Dustin the dropout

I didn’t finish college. But sometimes the right path doesn’t go the way you—or others—expect.

Part 1 of 2 | An opportunity and a decision

I don’t have a college degree.

That’s a bold confession to make in a day and age where ability and intelligence are measured not by what’s between your ears but rather by the paper between your hands, whether it’s green on the back or written in Latin.

But I did go to college. So, people wonder, why the disconnect? Why didn’t I finish a degree?

Was I too lazy?

Was I too stupid?

Could I not afford it?

No, no, and—well, for me and every other college student in this nation (except the wealthiest), the answer to this question is a little more complex than a simple yes or no, and I’ll get to it later.

This is the first installment of a two-part series explaining why I didn’t finish college. My reasons fall into two broad categories. The first, which I discuss here, is that my life’s journey didn’t take me down that path.

I went to college. Three, in fact. I started at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City in August 2003. But after a couple of years there, and a switch of majors from architecture to urban planning, with French tossed in for good measure, I decided that I was both in need of a different perspective on urban planning and a change of scenery from Utah and the Salt Lake Valley, where I had by that point lived for four years (including the two years of my mission).

The John R. Park Memorial Building, home to the University of Utah’s central administration.
The John R. Park Memorial Building, home to the University of Utah’s central administration.

So, through a program called the International Student Exchange Program, which allowed me to pay tuition, room, and board at the University of Utah but study at a foreign university, I spent half a year at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen in The Netherlands. This was followed by half a year at the Institut des Études Françaises pour Étudiants Étrangers in Aix-en-Provence, France, affiliated with what at the time was Université Paul Cézanne Aix-Marseille III (it is now simply Aix-Marseille Université).

It was what came next that changed my plans. I had originally planned to return to the University of Utah to complete my studies in urban planning. One of the requirements for the degree was to do an internship. A good friend of mine was going to do an internship that summer in Washington, D.C., with the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, and I thought that could be a good place to knock out my internship requirement, too. So I applied and was accepted into the program as well, and I landed an internship at The United States Conference of Mayors, which I thought would fulfill the urban-planning degree’s internship requirement rather nicely. (One of my professors at the College of Architecture + Planning, Keith Bartholomew, wasn’t quite so sure. But, in the end, what he thought didn’t matter anyway.)

Within the Conference of Mayors, I worked for the Council for the New American City. (This council has had a few iterations of its name over the years, but that’s what it was called when I worked there.) This council was a group of mayors, national nonprofits, and the private sector coming together to encourage investment in America’s cities and metropolitan areas. Part of its work was a nationwide financial education campaign called Dollar Wi$e (or DollarWI$E or DollarWise—whatever).

Now is as good a time as any to throw in that the Conference of Mayors is based at 1620 I Street NW, basically a block from the White House.

My first day at my internship was Monday, 15 May 2006. The Friday before, the woman under whom I would have been directly working left her position to move to El Paso, Texas, with her husband’s job in the military. So that left me, as an unpaid intern, to more or less do her job running Dollar Wi$e and doing everything else she did for the Council for the New American City.

I really enjoyed my internship. I liked what I was doing, and I liked the people I was working with. I liked it so much that I even woke up extra early some mornings so I could get to the office earlier than I was expected to. And it was a thrill working in the heart of the nation’s capital. I wanted to do the best job I could in this internship.

My efforts and ability did not go unnoticed. Partway through the summer, my colleagues at the council sat me down and presented an idea. Their proposal: I could have the position that was vacated just before I started my internship. They knew that would mean a major change in my plans to return to Salt Lake to finish college, and they gave me some time to think about it.

It was gratifying to see that my work had gotten their attention, and I felt honored that they liked me and my work well enough to offer me the job. It was an enticing proposal. Did I mention that the Conference of Mayors is just a block from the White House? And Washington, D.C., is a beautiful city. It has a certain quality that goes well beyond most other American cities. Its walkability and high-quality public transit are part—but not all—of it. Remaining there certainly appealed to me more than returning to Salt Lake, where I felt I had put in my time, for lack of a better way of putting it.

But that’s not to say that it was an easy decision, because it wasn’t. Finishing up my degree was a sticking point (and, I should add, a concern for my colleagues as well—not because they thought I lacked ability without it, but because they didn’t want their offer to distract me from obtaining a degree, which they considered an important goal). But more importantly I had built a couple of strong friendships in my second year at the University of Utah, and these friends and I had planned on finding an apartment near the University of Utah and being roommates in the coming year. Staying in D.C. would mean missing out on that opportunity—an opportunity that would probably never arise again. (Admittedly, from time to time I still feel a twinge of regret that I missed out on this opportunity.)

But as I pondered what I should do, and as I weighed the pros and cons of staying in D.C. versus returning to Utah, I felt that staying was the right thing to do. So I did. My first day as an employee of Development Initiatives, Inc.—a political consulting firm that contracted with the Conference of Mayors to run the Council for the New American City and its programs, including Dollar Wi$e (it had other clients, too)—was Monday, 14 August 2006.

That happened to be Susan Hibdon’s first day on the job at Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, just to the east of D.C. We met the following January. On 29 February 2008, we were married in the Manhattan New York Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On 15 July 2010, our daughter, Fiona, joined our family.

I think it’s safe to say that I made the right choice.

But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. At the time I made my decision, I didn’t know that the woman who would become my eternal companion was arriving in the same place, trying to figure out what to do with her life after her mission. I didn’t know that staying in D.C. would lead to my marriage and the birth of an incredible little girl.

Yet even without that knowledge, as Susan has pointed out, the choice really was kind of an obvious one. One option was to go back to Utah, where I had already spent years of my life, and try to eke more learning out of classrooms on a university campus, all the while going deeper and deeper into debt in pursuit of a degree that in the recession economy of the coming years (something else I didn’t know was coming) may or may not be worth anything.

The other option was to work in the heart of the nation’s capital, a block from the White House, for an organization that is at the forefront of addressing many of the issues facing America’s cities and urban areas. It offered an incredible opportunity for firsthand learning, far surpassing anything I could have learned listening to lectures in a classroom. And it was an opportunity to live in one of the most vibrant and dynamic urban areas in North America.

Really, what better choice could I have made?

Coming in part 2 of 2
The other reasons I didn’t finish college, which have more to do with college than with me.

This article appeared on pages 4–5 of Issue 10 | April 2013.

One thought on “Dustin the dropout

  1. I truly enjoyed reading this entry! It is sweet to hear about how people got together and their happy stories! Also, I think you hit the nail right on the head regarding a degree, this day in age, and its relevance. More and more people are jobless even with degrees than ever before. I dare say it’s more about what you know and who you know now rather than how many years you spent at a university. Robin (my husband) also didn’t finish college and he’s not doing too shabby these days either! Although, I have to say, I am sure your adventures during school still look quite impressive!


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