I was 20 years old and hated my life. My third year at Dalhousie University had wrapped up and now I sat three provinces away at my parents’ house in Toronto, crying into my butternut squash soup. My concerned parents flanked me on both sides at the kitchen island as I broke the news that I would not be returning to school in the Fall.
Given the distressed tone of many of my phone calls to them over the past school year I am sure they knew this was a possibility.
“Are you sure that makes the most sense?” my Dad asked gently with a serious gaze turned on me across the marble countertop. “You only have one year to go.”
“It might not make sense, but I’m so unhappy that this is just the right thing to do,” I said.
“Okay, I understand,” he said. My mom nodded. And just like that, I was a university dropout.
At my uptight Toronto private school, the idea of taking a year off after high school was akin to getting pregnant or acquiring a face tattoo. So even though I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, when I was accepted to Dalhousie, a good school on Canada’s east coast, I went. Halifax is a beautiful seaside city with a fantastic music scene, sprawling parks and a famous Farmer’s Market. I made friends with a big group of people and we partied constantly and carved out fleeting slices of time for schoolwork when we weren’t fighting hangovers. At the beginning of my first year I began dating a boy I worked with in the summers who was a year ahead, and spent lots of time with him and his friends. Everything seemed to be going well until I began my second year.
I moved into a cramped house with four of my friends. The first month or two were fun, but it quickly became apparent that these four girls who I had partied and enjoyed spending time with in my first year were staying the same while I was changing. I wanted to write for the paper, hang out at bookstores, go to interesting concerts and cook healthy food. They wanted to trash talk everyone they knew, blackout every weekend, and recover in a coma-like state on the couch in between these activities. This growing divide didn’t just extend to my roommates-it felt like everyone I used to be friends with I could not connect with anymore. Instead of trying to branch out and make new friends, I spent all my time with my boyfriend and his friends. When I broke up with him right before the school year finished my second year, I wasn’t sure I had much left in Halifax. I committed to a room in a new house with the same roommates for third year, but when I left for the summer I was not sure I would be coming back.
That summer I worked for my fourth at a canoe tripping summer camp in Ontario where as a leadership trainer, I took teenagers on multi-week canoe trips. The rewarding nature of the job made me feel confident and productive, and I worked with wonderful people who pushed me to challenge myself. Feeling so great during the summer showed me how flat I felt in Halifax; I rarely woke up excited about the day ahead like I did at camp. One afternoon in August I sat in a corner of the dusty, well-worn staff lounge, and as kids ran past the door to lunch, I phoned my mom to tell her I wasn’t going back to Halifax. She was concerned but trusted my judgment. A week later, I chickened out after realizing with terror that not going back meant having no plans for the first time in my life. Three weeks later I began my third year of university and the worst year of my life.
I lived in a new house with the old roommates, but their behavior was the same. I would overhear their disparaging remarks about me when they thought I wasn’t home and endured their passive aggressive behavior when I would not go out with them or pursue hobbies. Walking into the house filled me with dread. By October the happiness and confidence from my summer wore off, and I sat sullen and uninterested in my English literature classes wondering what on earth I was doing with my life. I majored in English because I liked reading and writing, but nothing in my classes engaged me and I felt like I was wasting my time.
In hindsight I realize that I could have made more of an effort to get more involved, to choose better roommates, and to take more control of my life in Halifax, but at 19 I just was so consumed by the fact that I wasn’t having the quintessential defining university experience. Everyone always said that you made your lifelong friends in university; I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know a lot of these people past next Tuesday. By February I hibernated in my bedroom, dealing with serious anxiety and unmotivated. I was accepted into an exchange program to Scotland for my fourth year, and although it was a great opportunity and meant I could leave Halifax early, I was just not excited.
My worried mother flew to Halifax at the end of the school year to help pack me up. After the movers carted away my furniture, I stood in the big empty, sun-filled bedroom that had been my home during a terrible chapter in my life. I placed my keys on the chipped mantle of the defunct fireplace, picked up my bags and walked out of the house. I should have felt relief but I just felt like a massive failure.
That fall, as young people everywhere headed back to school, I applied for a job working at a ski resort in in British Columbia. I was hired to work in the daycare and made plans to move 4000 km away to the Kootenay Mountains into a big rickety staff house with 6 strangers in a quirky mountain town called Invermere, a short drive from the resort we all worked at. I worked long hours, snowboarded on my days off, and made friends with people from all over the world. The following two winters I spent living and teaching snowboarding in the nearby town of Fernie, in the summers I worked at camp, and in the off-seasons I travelled to Central America and the Yukon.
It was life changing being surrounded by a wonderful network of characters in Fernie who had made decisions based on what made them happy, even if their lifestyles were unconventional or challenging or their families did not understand. My best friend had worked as a navigational officer on yachts based in Spain before moving to BC to teach snowboarding and now runs a ski school. My other friend had worked a boring desk job in London and then at 26 he quit, moved to BC where he worked as a DJ, snowboard instructor and studied natural building. Another friend is a much loved carpenter and ski instructor who squats in a homemade camp in the woods by a river, sleeping there even during the winters when temperatures can drop to -40 degrees Celsius. These people and others changed my perception of normal and showed me that taking a different route can lead to success and happiness, even if other people question your decisions. Dropping out of university changed my life because it made me showed me that my life decisions have to be based on what I want, not what others around me are doing. Every major decision I have made since I left Halifax in 2010 has been based on what makes me happy, including my eventual return to school.
Throughout my time in BC and my summers at camp, I slowly completed one semester of online courses. For my last semester, Dalhousie let me study abroad in Wellington, New Zealand. I got my degree, but I did it on my own terms while pursuing my passions of snowboarding and travel. I applied to several grad schools last year in the hopes of pursuing a master’s of journalism, but was doubtful of my chances due to the glaring two-year gap in my undergraduate degree.
One bright day in March 2013 after a day on the mountain, I walked slowly home through Fernie, past towering snowbanks and tiny cabins to my house, knowing that important emails from grad schools were being sent that week. I walked through my door, tossed my backpack on a hook, and found an acceptance email to NYU. Instead of being disappointed by my patchy degree, the program director told me she was impressed with my unusual background. I am happily at the end of my first year of my masters at NYU, and I know that after I graduate wherever I end up, I will be there because I want to be. We are often told that persevering and a failure to quit are the keys to success. I believe that sometimes giving up can be the smartest move of all.