Thursday, September 15, 2016

Why I Decided to Go Back to School || Confessions of a College Drop-Out

Why I Quit

In the winter of 2013 I dropped out of college after my first semester of my sophomore year as a music ed student. I had little notion of going back to school at the time and I had no motivation to think about my future whatsoever. I wasn’t in a place emotionally where I could make those kinds of decisions, so I simply deferred it for a year or two. Many people somberly informed me that, “You know what they say about students who drop out of college...they never graduate.” And whenever I mentioned possibly going back to college, I mostly received negative cynicism as a response. But if I am honest, at the time I didn’t really want to go back to school. I didn’t really want to do anything. This begs the question, why did I drop out of college in the first place?

My brother Ben died in an accident when he was seventeen years old on December 6, 2013, the week before final exams. It’s not fair to attribute me dropping out of college entirely to my brother’s death, though it certainly had a lot to do with it. I was already dissatisfied with my major and considering taking a break before my brother died. That’s actually one of the last conversations I remember having with my brother, asking him what I should do next. I was already not in a good place emotionally. I was overextended, exhausted, depressed, and ready to be done with everything. When my brother died, whatever little resolve I had to keep on keeping on died with him and I just needed to get out, get away from everything.

My brother died the weekend before finals, the weekend we were supposed to go to a choir concert together. He missed the two finals for the classes he was concurrently enrolled in at the time. I wandered around campus the following week in a traumatized sort of daze, receiving nervous glances and spontaneous hugs and words of sympathy from students and faculty alike. I did my best to finish any remaining finals I had and to coordinate schedule changes and make-up times with my professors, but I didn’t really have a heart for any of it.

In hindsight, my decision to quit school was probably not the wisest. It’s not a good idea to make a big life change right after a traumatic loss. Moving was definitely hard for a lot of reasons and it proved more stressful than I imagined, but ultimately it was the best decision I could make at the time. It brought me closer to my family and gave me space to be alone and work through my grief while at the same time not be totally isolated.

Why I Decided to Go Back to School

It seems one bad experience with college should turn me off of it forever, right? For a while it did but slowly the idea was reintroduced to me and I began to reconsider it in a new light. My friends, family, boss, and coworkers began to ask me if I was interested in further education opportunities and possibly working toward filling in different positions at my job in the future. I had some time and saved money on my hands, so I began to think, why not? Opportunities started opening up and I began to explore different options. A lot of different programs piqued my interest, but I ultimately wanted a program that would open up even more opportunities instead of limit my qualifications to one specific field. I eventually landed on Mass Communications, a program that entails technical writing, speech, journalism, photography journalism, and all other forms of media, a good combination of creative fields applied pragmatically.

This fall I enrolled in two classes, an introductory class to the program and a gen ed computer class, nothing too strenuous, a nice way to start wading in the shallow waters of coursework once again. I was happy to see many of my music credits actually transferred into my Mass Comm degree and I have enough that I will probably end up double-majoring or minoring in music. Ultimately I was surprised at how easy it was to go back to school. For some reason I had built up this huge mental block—maybe because of the statistics, the stigma surrounding college dropouts? I don’t know. But in a couple days, I had completed my application, enrolled for classes, retrieved my student ID and parking permit and—boom!—I was a college student all over again.

But wait....why?

The short answer? Because I want to. I have given it a lot of deliberation, trust me, about two and a half years' worth of deliberation. 

It was hard for me to get past all the negativity aimed toward college drop-outs. And I believe this is why it’s difficult for so many people to go back to school once they have dropped out, because going back is like admitting you were wrong in the first place. It's a blow to our pride (I wonder how many of our decisions and opinions are solely based on personal pride?) The thing is there’s nothing wrong with dropping out of college. There’s nothing wrong with foregoing college altogether. So many people who never went to college have successful careers and businesses. In fact, skipping college altogether is often the smarter option these days as it means avoiding years and years of tuition debt (I have yet to accumulate any, praise God!) and nothing but a degree that is becoming increasingly less valuable to show for it. A college degree does not necessarily guarantee success or even intelligence. Ultimately, whether you succeed or fail in life simply depends on how you use whatever gifts and qualifications you have (and how you define success in the first place). 

