School has always been a breeze for me. I was raised by a single teen mom who still lived with her parents, so my mom made sure education was a priority. I graduated from high school with honors and ended up with great scholarships to my university of choice. But, four years after my high school graduation, I found myself having a conversation with my mom that I thought I’d never have. I had made the difficult decision to take time away from school.
My decision to temporarily drop out of school after taking eight semesters of classes has been a difficult one for friends and family to swallow. At family gatherings, my grandparents’ questions have shifted from the familiar, “when are you going to settle down?” to, “when are you going to back to college?” Their sentiments are understandably informed by the idea that dropping out might be a bad idea if you’ve taken out financial aid to pay for school, and they’re not wrong. Student loan debt without a degree is almost like having a mortgage without owning a house.
While these sentiments are compelling, I maintain that taking time off has been one of the most important and positive decisions I’ve ever made.
Did I Choose the Wrong Major?
My first year of college was in 2010. As a first-time college student and the first person to move out of my grandparents’ house in a generation, I was thrilled to have newfound independence and to be studying something I was passionate about. I had a flexible, part time job, which was perfect for school. I was studying music at a small institution, where I attended three semesters. In a last minute audition, I was accepted into a more competitive institution and would be transferring schools just weeks before the beginning of the next semester.
That transitionary semester was by far the most difficult I’d had to date. I had brand new private instructors, a higher credit load, more performances to plan and practice for, and had found a new job that was closer to my living situation. Many of my credits didn’t transfer appropriately, meaning I would either have to test out of them or repeat courses I already knew the material for. Music was something that I had enjoyed my entire life, but the frustration and difficulty of the work became overwhelming, and ultimately something I grew a distaste for.
This was the same semester I stumbled into an introductory sociology course–one of the only electives available during late registration period. I fell in love with it. Like so many other students before me, I felt as though I had chosen the wrong major.
After that semester, I spoke to an advisor in the Sociology department and planned on switching majors, which for me was quite the undertaking. Believe it or not, Music programs and Sociology programs don’t have a whole lot of mutual degree requirements. Despite having more than enough credits to be halfway done with my undergraduate degree, I was for all intents and purposes starting from square one.
How Depression and Anxiety Caught Me Off-Guard
My third year of college was a breeze. I was completely pleased with my decision to change degree paths. I loved learning about feminism and the Civil Rights movement. Social theory was invigorating, and I loved delving into my homework each night. After that semester, I was given the opportunity to take Advanced Gender Theory, and I was asked shortly after to be a teaching assistant for an introductory women’s studies course. I was once again thrilled by education.
But what was a breeze during my third year of college wasn’t as easy in my fourth year of college. For the first time in my life, school was difficult, but it wasn’t because of the subject matter. I had a hard time focusing on school work, and even during times I could motivate myself to study, I had a hard time remembering the subject material. My sleep schedule was all over the map. I became increasingly anxious answering questions in class, so much so that I could barely stand the thought of being around people and missed class more often than usual.
These weird symptoms were present in activities outside of school as well. Even the things I was most passionate about seemed to lose their appeal. At that point I had been playing live music for my entire adult life and was given the opportunity to travel the country with some of my closest friends, opening for musicians that had long inspired our careers. But the idea of doing that was more exhausting than exciting.
My work life was also severely affected, not at all aided by the fact that the company was in the middle of a managerial overhaul. With that change came all of the consequences consistent with organizational stress, including absenteeism, burnout, high turnover rates, and poor job performance, from not only myself, but other employees as well. As a self-diagnosed workaholic, new feelings of apathy and lack of motivation were new terrains.
I dealt with these feelings for the greater part of the semester, pushing myself enough to make it through classes, but my professors had noticed that my fire had seemingly been snuffed out. After a few emails from my advisor expressing concern about my academic progress, I dived head-first into WebMD to see if I could in some way confirm what I had feared throughout the semester. My symptoms pointed to a diagnosis that many young college students face: anxiety and depression.
At the time, the realization was confusing and somewhat devastating. I had incorrectly stigmatized mental illness as something a person could turn off. I had assumed that depression was fleeting feelings of sadness, rather than a serious medical issue that at least one in four people are diagnosed with in their lifetime. I was also unaware that depression symptoms can lead to a variety of other health issues if left untreated, including drug and alcohol abuse and heart attack, among others.
Temporarily Dropping Out of College is Right for Some Students
After much deliberation and extensive conversations with my mentors and counselors, I confidently made the decision to take a break from school. I prioritized my mental, physical, and emotional well being, and in doing so ensured that when I do finally return to school, I will have the skills and coping mechanisms necessary to deal with mental illness, and I will be at full capacity for learning, rather than skating by on mediocre grades and experiences.
I’ve been out of school for well over a year now. As a result, I’m in a much better state. And, as far as mental health goes, but I’ve also been able to sort out methods of coping with other stressors that were detrimental to my overall success in school, including finding a new, better-paying job and moving into a healthier living situation.
Making the choice to leave school is a difficult decision for anyone. College dropouts are the recipient of a variety of negative and often unfair social stigmas. But the fact of the matter is, that while many students are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, there are just as many students who would benefit from a little time to sort through whatever difficulties they’re facing at the time. I’m confident that because of my decision to take time off that when I’m ready to return to school, I’ll be prepared to finish strong.
Danika McClure is a musician from the Northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. Follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl.
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