The Path Less Traveled By

In a district where college is the common expectation after high school, opting for a different path can be trying.

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photo by Julia Poppa

The college presentations easel outside of the auditorium is on perpetual display. And why not? The expectation is that we’re all college-bound.

Any NASH student who even blinks in the direction of the auditorium has seen the easel plastered with the names and banners of the colleges who send representatives on recruitment missions here. The counselors talk to us about college, we’ve had Naviance accounts since 9th grade, and every year we celebrate a day of Spirit Week by parading around in sweatshirts bearing the names of colleges we have not yet attended. Our teachers even publicize their alma maters, joining in on college apparel day. Even GOAL students have seen an increased amount of college-oriented field trips presented to them, the latest a seminar on acing the college interview.

Because college is the only acceptable answer, right?

At North Allegheny, it is all we are taught to believe.  College, we’re led to think, is the only acceptable path after high school. It is etched into our minds, often as early as middle school, and subtly forces us to submit to the upper middle class ideal: earn a degree, land a job, invest in a 401k, get married, buy a house, have kids, and retire comfortably. Many of us see this future as the only option, and for some it seems ideal. But for a few of us, the call to follow the straight and narrow rings hollow.

I personally do not plan to go to college. When I say that to friends and adults, they flinch, before instructing me with unsolicited suggestions about keeping my options open.  I’ve heard it from my therapist, my parents, my counselor, my teachers, and even my friends have told me to not have my heart set on a non-college path. And frankly, it’s frustrating — not only because it is condescending but also because it is misinformed.

There are students at this school who could become successful pilots, artists, and musicians, if only we we did more to encourage them.   There are vital blue collar jobs that we all expect to be filled when we’re adults, yet practically no one here seems to have any interest . 

Our parents went to college and they have become at least moderately successful, so to them the college path is the only one they expect.”

The term “new collar jobs” is new and relatively unknown, but it encompasses the many thousands of jobs that require technical skills but not a four-year college degree. Sonographers, medical technicians, and IT analysts are all considered new collar. To become a diagnostic medical sonographer, for instance, you can have a bachelor’s degree in sonography, but it is just as acceptable to have an associate’s degree or attend a one-year certificate program. 

Likewise, blue collar jobs are no less important. The college pressure placed on upperclassmen in high school threatens to drastically shrink the population of blue collar workers. Yet, the most we hear about blue collar jobs at North Allegheny occurs during our freshman or sophomore years when Beattie Tech is briefly mentioned and not really valued as a viable outcome for graduating students. 

College is always met with a approval from our parents and teachers.  After all, it makes sense. We have grown up in a safe, well educated, upper middle class area. Our parents, our relatives, our neighbors, and our teachers all attended college. 

But my story is different. After high school, I plan to enroll in flight school. 

I know what you’re thinking because I’ve heard it so many times before.  “Keep your options open.” 

That’s why watching my peers go on college visits, attend presentations from college representatives, and have all of the resources they could possibly need at their fingertips can be exhausting.  My path is essentially do-it-yourself, and it feels as if I’m the only one who believes it can be done.

When I say to friends and adults that I’m not planning to go to college, they flinch, before instructing me with unsolicited suggestions about keeping my options open.”

It is totally understandable in a district like NA to have college-focused post-secondary discussions with the student body.  But in a district that prides itself on being inclusive, it seems fairly hypocritical to leave its nonconforming students behind.

However, it is not only the teachers and administrators of this school that seem to exclude non-college aspirations as a viable option. The parents of this district contribute just as much to this stressful college-only culture. 

I remember my dad used to boast to me about how he was the first one on his side of the family to attend college. My grandparents were so proud of producing a college graduate from their backgrounds of steel working and homemaking. My mother graduated from Carnegie Mellon, and then returned to college for her Doctorate of Psychology when I was in elementary school.  She graduated at the end of my 7th grade year. And while I am extremely proud of her accomplishments, I constantly feel as if I won’t live up to my parents’ expectations. 

I love the fact that my mom is one of my most loyal supporters, that she encourages me to follow my dreams and attend flight school.  But she also subconsciously contributes to the anxieties and doubts I have surrounding my career path. I can confidently say that she doesn’t mean to, nor do most parents mean to exert such an influence, but I am nevertheless constantly reminded of the shadows I live in. 

It feels fairly safe to say that parents operate out of experience. They try to parent to the standards they remember their parents adhering to when they were our age. They put rules in place for us based on the mistakes they made and later regretted. And in most cases, our parents went to college and they have become at least moderately successful, so to them the college path is the only one they expect.

In the time since I began writing this article until now, I have had three separate conversations with people who are concerned that I’m not planning on college after next year. A friend, my mom, and a teacher all expressed their opinions on my future. I can’t determine whether all of their concerns were born out of care. Perhaps they were just projecting their own life goals onto mine. It started to feel as if they see my future plans as a blank slate to be wiped clean and replaced with their own, because they do not see success in the path less traveled. 

The college-intensive climate in which we have existed for so long has narrowed our sights. Some of us have been over-prepared for a future that we may not want. 

It’s time that this school accepts that our future will be paved, not only by our scientists, engineers, and doctors, but by all of the students who leave this building with hope for themselves and for a brighter future.