Here at Refinery29, we believe that everyone is meant to march to the beat of their own drum. A path in life that works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. We also believe that women should pursue their dreams — and sometimes, those dreams aren’t at the end of a linear achievement track that culminates in a college degree.
We hear about men, especially startup entrepreneurs, dropping out of college all the time — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously
dropped out of Harvard, although he did end up getting his degree this year. Men are statistically a little more likely to leave school before completing their degree; a survey of students who entered college in fall 2008 found that 40% of men and 44% of women had completed their degrees within six years. We don’t hear about the women as often — but they’re there.
The seven women who told us their stories for this piece had originally planned to graduate from two- or four-year schools, but along the way realized, for various reasons, that college wasn’t right for them. They dropped out to pursue their passions, whether it was running an organic farm, founding a wellness magazine for people of color, or acting. Now, they’re exploring or thriving in their respective fields and helping redefine success.
Going off-script isn’t always easy, and many of these women have experienced financial and emotional challenges. But they’ve persevered, in addition to helping dispel the social stigma sometimes associated with dropping out.
Ahead, they tell their stories in their own words, including advice for others who may be thinking about leaving college to do what they love.
These interviews have been condensed for clarity and length.
Being extraordinary is about living a life of purpose. The Unconventionals is our celebration of extraordinary women who know there is no right way to follow your dreams, and are creating their own roadmap for success. These women recognize that progress comes from the urge to stir up the conventional in order to change the world.
Name: Adrian White
Occupation: Runs Jupiter Ridge Farm, an organic farm in Northeast Iowa, and freelance-writes (almost) full-time to help fund the farm
“When I was in college, I was pursuing a Spanish and English double-major. However, I took a few requisites for environmental biology, and got exposed to food politics and the deeply ingrained problems in our food system. Eventually I realized that I wanted to learn how to grow food myself and become a farmer. And I knew I wouldn’t be able to learn a purely hands-on skillset like that in college.
“I was already struggling with the concept of college: taking on debt, pursuing only work outlined by my degree after graduation. I decided to use my last semester to create my own personalized internship. I spent four months in Ecuador learning organic and biodynamic farming methods near Vilcabamba. When I returned with my knowledge and experience, I couldn’t bear to go back to college.
“So I dropped out. I opted to travel to organic farms all over the country and learn as much as I could directly from farmers. This eventually led me to opportunities managing farms and, today, to running my own farm alongside my husband. It has felt mind-blowing, rewarding, and has completely validated all my past choices. Our first year has been fantastic. We sell to restaurants, farmers’ markets, and more, and we donate a lot of food to people in need.
“My advice: If there’s something you really want to do and college is not necessary for you as a stepping stone, then don’t go. If your family or loved ones don’t approve or think that you won’t succeed, then prove them wrong, because you can if you completely rely on yourself.”
Occupation: Career coach who helps millennials “adult”
“I’m a career coach in Boulder, CO. I’m originally from the South Shore of Long Island. When I dropped out of community college, I worked for startups for about a year before quitting to start my own company. In that short amount of time, I learned sales, communication, and networking skills that helped me attract and retain high-paying clients as soon as I quit my job.
“My biggest advice for other women considering dropping out of college to start their own company is to do it, but do your research first. When I was considering dropping out of college, it wasn’t just because I couldn’t afford it. I was studying graphic design and in my spare time, I was self-teaching myself how to use industry tools like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. I found my curriculum to be outdated and could no longer justify working so hard to put myself through school. But I still needed a career.
“You can work underneath someone as an apprentice or attend an incubator. Whatever it is, you need some kind of guidance to grow quickly and correctly. Do your research and act strategically. It’s one thing to have a skill, but it’s another to market that skill.”
Occupation: Cofounder and co-CEO of Blended Strategy Group, a branding and marketing agency where she reps everyone from the Kardashians to Chelsea Handler to Revlon
“In August 1998, I began my journey at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I was excited for this new chapter of life, but very anxious about navigating through the academics. I was never a good student; I always had to work hard to get average grades and knew when I was in high school that I was better suited jumping into my career sooner rather than later.
“I still thought I needed to at least attempt college, and that is what I did! Through my two years at Arizona, I never connected with my retail-marketing major, I struggled with big lectures and tests, and felt uninspired. So I made the decision to drop out, move back to L.A., and jump into work. I had a long 17-year career learning, growing, and networking internally at Azoff Music Management before I left to start Blended Strategy Group.
“Starting my own business has been the biggest learning experience, and the most inspiring and exciting time of my career. I love that we have the freedom to be creative, and I love that I get to work with an incredible partner and team of women that support each other.
“I follow in my father’s footsteps in dropping out of college and going on to own a business and have success. My advice is that if you don’t feel like you are getting the most out of college and are feeling uninspired, it’s okay to move on from the traditional route. I didn’t have a written business plan when I left Arizona; I took a chance, believed in myself, and trusted my instinct.”
Name: Amber Janae
Occupation: Founder of The Core, a digital self-care and wellness magazine for people of color
“I am an author and creative based in San Francisco. I attended Diablo Valley College studying business marketing. I had every intention of transferring to The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, but after a year of college there was a large part of me that felt really incomplete. I knew all of my life I was meant to inspire others through my creative passions. I had discussed with family and friends about my decision to drop out of college and pursue writing, and a lot of them told me that it was a mistake.
