Reflecting on my college experience

I've been a college graduate for exactly 90 days now. Looking back, there are some words of wisdom I can pass on to current or soon-to-be college students.

You don't need to do the full four years for the full "college" experience

Up to this point, I've kept fairly quiet about how fast I finished college. But now I'm going to be completely transparent about it.

I wouldn't necessarily say I rushed through college, but I did graduate with a bachelor's from a four-year university in just a little more than two years. It'd be better described as "finishing college at an accelerated rate."

Upon learning about my early graduation, one professor even told me I was being selfish: "We let you into this program because you're extremely talented, you come in and take our classes, then leave without even taking the time to give back?" was how the conversation went, to be exact. Some of my friends at four-year universities have given me a hard time about it too: "But, did you really experience college?" they've asked.


For me, college wasn't about making friends or majoring in a bunch of subjects I'll never use, or joining tons of clubs. College was about developing a stronger work ethic and testing the limits of my personal ambition.

Although I didn't take the traditional four years to graduate, I feel like I have the wisdom, maturity and experience that a four-year education would have provided. (I've never been one for traditions, anyway).

College isn't about how much time you spend there. College isn't about how many classes you take; it's not about your GPA. In fact, I'd say that such standardized measurements actually detract from the college experience.

College is about finding yourself and learning what path you want to take. It takes some people six years. It takes most people four years. It took me two and I don't regret a second of it.

How and why did I graduate so early?

I've always been a workaholic. I took full loads every summer, 20+ units a quarter, plus passed every AP test I took in high school (which gave me a full year's worth of lower division credit when I got to college). I entered college with sophomore standing.

I always knew I'd be able to graduate a full year early. It wasn't until the beginning of my second year when I was mapping it all out that I figured out that summer school plus one extra class each quarter could result in a nearly two-year-early graduation. So, there's a tip: plan ahead.

Now, for the "why," which is a little harder to pinpoint.

Part of it was financial. Taking 20 units costs the same as taking 16. You do that for three quarters straight and it's like getting a quarter free. I also paid for my entire college education, making the financial incentive more appealing than if I had loans or if my parents were paying. On top of that, I knew that tuition and fees would continue to rise the longer I stayed in it.

But, quite honestly, college just wasn't fulfilling.

This gets into a deeper conversation about what the true value of standardized education is in the Google era (a topic growing in popularity these days). How valuable is my education when 80% of my studying consisted of Googling terms, writing the Wikipedia answer onto a notecard, and burning it into my short term memory?

The most valuable class I took in my time at Cal Poly was an entrepreneurship class that had no tests and no textbooks. Taught by the brilliant entrepreneur/investor/consultant Jon York, the class was a series of real-world case studies followed by discussion. Jon didn't lecture. At the start of every class, we moved our desks out of row formation and into a huge circle. He stood in the middle as a moderator and note-taker for our ideas. We watched YouTube videos of people like Guy Kawasaki. Jon brought in former students who work at start-ups and we interrogated them. We worked in teams to create business plans and pitched decks to the class.

As I packed up my things to move to LA, there were three trashbags of worthless papers and notes. But my binder of case studies from Jon York's class still sits on the shelf of the desk in my LA apartment. I open it often.

The purpose of this tangent is to convey that traditional education is broken. I was lucky to get one of the last spots in Jon's class. But aside from this one class, every other course was a test of how fast I could Google keywords from a study guide, how much coffee I could consume in one night, and how well I could memorize what I'd just Googled. Where's the value?

I'm glad I experienced college the way I did

There are benefits to graduating college early. First of all, I got through with the standardized education bullcrap so that I could pursue what I truly care about. Although I was great student in college, as I mentioned above, it was never a truly fulfilling experience for me. Homework was busy work, lectures were ineffective, textbooks were a waste of money. So I took on as much as I could to make it more challenging, fast-paced and stimulating. I worked at the Mustang Daily starting the first day of my freshman year and didn't stop until the end of the last quarter. I did freelance web design all of college, worked as a graphic designer for the university and served as the creative director for CoPress.

If you decide that college is the route for you, I encourage you to do the same thing. College will only be valuable if you can take on outside projects that keep you interested and intellectually stimulated.

I took on the design job because I knew there was a chance journalism wouldn't work out for me in the long run. Instead of getting a second major or minoring in design (which would mean taking ridiculous classes about ink and printing that I couldn't care less about), I took on a job that would challenge my creative abilities, teach me new skills, and still give me the experience for a backup job post-college.

I got lucky and made the right connections and those skills have come in handy. Now I'm a product designer at a journalism company, which is a win-win -- and a good use of the skills I taught myself outside of college.

The point: find a passion and work toward it, college or not

What's a college degree worth, anyway? After all, as my colleague Daniel Bachhuber (a college droupout) cleverly noted in a tweet recently, Orville Wright never had a pilot's license. A piece of paper that confirms your ability to complete a set of standardized objectives is not the key to success. College is only a valuable asset if you make it valuable. And simply sitting through lectures is not the way to capture value.

Although I don't believe that the current educational system is sufficient for the data era, I do think it's one of the best ways for you to learn about the path you want to take. If you approach college the right way and take advantage of opportunities outside of textbooks and classes, college can be a time for experimenting with your passions and finding which one suits you best. I encourage you to use your time in college wisely, figure out who you are, then get the hell out of there and start changing the world.