When I was growing up, I assumed I would attend college. It wasn’t that I came from a long line of Harvard graduates or grew up surrounded by academics and scholars, I just don’t remember ever thinking that life would be anything other than elementary school, high school*, college then a job. Most of my friends wanted to go to college although not all got the chance. I was lucky. Most of my friends went to an in-state school but I was able to go to an out-of-state private school.
I was talking with my mom on a recent visit about how some younger people are opting to skip college and go straight into the workforce. With student debt causing issues for millennials, I am not surprised this is a consideration, but then I got to thinking about how my degree is really only a very small part of what I got out of college.
Don’t get me wrong, a Bachelor’s degree will open doors for you. Some say it doesn’t open as many as it used to, however, I know of several industries that won’t even consider your resume if you do not have a college education. If they don’t dismiss you outright, they’ll probably pay you less without a degree. I definitely think a degree is worth far more than the paper it is printed on – and I have a degree in English, what some have said is one of the most worthless degree you can earn.
What else can you get from college? For me, there were three big things I got from my college experience that have helped me far beyond its walls.
The first was life skills. Like many incoming freshman, I didn’t have much experience with what is now amusingly called “adulting.” I had never balanced a checkbook. I had a job throughout high school but most of that money went to putting gas in my car and looking my best. “Saving” was something I was familiar with as a concept but I much preferred to spend. I had never been responsible for budgeting my money and buying my own groceries, laundry detergent or shampoo. My mom took care of most or all of that.
After I left my small town for Washington, D.C., I learned the hard way that if I didn’t budget my money I didn’t have clean clothes. I had to rely on friends’ kindness if I was unable to come up with pizza money. It took several months, and a couple embarrassing situations for me to finally take control of my budget. I still came up short quite a bit but I was fed, clean, and clothed.
I also had to learn to get to places on time and get my work done on my own. No parents saying, “Get up! You’ll be late for school!” Or, “don’t forget that big test is today!” It took me awhile (and a few flunked tests) to get the hang of balancing my responsibilities with my social life.
Network of Friends
The second big thing I came away from college with was my outstanding network of friends. I had no idea as a 21-year-old graduate how much those relationships would help shape the rest of my life. College friends have helped me get every post-college job I have ever had. The GW and Sigma Kappa alumna networks have provided me with helpful mentors who have advised me in my career and my life. When I was navigating my first 401(k) rollover I called a college friend. The same friend explained stock options to me when I was offered some for a job. My sorority sisters gave me interview tips and references.
I have been working with my current boss off-and-on for 20 years. I’ve worked with him at four different places since we met when I was 18, at the college yearbook. My life would not be the same as it is today without this amazing network of people who employ me, advise me, push me, inspire me and help me through every step of my professional and personal life.
The last thing college gave me, although this will vary wildly depending on the school, was exposure to a larger world. In the small town where I grew up nearly everyone was like me. They looked like me, they had a lot of the same experiences and were the same economic status. GW’s students were of varied economic statuses, religions and about 45% International students. It was in Washington, D.C., a diverse, lively world capital with cultural events on every corner it seemed. Many of these events were free to anyone who wished to attend.
I met and became friends with people from countries I’d only read about: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Egypt, Japan, India, and Saudi Arabia. I had roommates of different backgrounds and religions. I’m sure I embarrassed myself a lot asking questions out of pure ignorance but I learned so much! My friend’s patience and willingness to answer those questions changed how I see the world. Their invitations to cultural events gave me a first hand look. I would have never gotten those opportunities had I not decided to go to D.C. The city itself, with it’s free concerts, museums and events gave me an education of its own.
Most of what I learned in college was outside the classroom. I wish that experience for every young person. I feel like it has made me more empathetic and in today’s climate I think empathy can change the world.
*My “secondary school” later changed to “high school” was 7-12 grade.