But you know what would be wrong? Blaming “college” for the fact that I decided to drop out of college and suddenly pretend that I’m too good for a college education. Because even though I dropped out of college, I still learned a lot during those two years and I wouldn’t be the person I am today if not for everything I learned then. It is one thing to say college is something I don’t want to do and that it’s not for me. It’s an entirely other (and overly reactionary) thing for me to vilify it simply because I personally had a bad experience. Any intelligent person can see the institution of higher education for all its advantages and disadvantages apart from their emotional bias.

Before I was ready to go back to school, I had to remember that ultimately this doesn’t define me. My possession of a college degree or lack thereof doesn’t define me, my worth, or even my success. My take on life might seem a little flighty to some, but I’m still not dead-set on acquiring a college degree. This is the opportunity I have right now and I’ll follow through with it and learn what I can until the door closes, but it’s not a make-or-break situation for me and when I view it more openly, somehow I find myself even more motivated to move forward. After all, it’s not about the end result as much as it is about what we learn along the way.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Favorite Things || Summer 2K16 Extra Edition

This is your fair warning that I might not be writing as faithfully on this blog in the next few months. I will probably be more sporadic, in and out, but I promise to verify that I am alive every now and then, even if I am mostly absent. What is my excuse, you might ask? Well, I have a lot of them, but most involve schoolwork and the fact that my sister and roommate just got engaged. Wedding-planning has a way of absorbing all your extra time and energy, as I know from experience. Not to mention over the next few months I’ll be busy making plans for the future and figuring out where I am going to live next year.

One thing God has been reinforcing in my life this year is to embrace every new season and transition with open arms, to not shun from change simply because I know it will be hard and uncomfortable, especially when that change is initiated by a happy event like a wedding.

>>Live music from Flashpoint
>>spontaneous road trips
(thanks to my brother Greg!)
>>hiking in the Ozarks
>>revitalizing power of God’s beautiful creation
>>coffee & tea (let’s be real—not much has changed)
>>The Underachiever’s Manifesto by Ray Bennett

>>college classes!
>>catching up with best friends (always)
>>anticipating autumn
>>unpacking and shopping for fall clothes
>>albums “Stranger Trails” by Lord Huron and Jon Foreman’s “Wonderlands”
>>learning about journalism
>>Midwest sunrises
>>Everyday Minerals lip balm (thank you, Anna!)
>>Everyday Minerals Sweet Coral blush
>>this wonderful article by my friend, Missy
>>”You Know Me” by Air Traffic Control and "Go" by Cody Fry
>>playing my accordion (his name is Danny Boy, by the way)

>>playing my favorite Disney numbers on the piano
>>finding the perfect wedding dress (for my sister)

What are some of your favorite things this summer? Am I the only one who is ready for fall?!?!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Stop Justifying Your Creativity

[DISCLAIMER: Because I always feel the need to explain myself, this blog post was written chiefly to myself and is not intended to dissuade any writer from publishing books or making money off of writing. It is simply to encourage writers who don't glean anything from their writing, at least in the world's eyes, to keep on with their craft. Creativity is its own reward.]

I spend more money maintaining this website than I make from it, because I don’t make a cent off of this website (no ads here). It might be cool someday to reach a point where I have thousands of followers and subscribers, an email list that extends to infinity, and boodles of sponsors pouring money on me. Indeed, that would make all of my current seemingly-fruitless endeavors on this blog worth it! But I don’t need money, sponsors, or thousands of followers to justify the existence of this blog or what money I spend maintaining the domain for my website. Money or even remote success has never been the goal and never will be when it comes to my writing.

