High School Minds, College Thoughts: A Degree vs. Experience Debate

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photo credit: nairaland.com

I recently found myself back at my high school 6 years later, speaking to a class full of juniors and seniors. A professor that I had back in 2008 asked me if I wanted to volunteer and speak to her class about my college experiences and how I planned everything. First things first, I planned multiple times and none of them ever happened.  I started sharing my experiences and realized that I was a complete mess and high school really pressured me to find out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. High school pressured me into thinking that the University of Minnesota was the only and best place to go to college in Minnesota. I felt out of place when I told my, at the time, 16 year old friends that I was going to a community college instead first – you know, to save some money. I think there is a fine line between experience and a degree and I think there is an unintentional pressure that happens in high school because everyone is so wrapped up about money, the name, where it’s at, etc. So as I walked into the classroom, I felt that I needed to make that point clear, that today, it doesn’t really matter where you get your degree. Sure, that’s a plus – but it definitely is not the only thing that determines where you will go and what you can do.

“Do you regret your choices?” they asked.

As I told my story to the class, I saw that a lot of people were asking me if i regretted my choices and if I could go back, if I would. Obviously the answer to that was no. Even though I have some strings in me that tug and tell me what I would go back and start over again, I felt that if I didn’t go through what I did, I don’t think I would find who I was today. I told them, you are constantly figuring out who you are. All the time. 24/7. You may not think it but everything you do in life must have a meaning right? I was honest with them and what happens in the real world. Even though a lot of teachers say that you should do whatever makes you happy, stay true to yourself, it’s hard because creative people, like me, didn’t think a job out there was possible for artsy people. On top of that having people judge you and say that creativity makes no money and that it was useless was just harsh and demotivating. I made sure I emphasized this to the class, that sometimes weaving around in college and life is not a bad thing. You have to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life and no one asked you to be in school forever to be successful. Granted that there are only a few who dropped out or never went to college ended up being lucky- but no one said that you have to be perfect to be successful in the workplace.  What you want to do for the rest of your life is a HUGE question. I even question myself that still sometimes.

I gave them an example that I still strongly believe stands true. I was told by this by one of my first college instructors at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

“You can have a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering with no background experience and apply to the highest paying company, it won’t compare to someone who has just their Bachelor’s degree with a background full of experience.”

“So I don’t need to go to college, right?” the kid asked.

From my experience, experience is key in college and job hunting. If you really think about that quote, why would a company hire someone who might  know the job because they’ve been in school forever instead of hiring someone who had less schooling, but has already demonstrated in their resume that he/she does know what they’re doing and has done it before? I shared interview questions and that seemed to get a lot of heads nodding because it started to make sense. No company has ever asked me, “Where is your degree? Can you show me proof?” Nor did they mention in their requirements before I applied, “please bring a copy of your degree.” Instead, they asked questions like, “Describe a time where you were struggling to with 3 projects at once. How did you prioritize? If you haven’t worked previously, give an example revolving school work.” Many of the questions revolved around how you handled situations, if you were to be put in a situation, what you would do, how you prioritize, etc. There is one question that a student asked, “So if you don’t need to show them your degree, you don’t really have to go to college right?” I actually did not know how to answer this question besides, “of course you have to! If you do end up getting hired and you don’t perform well at your job, obvious that you did not go to school for that study and you’ll get fired.” But deep down, he made a good point, something I should probably look up too. I’ve had about 5 professional interviews in my lifetime and none of them asked proof of my degree. Clever kid.
I did make sure to mention this, hoping that it would stick with them forever and that was, “ no one told you to stop finding yourself. If you declare a major and in 2, 4, 6 years you find out that it wasn’t for you and you change your mind – do it. Life is about finding things that make you happy. You weren’t born into this world to please other people but yourself.” College is a life changing journey.  I truly believe that this debate is definitely something high schools should be talking more about with their students. 

The degree vs. experience debate has been going on for a long time. Although there are tons of articles out there on the internet, I found that this one simply laid out the pros and cons of each. Read it here.

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