When I was a little girl, my mother remarried and we moved to a charming waterfront town in Northern Michigan. There, I would spend my formative years, from nine years old until I left home at 17. It’s in small towns like these (pop. 3500) — where the first day of deer hunting season is given off from school — that either make or break a kid’s future.

Of course, I had no awareness of that. I just moved through life like everyone else. I didn’t have guidance counselors pressuring me to prep for SATs or to consider what college I wanted to go to. Lots of kids did work-study vocational programs in high school, worked in the fish plant or took long stints on the boats after high school, never exploring college at all. My mother didn’t finish college and didn’t talk much about it either. As a result, secondary education wasn’t a topic of discussion in my house. In fact, nothing really was.

Still, most kids took the ACTs. So I did that, finishing with what I would later understand to be an abysmal if not embarrassing score.

Don’t get me wrong; plenty of successful kids were made in this little city – people who would go on to be school teachers, pharmacists, biologists. So there were certainly people getting encouragement. Reflecting on it now, it’s likely the kids with high grade point averages were targeted in school — they were the ones who were told to take (and retake, if necessary) the SATs and to think about their careers. My brother surely had this guidance — he was a high achiever and a model student. He took a year off after graduation to travel the world, returning home to attend college after I’d already left. Me? I carried a GPA below a 3.0. I was a nice kid, but I doubt anyone saw a future in me.

Good thing I never realized any of this at the time. Instead, I was enchanted with the idea of getting away from an unhappy home, living in a big city and of doing something creative with my life. I was my high school’s MVP in cross-country and track, and so a community college once approached me about running for them when I graduated. Most kids would be flattered. I was confused. I never thought about college with any kind of seriousness. Now that the topic was broached, it felt wrong. I never told anyone about that encounter. Instead, I took a sharp turn and started researching art schools with only a few months till graduation. I chose a program in Florida and moved away two weeks after graduation. The school didn’t care much that my ACT score was in the 30th percentile or that I didn’t have an SAT score to show them. And, I got away from home — far, far away.

Turns out, being in an art program was a perfect choice, even though it seemed extreme, or maybe even careless to those watching from the outside. My gut was right: I was creative and I really did love the city. Being exposed to new people and cultures opened my mind. It also channeled my excitement and my creativity. I worked hard in those years, carrying a full time job and a full time academic program. I graduated magna-cum laude and was given the Highest Achievement Award.

There were many more decisions in my life that carried out much like this — my first career, having my child, shifting careers. My internal compass guides me. If I stop too long to consider every variable, I might never take a step. If I knew back then that the odds were stacked against me with my academics, or that most kids were following a traditional college program, I may not be where I am today.

My story isn’t a display in recklessness, it’s a lesson in trusting your instincts and listening to our own internal compass.

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