When I was in high school I used to write novels or attempt to at any rate. I participated in the NaNoWriMo challenge several years in a row. For the record, all of those novels ended up in the garbage bin and I pray they never see the light of day again. At the time it only seemed natural for a person who loved to write to call herself an “aspiring author”. That’s what all writers are, right? We are authors-in-the-making. Authors who don’t make a living off of what we do, but anticipate getting something from it at some point. Except, not. After high school I decided I didn’t want to write novels or publish books. That wasn’t my dream or my vision. Maybe one day I’ll endeavor to write a worthwhile book, but if I do it will be when I’m much older and have gained the wisdom and experience that makes rich worthwhile material.

About three years ago I started working a day job as an administrative assistant. The majority of my hours every day are now spent entering data into a computer, drinking coffee, standing by the copy machine, answering phone calls, and whatever menial tasks my coworkers and employer might need from me. It’s a quiet, humble job, but I enjoy it thoroughly. I work in a plant and in some ways it reminds me of Gaskell’s North and South. There are so many different types of people from different walks of life where I work—the mechanics, machinists, engineers, accountants, salesmen, and the list goes on.

This is not exactly the kind of job I imagined ever enjoying but I really love it and I enjoy it all the more because it’s expanded my understanding of the world ever-so-slightly. It’s helped me become an adult, given me a bigger reference point for my understanding of the economy, society, business, and even politics.

My job has also helped motivate me to write.

I always assumed that in order to keep myself inspired and invigorated for my craft, I would need to keep myself surrounded by like-minded people who thought like me and shared my love for creative endeavors. Connecting with like-minded people is fantastic and inspiring, but it’s normal life that fuels a writer’s pen—the plight of the everyday man, the surge and decline of society, and how every beating heart fits into the giant web of this world and eternity. I think of my favorite authors—Chesterton, Lewis, Dickens, Gaskell—and what inspired their writing? Eternity. Humanity. Society. I also think of when my favorite authors published their best novels and I don’t think any of them ever wrote anything worth much at the age of fifteen, except for maybe Chesterton.

My point is, when it comes to writing and writing something worthwhile, maturity, experience, education, and perspective are vitally important. These are things I don’t have much of at this point.

Maybe the best thing we can do for our creativity is to let it incubate and not stir it up before it’s grown to full fruition, kind of like love and romance. Don’t wake it before its time. And in the meantime, stop calling yourself an author when you haven’t published any books and stop feeling like you have to publish a book and make money from your creative craft as soon as you possibly can to justify your writing. We writers know we don’t write to sell books. We write because we need to. We write to understand and to give understanding.  Our society would have us believe that if it’s not making us any money, it’s not worth it, but we know that’s not true. The best things for our souls never benefit our bank accounts. So stop justifying your creativity. Stop justifying your writing. Write because you need to. Write because writing is its own reward. Don’t be in such a hurry to get the grand prize. It will come when it's time, trust me.

It is nice when you have some credentials to show for your creativity, but the only thing that makes your creativity worthwhile is when you’re willing to do it with or without anything to show for it, when there’s no guarantee of a reward apart from the writing itself, be it credentials, trophies, or money.

Friday, August 26, 2016

What I Learned From Grief and Failure

"He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity in man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end."
(Ecclesiastes 3:11, ESV)

I learned to take care of myself. One of the first things I discovered when I moved out of my parents’ house shortly after my brother died is that I didn't know how to take care of myself. I didn't realize that I needed to buy food until I opened up the cabinets and there was no food. When I was sick, my first instinct was to simply stay in bed and wait for someone to come take care of me. Consequently, I was not very good at taking care of others’ as well. Being aware and responsible for my own physical needs and being responsible about eating well, exercising, and getting sleep (haha) was a steep learning curve for me and in many ways I still miss my mother whenever I’m sick. But learning to take care of and support myself supplied me with a self-confidence I wouldn’t otherwise have. I mean, at least I know I can survive on my own!   

