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Getting the Degree vs. Living the Dream

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By Clare Kolenda

When you’re 10 seconds away from potentially achieving your dream, there are many thoughts that rush through your head. You ask yourself why you can’t seem to remember to breathe; you coach your heart to slow down as it pounds with heady anticipation. You remind yourself of all the work that has brought you to this moment. Yet, my first thought didn’t involve any of these things as I stepped in the room where I was to meet a literary agent to discuss my book. All I could think was, “It’s crowded in here.” Every other person in that room had the same dream as I.

The next 15 minutes were some of the most nerve wracking ones I’d ever experienced. All of my presentation materials were spread out across the table, and I watched the eyes of the agent float from word to word as she read my first chapter.

Slowly she placed my chapter down, and smiled politely. In that moment, I knew that my book hadn’t won her over.

That next week I went back to school. I slinked back into my familiar routine, trying to lick my wounds and build back the courage I’d lost from that fateful meeting. But what killed me as I went back to my same life, was that it was just that. It was the same. Nothing had changed. Though I was learning a lot and getting good grades, my academic success hadn’t helped me get any closer to my dream: to become a published author.

Yet, I love school. And because of the thoughtful advising from my academic counselor, almost all of the classes that I’ve taken thus far will be transferring on to a university when I graduate. I’m pursuing my degree full speed ahead, always with a full class load each semester, and I’m driven to graduate.

Though I might be called crazy or indecisive, I want to have both. I want to be a full-time student, planning on getting my degree, all the while working toward my dream, which really doesn’t require a degree of any sort.

My predicament is one that I know many students face. We’re working hard to earn a degree, but secretly dreaming of a different career. Is it worth continuing classes, when they take so much time and energy away from working towards what we really want?

These questions plagued me, and drove me on a quest to discover the answers. Though everyone’s story is different, there are individuals out there who dared to take that leap of faith, to pursue their dream, without much of a backup plan or a college degree to fall back on. Were they successful? How did they do it?

Stephanie Morrill, 30, Kansas City, is a young adult fiction writer, who has published five books with no college degree. She graduated high school, and decided that she wanted to write stories as her career because that was what she loved: stories. Sharing the same passion as Morrill, I was encouraged to know what she had to say about not going to college.

“I finally admitted that college wasn’t going to happen for me,” she wrote in an email interview. “In some ways it was a relief but it was also a bit embarrassing. But I have the life I always wanted, and I wound up here with no debt, so I think it was the right path for me.”

I felt elated reading those simple words. Could that be the answer to my dilemma of choosing between a degree and a dream? The week of my agent meeting had seemed like the longest week of my life. Not only had I been preparing my pitch materials and staying up late in the wee hours of the morning to polish my story, but I also was juggling studying for tests and giving presentations for classes. My two worlds—school and writing—were clashing in a way that was causing thunderous consequences.

Yet, Morrill also spoke words of caution. “If you’re wanting to pursue a dream that doesn’t necessarily rake in the big bucks, or that requires a lot of initial investment, I think it’s worth doing. But you still need to make sure you’ve got your basics – food, shelter, etc. – covered.”

This reality, that to be successful you have to make money, is something I often wish to ignore as I day dream about glossy book covers with my name on the front. But it’s true, and going to school is the best way to make myself more marketable to the world and society.

A fellow classmate of mine, Sarah Esquivel, is a sophomore here at Grand Rapids Community College. But while everyone else is signing up for classes, she is buying a one way plane ticket to New York City, where she hopes to make a new life for herself, and fulfill the dream to live in this most iconic city.

“My husband and I have always been people who want to strive for greatness and the city was exactly what we were looking for in life,” said Esquivel. “It is busy with so many things happening in it. It is a place where people are working hard to become someone.”

She doesn’t have a back-up plan, and no job lined up once she arrives. What she hopes to do is immerse herself in the city, and learn as much as she can so that someday she can be a tour guide for others who are fascinated by the city she loves.

Her dream is bigger than the doubts of the naysayers. Her courage to break the mold of a typical college student is both inspiring and risky.

Yet, Esquivel hasn’t given up on her goal to earn her bachelor’s degree. “I will be taking a good amount of time off to work hard, but I will go back to school to finish my last two years off.”

I believe the key to both Morrill’s and Esquivel’s stories is they are both respecting their dreams. Morrill wanted her dream enough that she chose to jump right into writing instead of going to college, and Esquivel is moving to New York in the spirit of adventure. These weren’t whimsical wishes that float in between reality and the unknown; instead these were real actions that they took to further their dreams.

From these two women’s stories, I’ve seen the price—and the reward—that comes with respecting your dream. And I’m determined to do the same. Pursuing my dream may not look as romantic as I would like, which would involve sitting in a coffeehouse all day writing my poetic creations. It will probably involve me writing my homework assignments, then quick posting a short story on my blog, or writing down a new story outline. And these steps won’t probably come with instant results. But what I’m comforted by is the knowledge that, even though I’m a full time student, I am respecting my dream enough to actually work towards it.

Now the question is, will you?