January 16th, 2009

College Eh?

By Tom Danielson

Three of my friends and I headed off to the same college at the same time. I was the only one who ended up graduating. It wasn’t that I was any smarter than the others. Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I am often dumber than a box of rocks. The reason I made it through all of the hoops and hurdles is very simple: I went in with a plan. In fact, in my high school yearbook, under future plans, it actually says, “to become a high school graphic arts teacher.” When I started college I knew what I wanted to do and knowing there was a light at the end of the tunnel made it a lot easier to get up for an eight AM class.

Our society has been doing a huge disservice to kids for a long time; as parents we have done one to our children; as teachers we have done one to our students. We have made entering college a life goal. Kids hear throughout their academic years that getting into a college should be their primary goal, and so once a kid is accepted to college, they feel they have achieved their only goal. No wonder the college dropout rate is so high. These same kids wander around from major to major with no direction. They have already met their life goal and have nowhere else to go.

What we need to tell kids is that a career should be their ultimate goal. Although we might imply this, we don’t make an effort to formalize it. Kids should first find something they have an aptitude for and that they like, and then find a career that matches it. If a four year college is a step in reaching that goal, then so be it. A two year community college might be even better for some kids. Some will even be ready to start their careers right out of high school. In any case they now have a goal that is more purposeful. It is a hell of a lot easier to get up for an eight AM class when there is a good reason for doing so.

I had a student who was incredibly talented and took several of my graphic arts classes. He wanted to go straight into the industry. He was also quite close to another member of our staff. This other teacher and I had huge debates about what advice we should give him. I felt he was ready to start his career without college. After all, the kid had a clear vision of what he wanted to do and how to get there without additional formal education. The other teacher thought he should enter college for college’s sake. After all, this is America. College should be a goal for all kids. Fortunately, I won the debate. Two years out of high school he was featured in Time magazine for his accomplishments. Four years out of high school he owned his own business and is one of the leaders in his industry.

Another student left high school and went directly to a four year school. She knew that she really liked the graphics industry, but wasn’t certain which part of it she should concentrate on. After two years of struggling with general required classes she quit the four year school and enrolled in a community college that had a good two year graphics program. It was there that she found the right direction for her. A year later she was recommended for a scholarship to attend one of the leading programs in the United States. She completed that program, entered the industry, and now works for one of the leading graphic arts software developers in the world. Dropping out of the original school had nothing to do with academic preparation and it had nothing to do with how smart she was. It had everything to do with her purpose and why she was there.

College for college’s sake should never be a goal unto itself. Young people need to find out what they like to do; find out what they are good at. They should join those two things together and find a career that matches. If college is a step to their career goals, then great. If not, who cares? Spend time in an internship doing job shadows and taking career assessments. These activities will prove invaluable down the road.

I love my job. I could not imagine going to a job each day and not really wanting to be there. I knew from an early age that I wanted to teach graphic arts at the high school level. That was just plain lucky, but it has worked out for me. Now it’s twenty-five years later and I still enjoy coming to work each day. Taking additional classes and jumping through bureaucratic nonsense may not be all that much fun, but it is a lot easier knowing that it will get me where I want to be. If all kids were to shift their focus further down the road than college, I think they would find all the little steps a lot more manageable.

Tom Danielson was born in Winnetka, Illinois. 1974 (Where all of the John Hughes films were made). He reads a lot of history books. He drew a lot of army men fighting dinosaurs. He wrote a poem at age seven about D-Day. His first “design moment” came at age three, on a family trip out west. He would scream and yell until his brother and sister held his face inches from stops signs he would see. At that point he would drift into a quiet trance. It calmed him. He now lives in Brooklyn, where he directs art.

This essay first appeared in Never Sleep, a book written by Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert, published by de.MO. Summary: There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional. To demystify the transition, we share the failures, successes, and surprises during our years in college and progression into the field: the creative process, monetary problems, internships, interviews, mistakes, and personal relationships.