The first dropout stereotype I encountered was one of laziness—that I simply didn’t want to put forth the effort to be in school, or that I wasn’t capable of handling the academic rigor. To this day, when I read articles about gap years, there is always one comment that says something regarding the gap year participant not being able to thrive in a collegiate environment. Countless sources prove this to be untrue. In fact, studies show there is correlation between taking a gap year and improved academic performance, and around the world, teenagers often wait a year after high school before heading to college: In Denmark, Turkey, and Norway, around 50% take a gap year, and those who drop out, even if only temporarily, are seen as “more mature, more self-reliant and independent.”
So why does the dropout taboo exist in the United States? Why are we obsessed with the idea that a college degree is more than a degree—that it is, instead, a beacon of intelligence, worth, and success? We should know by now that intelligence takes many forms, success means too many things to list, and someone’s worth isn’t defined simply by what they do.
Yet, the drop out misconceptions remain, including an unexpected one I was met with during my time out of school: That I thought I was “too good” for college. This idea persisted that I somehow thought I was better than college students, or that people who chose to stay in school were lesser. This was even more insulting than the misconception that dropouts are burn-outs. In my experience, you don’t drop out simply because you dislike school, though that’s often how it appears on the surface, and maybe even how it feels to you. If you dig a little deeper, you will usually find something much more significant than dislike or going to class, or thinking college is a waste of time: I found lack of fulfillment, a feeling of being entirely out-of-place on campus, and a burning desire to tackle projects I felt related to me uniquely. None of those things fit either misconception.
Plus, the two work together: If I hadn’t gone to college, I likely wouldn’t have been inspired to do the things I tried when I left school. If I hadn’t done those things, I imagine a huge chunk of my learning, my experiences, and my personhood would be missing. Frankly, I was a better student after dropping out, and I was certainly a more enthusiastic learner, who understood what she needed from a collegiate education, rather than taking whatever was offered simply because it was the status quo.
There are also people who believe every drop out comes with a built-in financial backer (like their parents), or is on their way to being the next Silicon Valley billionaire. In regard to this misconception, I wish I could tell them that I worked every day of the two years I was out of school. I took jobs putting skills I had developed to good use in order to support myself, while tackling internships or personal ventures that I felt were solid learning experiences. The idea that you have to be rich to take a gap year or drop out is a myth. However, you do have to be willing to hustle: You have to find opportunities and create them, move fearlessly toward your goals, and be pragmatic about your path toward achieving them. I know so many college students who are working to pay for their college educations. Working during a gap year, or when you drop out, isn’t that different. It isn’t far-fetched to think that dropouts are supporting themselves, not comfortably coasting on the back of a loan.
The myths and stereotypes surrounding dropouts will likely never fade away completely. The same holds true for college students—plenty of people believe undergrads disconnected from reality and spend all their time partying. Every person is different, and by extension, their education and learning should be, too. When we seek to sum up our idea of something via an assumption about the many, we miss the few who are doing great things with their circumstances; the student who is maximizing their college experience, and the dropout is disciplined and engaged.
During my time out of school, when I was feeling particularly discouraged about people thinking I was wasting my time and succumbing to a perpetual Netflix binge, I received one piece of advice that stays with me: “Stereotypes exist for one reason. To be broken.”