Today’s post is a guest submission from Leisa Miller, a 20-year-old American currently living in Warsaw, Poland. Leisa is a college drop-out, autodidact, world traveler, polyglot, classically trained violinist, phonetician, and writer with (in her words) “entrepreneur-ish tendencies”.
The rules of success are as follows: “Go to school, get your degree, get a job.”
And yet there’s a lot of whispering going around that college isn’t necessary for getting a good job, making good money, or living a good life. We’ve all heard the rumors, the success stories, the debates. Kids are starting their own businesses and actually succeeding. So there’s another rule that’s becoming popular: “If you’re going to break the rules and skip school, you need a plan.”
I broke the rule about breaking the rules. I dropped out of college when I was 19, and I had no job lined up and no clear idea of what I was going to do instead.
Falling In Love with Learning (Disillusionment with School)
I’ve always had a love for learning. In middle school, I used to carry around pocket dictionaries and memorize the definitions of new, funny-sounding words like “epitome” and “Machiavellian.” I taught myself foreign languages for fun in high school. I read about the psychological theory developed by Erin Berne called transactional analysis, and I watched calculus lectures on Khan Academy when I was bored. I also had a fascination with classic dystopian novels, specifically those by Orwell, Zamyatin, and Ray Bradbury.
I had it in my head that university was the pinnacle of learning and intellect. I thought it would be a place where I would finally feel at home, a place where I would be surrounded by books and scholars. I thought I would be encouraged to think and debate and grow. I thought it would be a place where independence and self-motivation was necessary, a place where laziness would not be tolerated. I thought it would be a place where independent, scholarly minds meet and exchange ideas. But none of that held true.
I had few professors who seemed to care about the classes they were teaching. Some were always late, and others would drone on in a monotone while lifelessly clicking through PowerPoint slides. And yet attendance was mandatory and graded. And when I complained to my classmates about all the homework, they usually said, “But if we don’t have homework, how do we know if we’ve mastered the material?” It seemed like autonomy and self-reliance were foreign to most of my peers. I came to see college as a glorified babysitting service. And it was really hard for me to accept because I had dreamt it to be so much more.
I became disillusioned. University wasn’t the palace of learning that I expected it to be. And according to those rumors that were going around (those stories of kids dropping out of school because the degree doesn’t guarantee a job after graduation), college wasn’t preparing people for the work environment either. I started getting anxious and restless. If I couldn’t go to college to learn, and if I couldn’t go to get a job, then what was I there for?
I became estranged from my parents in my second semester of university. A lot of factors led to our falling out (my disgruntlement with university was at the forefront), but there were also a lot of religious undertones are often difficult to explain to outsiders. I was finally starting to find my voice and have my own opinions, and I started distancing myself from the faith I grew up in. I began disagreeing openly with my parents on values like the meaning of humility and the absoluteness of authority. In one particularly heated conversation, I remember saying to my father, “I’m an adult. I just have my own opinions.” His response was, “You are not an adult. The law may say you’re an adult, but you’re still a child.”
There was a lot of crying and a lot of yelling, mostly exchanged through phone calls and email. At the time, I thought my parents were playing mind games with me. One minute my mom would call me crying hysterically about “throwing away everything we’ve worked so hard for,” and then ten minutes later my dad would call to berate me for “dishonoring my mother and father.” It was exhausting and it hurt a lot. It took me a long time to make peace with the bad memories, but I know now that my parents were just as scared and confused as I was. I can attest that being the child in a parent-child estrangement is truly traumatic, but I imagine that it’s just as hard on the parents. No one wants to see their child fail.
As the exchanges got nastier and nastier, I retreated into myself. Being told that you’re “in danger of hell fire” by your parents is terrifying. I was too scared to answer their calls and emails. So I stopped. Shortly after that, they turned off the service on my phone as a way of saying, “Well if you aren’t going to answer us, you aren’t going to answer anyone.”
So we had a falling out that resulted in no contact for almost two years.
That first summer where I was on my own was surprising. I came across the concept of an au pair, a young person who’s hired by a foreign family to help out with childcare and other household tasks. The idea is that the au pair gets to work and live abroad, and the family gets light help around the house and basic childcare. So I made an account on a website that connected potential au pairs with hiring families. Soon after that, I started Skyping with a wealthy family in Moscow, Russia that was specifically looking for an American to come teach their kids English. They paid all my expenses to come live with them that summer. They shared their home with me, their culture, and their language. I was in Moscow when the Malaysian aircraft was shot down in Ukraine. I watched the Russian government broadcast their investigation on national television. I saw protests in the streets of Moscow, the Russian people apparently eager to invade Ukraine to support their brothers in Donetsk. The orange and black ribbon of Saint George, symbolizing a unified Russian support of the Eastern Ukrainian separatists, was everywhere. It was an insane experience. And it didn’t cost me a penny.
