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In College and SEAsia: The Danger of Your Own Demons

“What does your status update about “consequences” mean?” I typed yesterday to my A+ superstar former student. “It’s really scaring me. I thought everything was going well for you in college!”

The student took a little while to respond, but at last he did: “I got kicked out of school housing for ongoing violations of school rules.”

The dangers of our own demons...
The dangers of our own demons…

“WHAT?!” I gasped aloud, startling the entire Thai island of Ko Lanta. “Please explain what happened,” I typed. “What violations?”

“Noise violations, alcohol violations… mostly being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the student responded. And then came the truly scary line: “Honestly I’m beginning to wonder if college is the right thing for me at all right now.”

Where do you stand?
Where do you stand?

I began hyperventilating. Our entire Twelfth Grade English course last year, we had researched and discussed the appalling college drop-out rate among Boston Public School students, precisely to avoid a moment like this from happening.

We had read endless articles and conducted interviews with alumni both in and out of college. We had listened to as many guest speakers as I could find. We had examined and practiced self-advocacy skills, and emphasized the importance of reaching out proactively for support.

Freedom brings responsibility.
Freedom brings responsibility.

But above all, we repeated the cold hard fact: a college graduate will earn over a million dollars more in a lifetime than someone who has only completed high school. It is ESSENTIAL to have a college degree to land a good job.

But despite all our efforts to prepare students, the adjustment from the police state of high school to the open ocean of college is terrifying. Freedom makes people crazy.

Fast forward ten hours. I was jolted awake at eight in the morning today by a sharp rap at my Thai beach bungalow door. When I groggily walked outside, I saw one of the nice British boys I had been hanging out with for the past week. He was clutching his backpack.

“Hey Lillie,” he said hurriedly. “We have to flee the island right now. I just wanted to say cheerio.”

When you set off on your own, be thoughtful.
When you set off on your own, be thoughtful.

“Huh?” I said, “What happened?”

“Well…” he paused and shifted his backpack, “one of us got his face kicked in by a Thai bloke last night for kissing the guy’s girlfriend, and now he’s out to get us.”

“Holy cow,” I said, reeling.

At that moment three German tourists limped by with giant bandages around their bodies. “Motorcycle accident,” they explained. “We were trying to do tricks.”

In the leap from regular life to either college or traveling, a door is suddenly thrown open to an sea of temptation. Though people always worry most about the danger of robberies or shootings, in both college and traveling the greatest peril is actually that crazy devil within each of us.

Watch out for the rocks hiding under the water...
Watch out for the rocks hiding under the water…

Want to stay awake for five days straight? No one is stopping you. Want to climb out on a roof and sleep there? Go for it. Want to completely neglect every sensible thing that must be done in order to stay in academic good standing in college, or to stay safe abroad? Few people will warn you, and if they do, you may not listen.

And thus every year, a tragic percentage of Boston Public School students fail or drop out of college.

Meanwhile, I have literally met thirty tourists so far in Southeast Asia who have leaped blindly into bodies of water and gotten slashed on the rocks below.

In Laos, one Swedish boy broke his foot on the first day of his three week honeymoon because he jumped from a tree into the two-foot-deep river below. There were no wheelchairs around, so his new wife was pushing him around on a rusty old bicycle. She looked furious.

We can warn incoming college students and outgoing travelers all we want, but sometimes folks need to feel the rocks under the water for themselves.

A Ko Lanta, Thailand sunset.
A Ko Lanta, Thailand sunset.

That’s the point when we all must reach in to dry them off, bandage their cuts, and yell at them: “Now listen to good advice this time!”

I turned back to the computer screen. “We care about you so much and want to make sure you find your way,” I typed to the student. “Please make sure to keep reaching out to us and to other people you trust for advice. But most of all: STAY IN COLLEGE!”

There are more than enough people out there to tell us how to avoid the rocks beneath the water. Let’s please listen before we leap!


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Jeremy Branham

Friday 29th of June 2012

I guess I was a different sort of kid from everyone else. I looked forward to college. I thrived there. My junior year, I met a girl and then my GPA "dropped" to 3.65 by the time I graduated. I worked and studied hard. I don't have any crazy stories. I never got drunk in college. Call me weird.