“I dropped out anyway. I worked a regular 9-5 to fund my passions and to be able to fully invest into building my brand. My brand’s focus has always been about sharing my struggles with depression and anxiety. Since the launch of
my blog in 2012, I have maintained a consistent presence in the blogging world. I’ve also successfully self-published three books and two self-care workbooks.
“I recently launched my magazine The Core. I believe it is so important for POC to have their own publication that focuses on wellness. I love what I’ve created because it’s a source of inspiration and encourages emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
“I would tell young girls thinking of dropping out to follow their heart. You should absolutely have a plan in place and know what it is that you’re working toward. But if you feel there is more for you out there in the world and college isn’t a part of that plan, walk away. Always pursue what you love and sets your soul on fire.”
Name: Anna Bridgforth
Occupation: Actor, singer, model, burlesque dancer, emcee
“I’ve always wanted to be an actor; I’ve been doing it my whole life. When it came time to apply for college, the one school I ever wanted to attend, NYU, was so far outside of my family’s financial reach that I didn’t even bother. I ended up attending the University of Georgia. The culture there was not what I was used to or what I wanted. I had a hard time making friends because I was such an outsider, being a ‘yankee’ from Virginia. I joined a sorority. After one semester, when I attended a drama class taught by a professor who confessed to me he was ‘too scared’ to move to NYC, I dropped out, much to the dismay of my mother.
“I took a semester off and auditioned for theater schools in addition to landing my first paid film role. I settled on the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. After just two weeks, I dropped out. Looking back, I realize I just wanted to get to New York. And being 19 and invincible, having just finished my first professional acting gig, I figured it was just a matter of time before I was famous and why waste my parents’ money.
“After I got through my early twenties and the shame around the frequently asked ‘Where did you go to school?’ and the judgment of those who think of me as ‘uneducated,’ I am at peace with not having a degree. That being said, I consider going back to school every now and then, now that I actually know who I am and what type of education I might want. So far, self-education hasn’t done me wrong and I don’t regret a thing.”
Occupation: Actor and makeup artist
“I went to college in Maryland, where I was born and raised. I started staying in NYC to pursue my acting and makeup artistry. Then I moved to Minneapolis and still kept my room in the Bronx. I enrolled in an online university, but I decided to drop out. I didn’t have time for auditions, and I needed to start making money and pursuing all the career opportunities I wanted.
“I also enrolled in beauty school for a one-year esthetics-and-massage program. I was already paying all my bills by acting gigs and freelancing as a makeup artist for top brands. My parents were pissed and did not support me. I don’t have contact with my parents, but that’s due to deeper issues than me not deciding to work in the financial field.
“Following my dreams of acting and makeup artistry gave me the confidence I needed to survive on my own and distance myself from toxic people. I’m of color and extremely curvy. These are things my parents would remind me of, and they were always letting me know I need to lose weight. I love acting because it’s a healthy outlet to channel my energy. I love being a makeup artist because I get to build other people’s confidence.
“If you’re thinking of dropping out, weigh your options. Can you afford to do it? If not, how can you split up your time to follow your dreams, while still in school? It can, at times, be an absolute struggle following your passion. Mentally and financially. But you cannot give up! Take a step back from your friends, family,
and mentors and start channeling your inner diva. Your answer is in your heart.”
Occupation: Pursuing becoming a yoga teacher and birth doula, ultimately wants to teach prenatal yoga
“I dropped out of Ithaca College and my perfectly planned-out life in 2015, halfway through the second semester of my sophomore year because I was miserable. I was never exactly in it for the degree. I knew, in theory, having a degree may make it easier for me to get higher paying office jobs, but it’s not like I was lusting after corporate life.
“When I had done my almost two years, I felt like I’d accomplished a lot of what I had wanted to. I moved far away to an amazing place. I experienced a completely different life. I took art, philosophy, psychology, and salsa classes. I grew and grew and grew. I loved my boyfriend until I didn’t. I got piss-drunk at huge parties. I felt like I
did college. Of course, plenty of people questioned my decision to leave: my family, my friends, my ex. But I didn’t.
“I moved back home to Dallas, TX, to pursue a life of traveling, teaching yoga, becoming a birth doula, and doing other things that lit my fire. I lived and worked there for a little over a year to save for my yoga-teacher training in Costa Rica. I traveled to Panama, backpacked one solo month in Costa Rica (obtaining my 200-hour training along the way), wandered magical West Texas, the Blue Ridge Mountains, NYC several times, San Diego…while working my ass off in restaurants to pay for it. I’m also working on my birth-doula training currently and should be done within a year or two.
“I now find myself in another massive life transition (ex-fiancé suddenly called off our wedding). So I’m kind of dropping out again. I’m moving to Hawaii to volunteer at a retreat center. The island is a healing place, but also very isolated and energetically intense so you can get a lot of internal work done there.
“Be really forgiving of yourself when you’re navigating this stuff. And try not to be ashamed of being a college dropout. People aren’t weird about it when you present it as a decision you feel comfortable with.”
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