How I Went to College for Free As a High School Dropout

“Can you tell me where my daughter is?”

The day I stormed out of home after an intense argument with my mother, she called my school. I was fifteen years old and for the first time, I did not return after dark. The disagreement between my mother and I was too much for my burning teenage hormone to handle, so I decided to hide out at my grandmother’s house. A week later, I decided to return home but refused to speak to my parents for the following month.

A Burning Desire to Leave

This dramatic fallout with my parents started from an unlikely place — I had been wanting to study abroad ever since I was eleven but I just found out that my parents couldn’t afford to support me financially. My irrational teenage self didn’t know how to make it work without their support and the possibility that my biggest dream will never come true crushed me hard.

I had been desperately wanting to leave the exam-oriented education system in China where students were ranked on a weekly (if not daily) basis. Even as an A-student, I felt that the pressure was suffocating. Growing up in a small town in Southern China, I have never felt fulfilled by the quiet lifestyle there. I knew I wanted to be in a much bigger place and experience different culture. From hindsight, my anger towards my parents was totally uncalled for (and I deeply regretted my behavior) but it did make my mother realize how badly I wanted to study abroad.

One day, my mother handed me the local newspaper where I saw the picture of a high school girl on the front page. Apparently, this high school senior from our town got accepted by more than a dozen universities in America and one of them offered her a full scholarship. “If you can be like her, you can go do whatever you want.” said my mother. I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself, that’s exactly what I’m going to do!

Leading a Double-Life in High School

Soon after, I started senior high school. Instead of focusing on my school work, I started to work on strategies to get into universities in America.

In China, a lot of the top-tier high schools, mine included, require students to board full-time in the attempt to control their routines and add in extra study time. We had to stay in military-style dormitories where 10 students sleep in the same room on bunk beds. Every day at 10:45pm when the lights went off, the matron would come around each dorm to check that everybody is properly asleep. While some girls would sneak in their cellphones under the pillow to text their boyfriends, I would sneak in my 600-page SAT study guide with a flashlight to keep on studying for an hour before bed.

Sometimes, I would put my SAT books under regular textbooks to study during class — admittedly a disrespectful behavior but I had to do what I had to do. I knew that I had to squeeze in every bit of time to study for the SAT because I would be competing against American students who would be taking the test in their first language while for me, it is my second.

Soon enough, my time-saving strategies extended to activities outside of the classroom and some of my classmates found it quite strange. Every day at lunch hour, I would be the first one to dash to the cafeteria. Even though I was no good at any kind of sports, I suspected that I had become pretty decent at running by the end of the school year because of my lunch mad dash. My goal was to be the first in line to get food and finish eating in as little time as possible so that I could get back to test prep.

Less Than Perfect = Good to Go

By the end of Year 1 in high school, I felt confident to take the SAT after finishing piles of test prep books.

While most Chinese students find the Math section of the SAT incredibly easy, I was not the typical (or rather, stereotypical) Chinese student. I excelled in the humanities but had no talent in math and science whatsoever. When I came out of the testing center in Hong Kong, I thought everything was over.

When my test scores came out, I was relieved that I didn’t do as poorly as I thought. Of course, my Math scores couldn’t escape the derision from fellow Chinese test takers, most of whom easily scored a perfect 800. I still remember being told that I shouldn’t tell anybody I am Chinese because a 720 in Math is shameful.

I still remember being told that I shouldn’t tell anybody I am Chinese because a 720 in Math is shameful.

Ditching Ivy Leagues for Lesser Known Schools

With my less-than-perfect test scores, I still decided to apply early for college. Even though I could probably take them again, I have always been the kind of person to push things forward when I’m almost but not completely ready. Looking back, this mindset has served me well in many challenging situations. Years later, I learned from a seminar that many successful men also have the same mindset whereas a lot of women are held back because they want everything to be perfect before moving to the next step. Without understanding that I was taking the “men’s approach” in applying early, I sent out my first batch of college applications. I was 16 and a half and in Year 2 of high school.

I have always been the kind of person to push things forward when I’m almost but not completely ready.

By then, I had a realistic understanding of my family’s financial situation. I crossed out all the dream Ivy League schools that my parents would not be able to afford. Our limited financial means made my college search criteria incredibly simple: does the school offer full scholarships? My parents’ modest income and the fact that as an international student, I wouldn’t qualify for any student loans, in-state tuition, financial aids or off-campus employment narrowed down my list to a handful of schools.

In October of that year, I received my first offer from a university in Ohio with a 3/4 scholarship. I was beyond excited because that was almost as good as I had aimed for. The remaining 1/4 would still be a stretch for my family, but at least my dream would now be a possibility. The next month, I heard back from a school in Philadelphia that I had been awarded their full scholarship for the entire four years!

That day, my whole life changed.

That day, my whole life changed.

Dropping Out of High School to Stay Home

The following week, I withdrew from high school.

Technically, I didn’t have to show up in America for another 6 months but I decided that time would be more well spent at home doing what I like. I was incredibly grateful for my parents who supported me even though they thought what I was doing was crazy. During the time I stayed at home, I had become fluent in Korean by self-studying and played music as much as I wanted. It was truly the time of my life. Even at 17, I knew that I probably won’t have this kind of free time again in my life (and I was right) and when I do, I need to make the most of it.

Advocating for Reduced College Tuition

I went on to graduate from college magna cum laude and settled my life in America. Years after my graduation, my college announced that it has reduced tuition by half in an effort to lead a nationwide movement to make college education more affordable. When I heard the news, I immediately spread the words and volunteered to be an alumni representative at college fairs.

Today, higher education remains expensive and out-of-reach for many in the United States. Millions of students graduate with skyrocketing debts that will take them decades (if not a lifetime) to pay back. I felt incredibly humbled to have been given an opportunity to move across the world and build a life I want with this scholarship. A decade later, as I continue to chase my American Dream, I couldn’t help but wonder how differently my life would turn out if I hadn’t received the scholarship.

I now know that going to college is not the only path to success and our education system needs to do a lot better in teaching students practical skills instead of focusing heavily on theories. A country will lose its competitive advantage over time if college education continues to be a heavy burden for families. I applaud my college for its effort to reduce tuition and I hope more schools follow suit.

If you are reading this because you are applying to college or you are a parent, I hope it gives you encouragement and hope. College is by no means the definition of one’s potential for future success. The ability to be resourceful and always fighting for what you want no matter what the circumstances are is far more important in getting you to where you want.

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