15 years after college, I now make 350% more than I did my first job out of college. However, I also love to travel. I write about travel. And I've gotten a lot of opportunities from it. The benefits of college go far beyond the tangible. Life lessons, memories, relationships, experiences, learning more about who you are as a person - all of these things are a part of that education.

In my opinion, I think kids are maturing at a much slower rate than when I was growing up. I think this leads to more drop outs and dangerous behavior. Shockingly, 18 year olds today aren't as mature as 18 year olds when I was in high school. That itself is an incredibly scary thought.


Monday 1st of November 2010

I cannot speak for the whole of SE Asia but I can for Thailand. Salary level here is 100% geared to education level and not to ability. It's crazy but a fact. Let me give you an example.

My wife (Thai/Viet) was asked to act as Translator at a business conference in a medium sized hotel in Thailand for one week. She lived, worked and studied in the UK for over 11 years and speaks reads and writes perfect English.

Bear in mind that they approached her, she did not apply!

She accepted the job and the hotel manager asked her what her Ed level was. She told him she left school at age 15. (minimum leaving age)

He told her the maximum he could pay her, under company rules, was 6000 Baht. As you can imagine she laughed.

They gave the job to a young girl with a Master Degree, who had decent but limited English skills. She was paid 20,000 baht - again the max' allowed by company policy.

To his credit the hotel manager was VERY apologetic but his hands were tied.

This is not atypical, it is the norm!

Imported Blogger Comments

Thursday 27th of May 2010

jforest said... I have to say, I'm no longer convinced at the usefulness of a college degree. Maybe it's just the difference between a private college and a public one. I spent (10 years ago) $30,000 a year to go to my private college. I'm still paying for it. (thanks to being laid off 3 times in 10 years, once for over a year and a half) I have $20,000 left to pay. I am not doing anything at all related to my degree. I never have. Maybe that's just poor planning on my part, but I don't know if the return on investment is there anymore.

I read an article that basically said, smart kids do well, no matter if they go to private or public college. You take out of it what you put into it.

December 18, 2009 3:45 PM

Lillie M. said... Thanks for your comment! Now before the rest start flying in, please bear in mind:

1) My dear student WILL be reading all responses and taking them into account in his future choices,

2) Statistics aside, everyone I have ever known (students, friends, coworkers, etc.) has had to get a college degree to advance their career, sooner or later. The degree IS necessary, and thus it is best to get it done as early and efficiently as possible.

JForest, you make a great point that either a public or private college is fine, just as long as the person gets the degree at the end!

I look forward to hearing other thoughts about this, and my student does, too!

December 18, 2009 3:53 PM

Franny said... Lillie, I think your well-meaning commenters are not seeing this argument from the perspective that perhaps you do as a former public school teacher. For a lot of people, this debate is about, "should I go to college and spend $100,000 on a degree I might never use and then will spend the rest of my life paying back" vs. "should I get real-world entrepreneurial experience by investing instead in business courses/real estate seminars/whatever it is that I am passionate about doing and think I can do without a college degree". Sure, perhaps if you have the discipline and the ambition, you'll be just fine without college because I agree with above posters, the degree ITSELF is not what's going to make you successful.

BUT. I don't know for sure and I'm no expert, but I'm guessing Lillie's student of concern is coming from an entirely different population than the previous commenters. The choice might be go to college vs. go to jail. The choice might be go to college vs. get a job at McDonald's and hope to make it to manager someday. I'm not being classist here; I'm just saying for some kids that come from homes/neighborhoods where there aren't great alternatives, college IS the ticket out, the ticket to being pushed towards something better, the ticket to being told they can do more than they believe, the ticket to learning skills like time management and writing and synthesis of information and networking and learning to deal with authority figures. These might be kids where dropping out of college could mean their last chance at being a professional. It's not just about a piece of paper, it's about breaking a cycle a lot of them are probably stuck in due to their circumstances.

And that being said - if money is the only reason people can think of NOT to go to college, there are scholarships. There is work-study. There is community college. A decision like this certainly is not deserving of being blown off just because we (me included) are pissed off at all of our debt.

