The following post is written by Amber Grubenmann, a former dropout turned success story, and contributor to UnCollege's Ask A Dropout Series. Ask your questions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #DropoutQs.
I’ll never forget the first week of high school. I had just moved to Switzerland from New Jersey and was going through a total culture shock. School had begun with no hesitation and we had our first math test. The math was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was even less familiar than the German language I was adjusting to. I got a 1.2 score on the test, with 1 being the lowest grade and 6 being the highest. My classmates tried to encourage me and told me I’d do better the next time.
But I didn’t.
I failed every math test, every 3 weeks, for the next 4 years. My other grades had kept me afloat for a while, but eventually they had to eject me from the program.
I felt like a complete failure. I was so ashamed to tell people I wasn’t in high school anymore. All I had left was my job as a cashier at the local grocery store, which isn’t exactly a well-respected position in society.
In an effort to make up for my lack of a high school diploma and prove that I am intelligent, I took the GED test in Switzerland. I passed, but I honestly felt no different. Nobody in Switzerland even knew what the GED was. All of my friends had passed through high school. Was I just not as smart?
I spent the next year working odd jobs and trying to repair my self-esteem. I was looking for answers about who I was and what I could do with my future.
I was so insecure, that the tiniest mistakes would rattle my confidence. If I messed something up on the cash register at work, I would think, “I’m even too stupid to be a cashier.” I perceived everything I did as a direct measure of my intelligence and worth, even if there were other variables such as another person’s mood or past experiences.
After about a year, I was deep in a rut. I felt I hadn’t truly achieved anything with my life so far. I also hadn’t learned anything new in the past year by working at these odd jobs. I was no one going nowhere. I didn’t know what I was interested in and completely lacked a vision for my future. I felt like a car stuck in mud. Working hard everyday, spending time and energy, but ultimately not making any progress.
During probably one of the lowest points in my life so far, I was introduced to Tony Robbin’s 30-day program. I remember listening to the first tape and hearing him say, “The past does not equal the future.” A perspective I had never thought about before. All this time I thought I had to carry around the baggage of being a dropout, when really I was finally free to become whomever I wished.
I struggled in setting goals, which was a big part of the program. I was so lost that I didn’t have a vision for my life beyond next week, so when I started setting goals they were usually something along the lines of “clean my room” and “call back Grandma.”
What ultimately brought me out of my rut was the realization that I still had a deep desire to learn and grow as a person. I hadn’t yet reached my potential and I certainly wasn’t done striving for it.
As both the program and time went on, I started to feel like I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my friends much longer. They would be graduating that year and going off to college, doing internships, and gap years abroad. I would still be working at the same minimum wage jobs. I felt an incredible urgency to do anything notable with my life.
I figured that the only way to rid myself of the feeling that I was a failure, was to go back to the root of the problem- school. Every direction I looked I saw but one obstacle, which was math. If I wanted to go to college I’d have to take the required math courses. I wouldn’t even apply for a job as a waitress because I was so afraid of doing math. If I could only take one or two math classes in college, and pass them, I would know I am smart. I wouldn’t be a failure anymore. The curse of math would finally be lifted.
I reluctantly decided I would go to college, frustrated that after one and a half years outside of school, my only chance at a happy and successful life would be to go back to the place I hated so much.
My mom told me college in America was different. It’s easier and it’s fun. Basically all I will have to do is read books and then answer questions about those books on the test. She told me I can get a tutor to help me with math and after only one semester it will be over and I’ll never have to deal with it again.
She wasn’t wrong. The one semester I attended at Santa Barbara City College was fun. I didn’t actually take math classes that semester, but somehow I wasn’t afraid of it anymore because my other classes had been much easier than what I experienced in high school and there was a ton of support available to me from the school. I joined the adventure club and we went on hikes. I met one of my best friends in Spanish class. I worked at the coffee shop which I hardly considered work since it was so much fun.
There was however, one moment in the first week where I had opened the textbook from one of my classes, stared at the tiny print, and started crying. This for the next four years? My parents calmed me down and once again told me I was just feeling this way because of my experience in high school. I moved on with the semester.
I suppressed my feelings for a while longer, but eventually felt frustrated again. Why is this my only option? What if I don’t want to go to college? Why does someone else get to decide which classes are relevant to my goals and worth spending hours of time and hundreds of dollars on? Why are we given multiple-choice tests?
“Hiring bright, passionate people is an idea more attractive in theory.” – The Seven Laws of Learning
Bright passionate people always ask why. This sounds like a positive thing, but it can be seen as a negative trait when you are constantly asking your teachers and parents “why do we have to learn this?” or “how am I ever going to use this?” or “why is college so expensive?”
I realized my frustration was arrogant. Nobody owes me a life perfectly tailored to suit my needs. People in history who have changed the world weren’t angry with their parents or grandparents for not having changed it for them already. They took it upon themselves. They stopped complaining and started acting on their ideas for a brighter future.
Fast forward only a few months and I have created a blog dedicated to supporting dropouts in the way I wish I had been supported and providing tons of free resources. I am an intern at an alternative education startup and have led my first workshop for dropouts at UnCollege headquarters, sharing all I had learned about marketing myself as a dropout.
The most meaningful accomplishments of mine today are emails and messages I have gotten from young people who were inspired by my writing and found my advice to be helpful.
If I could go back and tell my younger self a few words the day I dropped out, I would say: “Within every challenging experience you have, there lies an opportunity to help other people, to grow, and to learn.”
Everyday I wake up at 6 am, and I get to work. Why? Because I know there are dropouts who think they are stupid, who have been told lies about their potential, and who have been marginalized by society. There are young people, just like me, who think they are walking this journey alone and I want them to know they are not and they can do incredible things with their life, beyond what anyone else ever imagined for them. I want to find the best resources and tools available to dropouts, or create them.
For the first time in my life I not only know what I am doing, I know why I am doing it.
I am as frustrated about the issues surrounding dropouts as I am excited about the potential solutions.
So ask yourself, did you drop out because you are you’re not smart, or because you are bright and passionate?
Did you dropout because you just don’t fit in and there is something wrong with you, or because you are a leader who has the courage to make decisions for themselves?
You get to decide.