IT HAPPENED TO ME: I'm A PhD Candidate -- And A High School Dropout

To everyone’s chagrin, I was so depressed and physically ill that I chose to drop out.

Aug 12, 2014 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

image
I have two Masters degrees and I'm currently a PhD candidate in history. I have lived and taught in five countries, have won scholarships for my academic achievements and have been on several subsidized trips throughout Europe based on the belief in my future as a historian. I’m also a high-school dropout. 
 
As a child and teenager, school was always a struggle for me.
 
While I often excelled in my studies in K-12, I found it difficult to sit still for several hours a day and conform to the rigidity of the school system. To make matters worse, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the heart of the Silicon Valley, among the offspring of the very wealthy, educated and successful. I also attended Catholic school, which was well-known for both its academic rigidity and “success” in turning out students who attended top universities.
 
At age 13, in the 8th grade, I had my very first brush with major depression. Although depression runs in my family and isn’t uncommon with teenagers, I felt completely alone. Back then, people didn’t really talk in the media about childhood and teenage depression, furthering my feelings of failure and isolation. One of my best friend’s mothers said I was not allowed to hang out with her daughter anymore because my depression was potentially a “bad influence” on her child.
 
I came dangerously close to having to repeat the eighth grade -- a solution for my inability to keep up with my schoolwork that seemed tantamount to social suicide. Fortunately, my school worked with me and I was able to finish and accept the place I had been offered several months before at an all-girls high school.
 
My first year of high school at a top academic all-girls school was wonderful and I felt my depression was behind me. I had a blast and did well in my courses and made friends and felt as though I was on track to go to a “good” college just like my peers. But by my sophomore year, my depression slowly crept back in. In an effort to control it, I began starving myself and forcing myself to vomit up the small amounts of food that I did digest. I lost 30 pounds in a month.
 
Having anorexia is a full-time job. When you are keeping up with calories consumed and burned, and obsessing over how many steps you’re taking each day, you don’t have room for anything else. My family and I made the decision for my second semester, with the guidance of my school, to take courses online via a program approved by my high school in order to better focus on my recovery. 
 
I came back to school my junior year, but this time, I began to have health problems that were both a result of my anorexia and because I was developing lupus SLE (which I wouldn’t be aware of for years to come). I also began having panic attacks during this time and attending school full-time once again became unbearable. The school allowed me to drop down to a half-time student during my second semester, but this proved to be too difficult when my stomach issues (due to my body learning how to digest and work properly after being starved for so long) became so painful that I could not get out of bed.
 
Finally, it was decided that I had missed far too much school to continue my education there. I would have to repeat my junior year (out of the question for my teenage mind), attend homeschool again, switch schools or drop out and focus on recovering. To everyone’s chagrin, I was so depressed and physically ill that I chose to drop out. 
 
I did not have a graduation party. There are no photos of me walking across the stage receiving my diploma in my pale blue graduation gown or crying in the middle of group hug with all the girls I had spent the past four years with. I certainly wasn’t leaving high school with an offer from Yale or Harvard or even the local state school. 
 
Instead, I was humiliated, defeated in the ultra-success oriented culture of my high school and society we lived in. My classmates were planning on going away to fancy schools on the east coast for their freshmen year and were bonding over their dwindling time together. Gradually, I was being forgotten about and the circles I ran in with my high school friends closed to me. I was no longer invited to birthday parties.
 
Later that year, I took the California High School Equivalency Exam and became a high school graduate in the eyes of the law. But not to the über-successful of the Silicon Valley. And perhaps more important, not to myself.
 
My high school graciously considers me an alum and invites me to events and reunions even to this day. And although some girls shut me out, many of them went out of their way to continue a friendship with me. I was embarrassed by my depression and eating disorder, and now on top if it, I was a high school dropout. I stopped taking their calls. One girl came by my house a couple of times just to see me and left a couple of notes on my door to call her back. I never did.
 
Now, I regret how much I let humiliation and pride get in the way of continuing friendships with my high school classmates. Many of them have “friended” me on Facebook as adults, and since I live abroad permanently now, I've seen many of them during their international travels to Europe. But when I see pictures of groups of girls celebrating babies or weddings together, with captions like “15 years of friendship!” I feel a pang of regret for being so embarrassed by my “shortcomings.”
 
The stigma of being a high-school dropout followed me throughout the rest of my life, even if some of it is imagined. I used it as fuel to keep going and achieve the next milestone.
 
I attended the local community college for a few years, even though many looked down on me for it. (The school I attended was called West Valley and often dubbed “Waste Valley” due to the stigma that only “stupid people” attended a community college.)
 
A couple of times I become so depressed that I would just stop attending classes and have to withdraw, once again, reaffirming to myself that I was unable to complete anything to do with education.
 
After five and a half years, I graduated from college with a BA in French. Despite one of my community college professors warning that only 1/3 of our class would move on to a four-year university, I managed to actually complete my degree. And what I thought was the cherry on top of it: I was accepted to graduate school at NYU upon the completion of my BA.
 
I finished my graduate degree at NYU on time and after graduation moved to Hungary to teach English. In Hungary, I figured out I wanted to ultimately get a PhD in History. I obtained a second MA from the University of Amsterdam after that, earning a full-ride scholarship due to my “academic excellence” (which made me laugh when I considered how in moments of frustration, my family or teachers told me I just wasn’t trying hard enough). In 2012, I was accepted and enrolled in a PhD program in the United Kingdom, where I live and teach classes on my chosen subject.
 
I still have dreams in which I am asked to complete my high school credits before I am allowed to complete my PhD, or where I’m telling people I have two MA degrees and am having to enroll in high school biology. I don’t think those will ever go away. But I am extremely proud of what I've accomplished...so far.