So why did I leave Russia that summer? It wasn’t because of lack of safety. It was because I “had” to go back to school. I had to do my duty and get an education. Believe me, I was kicking myself for months at my naïve sense of duty.
Stepping Off the Conveyor Belt
After working in Russia, my university studies were just that much more miserable. I stopped going to class and only showed up for tests. Once, I even skipped a quiz in one of my sociolinguistics classes because there was a library book sale downtown that I wanted to be first in line for. I finished the semester with a 3.5 GPA. That was more proof to me that university was a total joke.
At the end of the semester, my bank account was dry. I had been working as an RA for the university, and even if I got a second job, it wouldn’t have been enough to get through school without going into debt. It was inevitable. So it was time to take out loans to finish paying for my “education.”
And that’s when I finally had the courage to leave. I was unhappy with the education I was getting. I was unhappy with the social environment. I was unhappy with how much it would cost me to continue. And I no longer had any parents around to please by getting the degree. So I quit.
After that, I was sleeping on my sister’s couch, changing poopy diapers and babysitting her kids, working full-time as a cashier at Walgreens, and reading everything I could get my hands on. After 3 months of being completely clueless about what I wanted to do with myself, I came up with this idea to start a business offering accent modification services. I loved phonetics, so I figured I could teach foreigners to lose their accents and actors to pick up new accents. I worked on the idea for months. I planned to take another crazy leap and move to New York City to launch my business. But I never made it to NYC.
During all of this, I was scouring the internet for cool work opportunities. I waded through countless ads for personal assistants, governesses, in-home tutors, and au pairs. This is how I met a businessman located in Warsaw, Poland. He is a founder of several ecological companies in Poland, and also had recently started a foundation called “I QUIT SCHOOL!” His wife is a nonviolent communication counselor, a university lecturer, and a simultaneous interpreter of Polish and English. They both travel frequently for work. And so they were looking for some kind of helper, someone to fit seamlessly into their lives, an extra pair of hands that would help life run smoothly. Flexibility was a must–because plans change a lot. Being good with kids was an essential part of the job–because they have two kids. Bonus points were given for being a native English speaker. My response? “I hope you aren’t axe murderers because here I come!”
So what’s my official title? I’m an administrative assistant for the company Ziemia Polska. What’s my job in reality? One giant question mark. Someone’s got to catch a train at 5am? Better set my alarm so I can drive them. Someone left their return ticket at home and they’re already in Vienna? Hold on, I’ll text them the serial number. I sign for their packages. I keep a record of household expenses. I’m often the go-between with the Russian-speaking housekeeper. I’m largely responsible for replenishing their fridge and pantry at home. I pick their kids up from school. Once I even got the tires changed on the car. Yeah, before I got there, I didn’t fully comprehend the fact that I would be speaking to the mechanic myself. In Polish.
I’ve gotten an education that I could never have gotten in a classroom. My communication skills, which I got from haggling with the vegetable vendors every Wednesday at the open market in Polish, surpass those of my peers. I can organize accent reduction sessions, negotiate consultation fees, and interact with potential clients. I’ve gained problem-solving skills from all the times that someone has left the car in the city center and then suddenly informed me that I had to find a way to pick up the kids in half an hour. I’ve acquired confidence in taking on new tasks, coming up with plans of action, and seeing things through to completion. I’ve developed a sixth sense for predicting what needs to be done before someone else notices or asks me. And I’ve learned to not blame anyone when something goes wrong (including myself), but to simply keep a cool head and look for a solution. The entire world could catch fire tomorrow and I would just chuckle and go find a hose.
The Beginning of the Story
My story of dropping out of college isn’t the usual glamorous tale of a bright young mind with “the next big thing” in the workshop. I’m no Travis Kalanick. I’m no Michael Dell. I’m no Mark Zuckerberg.
I’m Leisa Michelle Miller. And when I quit college, I was scared out of my mind. I was estranged from parents, and I had no plan for what I wanted to do instead of school. All I knew was that I was utterly unhappy. I quit because of a gut feeling that grew and grew into a knowing that college was neither the key to success nor to happiness. I’m still trying to uncover what I want to be “my Life’s Work,” but through dropping out of college, I have already discovered what fulfills me and truly makes me happy: hustling for new opportunities, searching for Truth, and creating things of value.
My story isn’t over yet. This is all just the beginning.