," I knew what I needed most was the disciplined atmosphere of an educational environment.

And it kicked my butt.

Five months from now, I will be a college graduate. I have an almost perfect grade point average, and my mind has been expanded beyond my wildest dreams. Since I started, I've written a novel, procured myself a well-read column in a major publication and, for the first time in my life, I can tell people exactly what I do for a living: I am a professional writer.

And none of it would have happened had I not gone back to school.

I've worked very hard over the last four years to get this degree. It's been like boot camp. What's even more gratifying about achieving this goal is that my daughter gets to see first-hand how interesting and stimulating a college education can be.

I can't say I regret a thing for living my life and experiencing the majority of it without a college education. However, I will say this: Going back to school was the best move of my life.

Life is good. Education makes it better.

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