I learned to mourn. While we are on the topic of steep learning curves, this one might have been the steepest. Mourning is never simple or easy. After my brother died, I discovered that I had a lot more to grieve than his death. His death was by far the greatest loss and the instigator for every other consequential loss, but a lot died when he died and it was difficult for me to know how to mourn it all. There was the loss of my family as I knew it. We were something different now, something broken and eventually something new and whole with time and healing. There was the loss of home as I knew it. Home wasn’t the same without Ben and I had to redefine my world, where home was for me. I had to mourn the death of an era, the death of my innocence, and come to grips with this broken, weak, and grieving version of myself. I had to confront all these things and mourn them before I could move beyond them.

I learned to love others. Grief brings out the worst in you. It holds a magnifying glass up to every single one of your flaws and sins and when you’re living in close-quarters with loved ones who are similarly grieving, well, you can just imagine the kind of intense sanctification that ensues. After my brother died, I learned that I really didn’t know how to love others. I never loved my brother as much as I should have and while I was blessed with a sweet friendship with him, there are still many things I regret about our relationship, words I regret saying, words I regret never saying, and love I never demonstrated. I hope I have grown a little since then. I know I still have much to learn.

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven."
(Ecclesiastes 3:1, ESV)

Everything comes in its season. Life is inherently transient. We never stay in one place. Families change and grow. People move. Loved ones die. We move, we grow, we change, and we age. I used to think that the best thing I could do with a good thing is hold onto it for dear life, but when we think about our lives as a series of transitions, it actually opens us up to be more thankful, grateful, and present in the moment. It helps us place everything—our loved ones, jobs, pursuits, relationships—in God’s hands, hold onto this short life loosely, anticipate eternity every single day, and accept whatever season God places us in. One thing I deeply appreciate about my family is that we are not adverse to change; rather we take every transition in its stride or at least do our best to. I believe this ready acceptance has helped us stay so close together even as we all grow up, spread our wings, and move on to different phases of our lives.

I learned to budget. Supporting myself on my own income and learning how to budget my time and resources has been instrumental in my growth as an adult. I spent the last couple of years getting out of debt and this year is the first year I have actually started enjoying budgeting. It’s exciting, sometimes stressful, and I'm not always the best at spending my money responsibly or intentionally, but ultimately I have fun managing my accounts and saving for the future. I hope to write a little more about budgeting on this blog in the future, but for now all I want to say is that having to support myself on my own income has opened up my eyes to God’s provision in my life. Specifically, giving and tithing to the church each month has been a testimony of his goodness. Because even during all those months I was struggling to get out of debt and practically flat-broke by the end of each month, I still had money to give to the church, I still had more than enough!

I learned to set boundaries. One thing I learned from my first year-and-a-half of school, after I dropped out of school, was that I had no idea how to set boundaries in my life for my time, energy, and personal resources. Those boundaries had always been predetermined by someone else. But over the last couple of years I have learned to simply say “no” when I don’t have the time or energy to do something or, better still, when I simply don’t want to do something! It’s good to have a willing spirit, but it’s better to be able to follow through on all your willingness and that’s kind of impossible if you overextend yourself by saying “yes” to everything. This is still something I struggle with, but with each passing week I “take the reins” of my own time and energy more and more and it’s an awfully liberating sensation.

I learned to know my own limits. It’s not easy to admit to your own limits, especially in our culture’s day and age where we’re told “we can do anything!” and you have no excuse for not doing everything. But it’s actually vital to our success and well-being to know our own limits and maintain them. So I don’t have as much energy as so-and-so? So I don’t have as much natural talent as someone else? So I'm not as intelligent as some? So I don’t have that specific gift or opportunity? That’s all right. I have limits. My body has limits. My mind has limits. My opportunities are limited. Knowing and accepting those limitations is the first step to expanding them, finding direction, and finding your place.

