Alternative routes: Success beyond degrees

“What are you going to do with an arts degree?” a lot of people, students and parents alike, often ask. Substitute art with philosophy, education, or any discipline not associated with common white-collar career paths, and the question remains equally ubiquitous.

We live in a society where choosing mastery over one’s interests over job security has become questionable, and chasing dreams an afterthought. If one’s degree choice is so scrutinized, what more if one were to drop out of college — gasp — entirely?

Take Gabriel Bustos, an adolescent three years removed from high school. He started out as a BFA Information Design student in Ateneo  and dropped out to pursue his studies in UP, applying for a BFA Painting degree. After a second drop out and a return to the same program the following year, on his third try, he finally called it a day and decided that college was not for him. Now he makes ice cream for a living while working as part-manager, part-chef in Glassbox, an events organizer and venue. He also does freelance art on the side.

Conventional thinking tells us he made the wrong choice because supposedly, everyone is better off with a degree. We’re given one path to success: sent to grade school, told that it’ll prepare us for high school. We study in high school to prepare for college. We work in college to get ‘good jobs’. And we strive in those jobs for a leisurely retirement which ultimately leads to death. We’ve unknowingly streamlined our lives, merely being told “it is what is best for you.”

The trodden path

Wake up.  Smash alarm.  Eat.  Bathe.  Wear clothes.  Go to school.  Sit and listen. Hang out with friends. Go home.  Change clothes, eat, sleep.

This is the format of the basic routine that nearly students have been familiar with for more than a decade of our lives, a routine that we all either enjoy or endure for the sake of a purported bright future with a stable, well-paying job, a nice house and car, and probably our own family.  Regardless of whether we believe that to truly be the case, we soldier on, having our own ways of making the P40,000 to P70,000 worth of tuition fees count.

Looking at statistical figures from the country’s National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB), we are not alone.  With some 2,770,965 people enrolled in higher education back in school year (SY) 2009-2010 in public and private schools alike, in disciplines ranging from agriculture to trade, it is safe to say that the modern trend in education in this country is skewed towards obtaining that college degree.

But sad to say, not all of these hopeful enrollees wound up with said degrees.  Data from the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) show an obvious and scary disparity between the figures of enrollees and graduates.  During SY ‘05-’06, around 2,483,274 students enrolled in private and public higher education institutions.  Three years after, in SY ‘07-’08, only 444,815 graduated.  Of course, not all students spend exactly three years in college.  Regardless of the differences in length of stay in college, that 7-digit enrollee figure versus 6-digit graduate figure disparity persists throughout all other school years from 2004 until 2009.

All that, and we have not yet even touched on the ominous matter of employment after graduation.  Three years and hundreds of thousands of pesos later, not even a degree will guarantee you landing a job that does not involve answering calls or handing out credit cards.  No law exists saying college education is a must for everyone, yet it is dreadful to think of what kind of looks we will be getting from others when we answer “I’m not studying” to the common family reunion question of “What degree are you taking up?”

For some reason, going to college is an unwritten law of modern society, considering how even online part-time, piece-rate writing jobs require a degree in English.  If even degree holders are not guaranteed proper jobs, how much more will dropouts and high school graduates fare in the world of first impressions and resumés?

Not too shabby

It’s become part of popular lore, stories like Steve Jobs dropping out of college in his first year, only staying to sit-in on creative classes he fancied. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, and the list goes on for billionaire CEO dropouts who aren’t doing so bad after going against the supposed odds.

And then there are others.

The Philippines’ own Edgar “Injap” Sia dropped out of the UST Architecture program. He then worked to bring Mang Inasal from its humble beginnings in an Iloilo parking lot to its current rank as the second-largest fast-food chain in the Philippines, overtaking even the almighty and venerable McDonald’s. At the ripe age age of 35, Injap had already achieved billionaire status.