Just my 2 cents. :)

December 18, 2009 4:29 PM

Jives said... As Lillie knows, I deferred my admission for a year high school and college so I could go work on a political campaign. I would recommend that to anyone who feels like they have something to sort out before going to get a degree.

But, you do need to go to college. I've been working on job searches recently and my colleagues are simply not looking at resumes without a college degree.

December 18, 2009 4:29 PM

Marco881 said... As a man who earns an above average salary in finance by way of a Poli Sci degree, I can completely understand your point about what a undergraduate degree actually provides in terms of preparation for a career. But it fails to acknowledge one fatal flaw... Without a college degree you can't even have that conversation with a potential employer.

A degree is the greatest and most easily attainable equalizer. It allows people who don't have the added benefit of family connections, or preferences based on race, gender or religion and most importantly easy access to capital to be able to legitimately show their potential to a employer by way of a short interview process.

A college degree is a prerequisite to recognition in the professional environment. Without it, you will never be percieved as an equal, or even more important, as competition. You will always be seen as having lacked intelligence, commitment or fortitude to complete a task. And the professional world is just as much about perception as it is actual effort and competence. If you're never seen as an equal then you will never be compensated as one, or given the opportunity to advance.

I believe there are plenty of people without a college degree that could do what I do, or what some of my co-workers do, but the simple fact is that we would never hire them. Doing so would be seen as a weakness by our competitors that they could easily exploit with clients. And more importantly it would devalue and demoralize our employees who have a college degree (whom are in the majority). They would be just as compelled as our competitors to question the companies commitment to success and acquiring talent.

So you see, if you can't even get in the room to be seen, how could you ever prove to an employer that you deserve to be there. I grant you that, if you design the next version of Microsoft Windows, or the Snuggie, you may be able to get by without a college degree, but thats just as likely to happen as hitting a 90 MPH fastball 40% of the time... And good luck trying to get a banker or venture capitalist to finance your great idea... They most likely got a degree, and are going to have the same question that anyone else who got a degree has... "Why didn't you?"

December 18, 2009 4:46 PM

nm said... Marco is dead on here. I finished school with B.A. in history. Not once have I applied my incredible knowledge of pre-industrial England to a professional situation, but it's been absolutely essential to my professional success. Without it, my resume would have been the first one culled from the pile of applicants for every job I've held since graduation. At least in the white collar world, a degree is like a passport or driver's license. Without one, you can't go anywhere.

By way of example, my brother decided to drop out of college his junior year. At the time, he told our parents that he was sorry he hadn't done it sooner because the entire exercise had been a waste of time and money. He'd quickly realized that the things he enjoyed most - playing music and painting - weren't going to make him enough money to have en enjoyable lifestyle, so he started applying for jobs. Newspaper reporting in a small town? Degree. Office manager for a pediatrician? Degree. Assistant librarian? Degree. Electrical? Associates degree or certification. He finally accepted that, even though he was intelligent, articulate and capable of learning quickly on the job, he wasn't going to have many opportunities. All that was holding him back was a piece of paper with his name on it (or, the lack thereof). It was arbitrary, but so are a lot of things in life.

Nonetheless, he refused to go back to school. He spent three years working construction and made extra money during the holidays by loading UPS and FedEx trucks. He liked UPS and considered signing on full time, until he discovered that he'd have to work part-time as a packer, showing up at 3:30 am and leaving at 7:30 am, for FIVE years before getting promoted to drive a truck. He figured he'd be better off sticking with construction and work his way up to foreman.

Somewhere along the way, he met a sweet girl, fell in love, and realized he wanted to marry her. The degree problem finally hit home. He wasn't going to be able to support a family and children on irregular construction paychecks, and even if he could, they'd be uninsured. He enrolled in a couple community college classes to test the waters and discovered that, with a bit more life experience and some appreciation of the doors a degree could open for him, the experience was much more palatable. He found an online program (BYU, go Mormons!) that would accept his previous work and packed in as many correspondence courses as he could while still working. In 18 months, he had both his degree and a good job as a sales manager for a construction supply form (degree required, industry experience a plus).

It's true that not everyone needs a degree. And it's also true that many middle class kids see college as four years of drinking and partying at mom and dad's expense, but that doesn't mean that leaving or skipping college is a good idea for most people. I hope your former student reconsiders. Has he thought about transferring?