I learned how to establish myself as an individual in a greater community. Moving to a new city completely turned over my previously established community. I had to learn how to start from scratch, so to speak, make new friends and connections, and get involved in a new church family. That’s not to say I completely abandoned my old friends and family. They just took a different place in my life, a more revered place, almost. What’s that saying? “Make new friends but keep the old...” Reaching out to my church family and the broader community of a new city gave me a lot of confidence as an individual, confidence that no matter where I find myself in the future, I know how and where to find a community and I’m not afraid or inept at reaching out, making new friends, and rooting myself in a community of people.

What are some lessons you have learned over the last year through your circumstances? What has God been laying on your heart recently? 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Why We Need Authentic Validation

Last week I watched this beautiful short movie Validation for the first time and basically all I want to do now is do what this guy does when I grow up. He practically summarizes all of my life goals. I think we can all agree that validation is vital, not simply for our self-esteem, but for our personal growth and emotional well-being as humans. Yet it is something that is extremely undervalued and cheapened in our society. A couple weeks ago I shared an article describing a few of the potential pitfalls of social media. My last point in that article was about using social media as a platform for cheap self-validation. For instance, sharing selfies and photos to achieve likes and automatically feel successful (guilty as charged).

I am going to be honest with you—I like sharing the occasional selfie and, yes, I feel validated when people like my pictures because I put substantial effort into putting myself together everyday, taking that exquisitely posed picture, and choosing the perfect filter to match. But I will be the first to admit there is a fine line between feeling comfortable in your own skin and being obsessed with your skin, your features, and your face and being obsessed with maintaining that quality, filtered, Instagram image of yourself. Because let’s face it, 75% of the time, the pictures we share on social media are not accurate representations of everyday life.

That’s the problem with social media. It’s insta-validation but it’s not real validation. If anything, social media teaches us that we don’t deserve validation on days when we don’t look like we appear in our posed and filtered profile pictures. Not only that, but I feel like social media dissuades us from offering authentic validation to others in real life. It takes a lot more effort and thought to give someone a legitimate compliment in real life, to listen to what they have to say and validate the way they feel, confirm their opinions, intelligence, and personality characteristics, instead of simply liking their photo online. Real validation takes observing someone—not in a creepy way—but in a generous, attentive, loving, and honest fashion. It also takes a giving heart that expects nothing in return. Compliments are not genuine when they are only given with ulterior motives or the expectation of having your compliment returned.

This beautiful short movie prompted me to think of the many people in my life and their many good qualities, and how often do I validate those qualities? Granted, I think it would get old fast if I kept up a steady stream of compliments for my friends and family all day long—I don’t know, maybe they would like that—but sometimes I wonder if we need to stop being so self-aware and self-conscious and instead take time to be genuinely thoughtful and appreciative of others. Because when it comes down to it, validating others takes more effort and skill than we might think.

Real, authentic, meaningful validation takes effort, honesty, genuine appreciation, and the absence of personal insecurity and envy. In order to validate someone, we have to be able to look at what they have and the gifts and talents they were given and simply appreciate them without coveting what they have. In order to really validate someone else, we have to conquer our own insecurities and discontentment. I don’t know about you, but this might be the greatest point of weakness for me. Envy is easy to bury and keep silent, but it’s an ugly monster that rears its head into visibility ever so often and is most evident in our hesitation to genuinely appreciate other people in our lives—to be able to rejoice with those who rejoice and to build one another up.

Let us challenge one another—to stop the vicious cycles of comparison, envy, self-deprecation, gossip, slander, even “soft gossip” and instead use our words to genuinely validate and build one another up, to wake up every morning with so much thankfulness in our hearts for the people in our lives that we can’t help but let our gratefulness spill out of our mouths, to be less aware of our insecurities and failures and more aware of the good gifts in our lives. Let’s look to fill needs and give grace wherever we can. Let’s be aware every single day of how much wealth we have—yes, wealth, and this is coming from the broke college student—because I for one have always had more than I need. And if you really thought hard about it, I think you would agree with me that most of us don’t have a lot of reasons to complain.

Do you make a habit of genuinely validating others? Do you have any tips or advice for offering real, authentic validation? Have you ever struggled to receive compliments or validation? 

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