Success, however, can often go beyond money. In the culinary arts, there is Cristeta Comerford. After dropping out of the University of the Philippines’ Food Technology program, she moved to the United States where she bounced from kitchen to kitchen until finally landing a gig in the White House. During the Bush (Jr.) administration, she was promoted to executive chef, becoming the first woman and person of Asian descent to do so. That’s a non-degree holder tasked to please the stomach of the man with the second largest number of nuclear warheads at his disposal.

Warheads aside, there was also national artist N.V.M. Gonzales, first president of the Philippine Writer’s Association and founder of The Diliman Review, who never finished his undergraduate studies in National University. He went on to be internationally recognized for works such as the Palanca-winning (and HUMALIT-syllabus-prescribed reading) The Day the Dancers Came and has had his works translated into 4 different languages.

Another author, the late Ray Bradbury, widely regarded as one of the best fantasy and science fiction storytellers of the 20th century, never attended college. Instead, he spent entire days, three times a week, in libraries. He called himself ‘library educated,’ and even went as far as to say that ‘college is a bad place for writers.’ Indeed, whispers accusing educational institutions of killing creativity have been around since Bradbury’s time.

In linguistics, we can cite the lexicographer and author of one of the more definitive and internationally recognized Filipino-English dictionaries, Vito Castillo ‘Vicassan’ Santos, a lexicographer. Back then, the Mapua dropout and son of grammarian Lope K. Santos realized “there was no good Filipino dictionary. I wanted so show all these academics I could do it even without a college degree.” Show them he did, as he went on to write Vicassan’s Filipino-English dictionaries, and it all began with a series of 3×5 index cards where he painstakingly wrote every word, its translation and etymology.

Never a safe road

When asked for his reason as to why he decided to forego college, Bustos answered, “Learning does not equate to educational (institutions). I do believe in learning, in feeding the mind, but I don’t believe that I have to be in a (college) system to be able to do that. I’d rather learn from experience.”

Dropping out of college is never an easy choice, and by doing so, Bustos may have called forth a cloud of uncertainty to loom over his future. But doesn’t that hold true for all of us? Degree or not, we all face futures riddled with uncertainty. The only thing that sets Bustos apart is that he dared to deviate from the prescribed path, and in his case, that meant ditching the four walls of the classroom.

Bustos chose to follow a dream the way he saw best, and in the end, that’s all that really matters to him, and perhaps the same would go for those who forsake conformity and take this riskier road.


By rebadomia.renielle

John Sarao

By John Sarao

Ronnel Tumangday

By Ronnel Tumangday

2 replies on “Alternative routes: Success beyond degrees”

This article has left me with questions.

-What is this article trying to say–drop out of college? (And no, I’m not trying to be stupid by asking such a basic question. I just really really want to know what made you guys, personally, write this.)

-Given that the following are true: a) people could be successful if they graduate, b) people could be successful if they drop out, c) people could be unsuccessful if they graduate and d) people could be unsuccessful if they drop out… What then is the determining factor for success? Or maybe, what I’m trying to ask is:

-What did these guys (successful drop outs) have that others (unsuccessful drop outs) didn’t have? What was it in their personality that made them succeed? (Because as it seems now, they just looked like they were the lucky ones). (Were they trying to beat the system because they thought they were better than it? Did they had this general notion that college was bad for you, even before they entered college? What did they do? What was their values?).

I think there is no definite answer to any of your questions, really. I guess this might sound cliche but whatever path you choose to take, whether you drop out of college or not, there will always be those certain circumstances or events that will lead you to success. Some people call it “a hard work’s pay” others call it “luck”. But based on what I read, the road to success entails tenacity and dedication in whatever field you pursue. Just look at those successful people the author cited. Sure they may have dropped out of college but they didn’t slack off to fulfill their dreams.

I think the article is just trying to show that going to college does not necessarily pave the way for a successful future because a successful future is determined by one’s sheer passion, hard work and even some luck to get to the top.

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