December 18, 2009 6:07 PM

Tomas Sanchez said... I really enjoyed the article, it was very well written and describe the situation very well. I also appreciate all the commentary from everyone else. Thank you.

Everyone has mad a very valid argument for both sides of the situation. But I feel as if there is still some light that needs to be shined on the situation. For example, as Ms.marshall stated, I was use to being the A+ superstar all through High School and it paid off really well. I am currently attending Boston College with almost fully paid tuition. But, again, I've ran into a few bumps on the road. I got into a lot of trouble, and got kicked out of housing, as mentioned above.

All that we heard throughout High School was "the college work load is hard," "Its a ton of work," etc. The problem of the matter is that it wasn't that difficult. I was able to keep up extremely well in Boston College. Personally, I work better when I am challenged. I am studying Business Management, which as one of you stated it seems pointless to go to college to learn this, when it is better and sometimes more beneficial to learn from real experience. This past semester I've had business morality, morality, goodness, etc. forced in until the point of explosion. I have not picked up anything that I didn't or couldn't have learned without paying $23,000. With the exception of maybe, philosophy and the study of the bible, neither of which spark my greatest interest.

The problem isn't, should I go to college and get a degree or not go and try for a manager position at a McDonald, I do have other option. It seems as if the passion that I had to excel, to continue my education and be the best has just burnt out or gone from being passionate about my education to being passionate about something else, I just don't know where my passion lies anymore, or wether the college "education" is worth it. After this first semester of mediocre mandatory classes, and all the trouble i've gotten into, it certainly seems not.

December 18, 2009 9:16 PM

Franny said... Tomas - thank you so much for your comment and your honesty. And really, what an *AMAZING* problem to have that you feel you aren't being challenged enough about BC. I don't doubt you are extremely smart and motivated and after hearing from you, don't imagine you'd ever end up at McDonald's (full scholarship?! Amazing!).

I can tell you from personal experience attending a huge state school (University of Michigan), first year classes do feel like a load of crap - lots and lots of other kids, no personal attention, nothing that interesting to study, nothing that feels like you can't learn somewhere else - but I PROMISE YOU, it will get better, and after you finish your mandatory classes, you will have more freedom to find things that better suit your passions. You will have access to people in different industries that can help guide you into different careers, internships, or outside hobbies that will just add to your education. It's far too early in your college experience to make such a huge decision as dropping out, especially for the reasons that you stated. You have such amazing potential and the opportunity to really push yourself if you seek out the right community there at BC, or get a guidance counselor or business mentor that can help direct your passion to a place that will feel fulfilling to you.

Good luck - thanks for letting us all share our opinions on your very private decision. :-)

December 18, 2009 10:44 PM said... Another tourist getting kicked by a Thai. Muy Thai is their national sport! When will people learn to stop messing with these folks??

As for the bigger question you raise, I think you speak to most folks in the West. Most people are NOT laser focused to know what they want when they come out of HS so college is a great safety net for working.

I would say it definitely opens doors and establishes a baseline of education and competence that you may not be able to do with a HS diploma.

December 20, 2009 8:23 PM

Louisa said... I agree with everyone that college can seem pointless and it's also totally essential. What I think is really important to keep in mind here is that there are a million different ways people can go to college. You can go part time while you work part time, which can give more balance. You can go to a school with a campus and dorms and have that "typical" American college experience. You can go the touchy feely liberal arts route. You can go to an urban school where it's more like living in a city and taking classes, and you don't necessarily hang out only with friends from your school. You can even get a degree online, anytime anywhere. There just are so many options, some outside the mainstream, it's important (but really hard!) to figure out which is right for you. So maybe do some research, try another method, because BC is not for everyone. But don't give up on college altogether just because one way wasn't right for you!

December 21, 2009 5:34 AM


Monday 24th of May 2010

That is a pretty cool post. The idea of the freedom of travel and the freedom of Uni never occurred to me, but it really is similar. Culture Shock, Alcohol, no supervision, sometimes have to do things you'd rather not. Hmm the rampant kissing of other people's partners seems commonplace to both as well.

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